For most North Americans and Europeans, having household help is considered a luxury. However, in many Asian countries it is common for families to hire cooks, maids or nannies to work in their homes. Prior to our move to India, I shared with some friends that we would most likely hire 3 to 4 people: a nanny, a cook, a driver and maybe a gardener. Their typical reaction: “Man you’re set. You can sit by the pool each day and then come home to a clean house and dinner waiting for you”. True, household help can make many aspects of day to day life easier but first you need to find and hire the right person (or people) for your family. This is not always an easy task but hopefully the information I share will make the process less challenging.
Family configuration, the size of your home and your expectations will help determine how many domestic helpers (i.e. maid, cook, nanny) work in your house. Whether you are going to hire an ‘all rounder’, someone who cooks, cleans and does your laundry, or somebody solely responsible for the cooking, the interview process is an important part of helping you figure out if this person is someone you can work with and trust. Even before you begin your search, you should decide what the employee’s job responsibilities will be, the pay package you are willing to offer and your expectations regarding their skills and their work.
WHERE TO FIND A COOK
Depending on the city, there may be some agencies that will help you find a cook or maid. Often there will be flyers printed by maids looking for work pinned to bulletin boards outside of stores where expats shop. The most reliable way to find someone is through word of mouth. Importantly, others (expats or locals) may have first hand knowledge of the person’s skills and reputation that they can share with you.
Some experienced expats contact friends, acquaintances or work colleagues who are already living in their destined city to help them find household help prior to their arrival. Doing so has its advantages as you can feel comfort knowing that there will be someone who knows the city and culture to assist you in setting up your new home right from day one. Not only are you able to interview your new employee by phone or Skype but you can also ask their current employer about their personality, work ethic and job performance. The main drawback hiring someone this way is that you will not be able to taste their cooking and must rely on the word of a past employer, whose food preferences and expectations may differ from yours.
Some people prefer to wait until they get their feet on the ground of their new home country before doing interviews and hiring staff. This allows you to interview a greater number of people face to face assisting you in gathering more information, including non-verbal communication and personality. Ask your potential employee for their previous employer’s contact information, generally it will be an email, in order to contact past employers to learn more about their strengths and work style.
INTERVIEW: PART I
Whether interviewing via Skype or across your kitchen table, you can still ask the same questions during the interview. The interview process will give you the opportunity to learn about the employee’s ability to communicate in English, how they plan their work and also get an idea about their common sense. If possible, try to interview at least 3-5 candidates in order to get a better sense of the general skills in the community.
SAMPLE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Break up the questions into different types of food, areas of food knowledge and kitchen management.
- What ‘Western’ dishes can you make? What can you bake? What local dishes can you make (of the country where you are now living)?
- Do you understand what a food allergy is?
- What is a vegetarian and what types of food do they NOT eat?
- Are there certain foods you will not prepare or eat? This is important to learn in advance if you are living in a country where a large percentage of the population does not eat certain items (for example, observant Muslims who will not touch or cook pork; vegetarians in India who may not know how to cook beef/ meat). Some cooks may be more observant than others.
- In you previous job who decided on the weekly menu? Who did the shopping? If the maid does the shopping: Where do they shop? How do they keep track of food purchases (were bills provided and a journal used to keep track of purchases)?
- If you will be doing a lot of entertaining give them a scenario for which they can design a menu.
- Ask them what they would do if there is a fire or emergency in your kitchen or home.
- DESCRIBE HOW TO PREPARE A DISH. Ask them to describe to you how to make a particular dish or two they have mentioned in order to get a better idea of their knowledge of cooking. Make sure that you select dishes you have familiarity with. Tomato sauce and lasagna are part of most cook’s repertoire so select something else like soups, other pasta dishes, roast chicken, apple pie to name a few. I always ask cooks to explain to me how to make a quiche. From this I can find out if they know how to make a short crust pastry dough; that they are aware the quiche shell must be partially baked before adding the filling; that they aware the filling must be cooked first before being placed in the half baked shell; and then how do they know it is cooked- the top of the quiche should be just set.
INTERVIEW PART II: THE COOKING TEST
By now you should have a good sense of the skills of the cooks you have interviewed. Select the top two and inform them that you would like them to cook for you. This part of the interview allows you to find out more about their English comprehension, organization and cooking skills.
Decide on a time that is mutually convenient for them to cook a meal for your family in your home. Have them each cook at a separate time. Inform them that they will be paid for this part of the interview process and you would like them to do following:
- Choose one ‘Western’ dish (again, not tomato sauce or lasagna) and one local dish to make for you.
- Tell them that they will also have to bake something that you will select and provide them with a recipe at the time of the interview. Select something that is easy and that you know how it should taste and look like such as muffins, cookies or squares.
- Provide you with a shopping list of the ingredients and amounts needed. Decide who will buy the ingredients for the cooking test. Some of the ingredients you may already have while others, in particular for the local dish, you may not be familiar with. Provide them with the money if they will do the shopping.
Try to be home while they are cooking to answer any questions they may have about where to find ingredients, equipment or the baking recipe you have chosen. It is best not to linger in the kitchen as this may increase their nervousness. But do occasionally enter for a glass of water or cup of tea. This will allow you to indirectly observe how clean and tidy they are when cooking and their kitchen sanitation knowledge (do they wash their hands or use a new cutting board when working with raw meats/ seafood and vegetables).
Upon completing their cooking thank them for their hard work and explain that there are one or two other candidates who will also be doing a cooking test and once you and your family have made a decision you will contact them whether they have been selected or not. The answers during the interview and the process of the cooking test will help you assess their personality, skills and degree of common sense. As well, rely on your intuition when it comes to deciding whom to hire. Remember if it does not work out you can contact the runner up or go through the process again.
Lastly, invite the selected cook to your home to finish the hiring process. Over tea begin to establish a rapport with them. Together go through the job description, your expectations, the job package (pay rate; vacations; bonuses, length of probationary period etc…) in order to make sure you are both on the same page and things are clear and precise from the start.