Mr. Vargo

Food & Beverage

Developing and Supporting Your Team's Talent

Cultivate From Within

By Dan Vargo, Executive Chef, Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa

A boss says, 'Go'. A leader says, 'Let's go!' - H.G. Selfridge

It is widely agreed that a great team requires great leadership, and I believe that a truly great leader empowers his employees with leadership skills. All of my employees are capable of greatness, and it is my job to cultivate that in-house ability. When cooks are humble, ready to learn, and hardworking, they are on the path to become the next generation of leaders. These are the chefs I seek out and hire because I know they are invested in developing themselves. In the long run, these chefs become the best candidates for promotion.

Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa prides itself on having loyal employees. Many have been with the property since they opened the doors in 1984. As a native of Maryland, I was first introduced to the culinary world in Florida, where I discovered and began to pursue my passion for food. I joined the Hilton Sandestin Beach team as the executive chef of Seagar's Prime Steaks & Seafood in 2012. I was enthusiastic about continuing the AAA Four Diamond standards and establishing a solid culinary atmosphere in my kitchens. As executive chef of an award-winning restaurant, there were very high expectations and standards to uphold. With a dedicated group of talented chefs, we worked to maintain the four-diamond award. This continued success can be largely attributed to the dedication of our culinary team, and the shared commitment to cultivating the talent from within.

Throughout my 20 years in the industry, I have noticed that every successful chef understands the value of building and developing talent within an organization - preferring to promote from within, before seeking outside candidates. Focusing on skill development and training, then promoting from within benefits everyone in an organization and sends a clear message that hard work and enthusiasm will be rewarded. This is a demanding career that favors people who have a relentless work ethic. Successful chefs demonstrate that they are dedicated to owning their tasks, mastering them and continuing to learn as much as possible. That is the key to moving up and taking on new responsibilities.

This is one of the reasons I prefer to utilize a tier training system at Hilton Sandestin Beach. In doing so, I am able to focus on training my direct reports, and then follow up as they train theirs. Whether it is with recipes, technical skills or administrative responsibilities, it is important to establish a clear chain of authority and accountability. This system is especially beneficial for the cooks who are able to observe the chef working with the sous chef, while still developing and working on new recipes and leading by example.

When you invest as much time and effort into training our team as we do, it is natural to want to see them eventually grow into new roles and begin developing their own leadership skills. A strong mentor mentality develops organically when you invest your time into eager, motivated cooks. That, of course, requires that you hire eager, motivated cooks to start with. One of the most important lessons I was taught early on is to hire people who are motivated to learn and we can further develop their technical experience.

When hiring and nurturing new talent, one of the most important character traits I look for is a sincere and humble approach to learning and developing new skills. This one key attribute can even be more important than their culinary experience. A great culinary team requires people who truly want to succeed in the industry, who are eager to work and learn stations and techniques, who put forth the effort to master tasks and make time to watch and learn new tasks, and who actively take notes - and actually reference them.

One recent and outstanding example of this is Chef Laurie Graupner, who we recently promoted to executive chef of Seagar's. Chef Graupner began her career at Hilton Sandestin Beach in 2012 as a part time prep cook in Seagar's. As she saw the potential for learning and growing her skill set, she started full time and quickly and naturally progressed, moving up to sous chef.

When I was promoted to executive chef of the resort, we immediately received a great deal of interest from potential candidates to fill the executive chef position at Seagar's. As the resumes, emails, and phone calls rolled in, we realized we already had the perfect candidate in place. Thanks to our training, Laurie knew the clientele well, had a firm understanding of the concept and was already deeply invested in maintaining the level of quality and exacting standards of the restaurant. She shares my passion for locally sourced ingredients and partnering with local purveyors, and had clearly demonstrated her commitment to enhancing the fine-dining experience at Seagar's. Laurie has proven herself up for the task of executive chef and is bringing new and innovative ideas to the already thriving culinary team.

To promote success and motivation like Chef Graupner's, we encourage our staff to get involved in cooking demonstrations, and send them to specialized classes, cooking competitions, and other industry events. This kind of professional development benefits the employee and the business, and serves as a welcomed reward for hard work and dedication. Still the best form of motivation is when the team sees the leader taking an active role and personal interest in them. Being involved in production and executing service shows that you are invested in their success. With management positions come many financial and administrative responsibilities that can be time consuming and it is important to balance this with the more hands-on requirements of being an effective motivator. Success comes easier when you have a leader that is actively involved in improving all aspects of production and service.

At Hilton Sandestin Beach, we also try to instill a positive work-life balance for the team. I feel that I have been able to make great strides in my professional life because of the effort put into making the most of my personal life. Every day, I make a conscious effort to be fully engaged with my team and guests when at work, and to be fully engaged in my family when at home. I am fortunate to have learned this early on in my career and make a point to encourage our team members to value this balance as well.

Among the many values we stress when developing our staff members, one of the most important is a deep passion for food. When you love cooking and truly enjoy cooking for people, it will show in the finished dish. We teach our cooks to view each dish with the same level of importance and attention to detail, whether it is a burger or a beautifully crafted and meticulously composed plate. When you do what you love, you find your vocation.

It is this passion for food that drives Will Hurley, who we hired nearly 10 years ago and recently promoted to sous chef at Sandcastles Restaurant at the resort. Over the years, Will moved through multiple kitchens and established himself as a hardworking and dedicated employee. He has been honored with an Employee of the Year award and has earned the respect of his team because of his work ethic. When the opportunity arose to move Will into a leadership role, he was very eager for the chance to prove himself. In considering our options, we once again found that we had the ideal candidate right in front of us and had been training him all along.

My management style is based on the teachings two outstanding chefs, Certified Master Chef Rudy Speckham and Chef Anthony Cole - both had a huge impact on my career. Both were highly respected for their ability to run any station fluidly, had a love for teaching what they had learned and mastered, and had a hunger for continuous learning. Whether it was learning to perfect baking, sugar work or different ethnic flavors and ingredients, working with them was fun. They love cooking, and they push themselves to be better and therefore motivating their teams to be like them. They have a positive energy that can change the dynamic of any kitchen in a positive manner. They treated everyone as fairly as they could, but were strong and swift when they needed to be. But most importantly, their kitchen philosophies shaped strong culinary teams.

These same two chefs influenced my cooking style as well, with their keen eye for detail in composing a dish so that it was balanced and complex, but also simple and not overwhelming. They had a true love for food and enjoyed eating and creating experiences with that food - a love we build into the development of our team. I have personally and professionally benefited from leaders with a commitment to developing talent from within. It is what drives our philosophy and our success at Hilton Sandestin Beach, where we work every day to create an environment that fosters growth, rewards effort, and sets the bar.

A native of Maryland, Executive Chef Dan Vargo was first introduced to the culinary world along Florida’s Emerald Coast, where he began to pursue his passion for food. Now a 16-year veteran of the culinary industry, he has traveled the world, exploring kitchens and cultures, as he developed his signature style. Chef Vargo first joined the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa team in April 2012 as an Executive Chef at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood, the resort’s restaurant. Before joining Hilton Sandestin Beach, Chef Vargo dedicated eight years to the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, where he held a number of positions. Mr. Vargo can be contacted at 850-267-9500 or dvargo@hiltonsandestinbeach.com Please visit http://hiltonsandestinbeach.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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