What I Wish I Had Read Before Becoming a Chef
By Anthony Nicaj
This read is for the person who's never been in a professional kitchen before but is considering entering the profession or beginning (as well as finishing) culinary school. This is a reality check as well as a source of knowledge from experience that I would have appreciated reading before beginning down this path myself.
One of the coolest things about the food service industry is that you can walk into almost any restaurant with the proper tools, mindset, and basic understandings of the kitchen and land a job by the end of the day. This is called "staging" which originated from the French word stagiaire, meaning trainee, apprentice, or intern. Forget the resume. For the most part, your chef boss wants to know you're reliable, willing to learn, and that you have a respectable attitude. But why would you want to take on such an audition? Why do you want to become a chef?
The first chef that opened my eyes to good cooking discouraged me from becoming a chef. He told me it was too hard and miserable and that I should focus on becoming a golfer or a writer, something I could maybe make good money in. (This is a very important point that we will revisit.) But I loved it--I loved the speed of the kitchen, the technique and timing involved, the confidence of going into a busy service... I was more than willing to start at the "bottom" to learn.
I never attended culinary school, mainly because it did not seem appropriate at the time, and most tuition for culinary school is upwards of $50,000. Most kitchens still pay their cooks salaries of $20,000 to $36,000 depending on their roles and experience. Specialized sushi chefs can make over $75,000 in the proper establishments.
It's a romantic idea that you'll be able to attend school, and then cook in restaurants to pay it off, but you can't avoid interest rates forever. If you're good about saving and picking the proper loans, you will have to work at least three years in a kitchen to save the money you'll need to pay for your education, which you would also be gaining everyday at your job anyway.
Here's the secret nobody knows: The best culinary schools will actually pay you to learn. These are those rare restaurant gems that happen to have an incredible team running the show along with awesome and unique connections to farmers, material purveyors, foragers, etc. The trick is finding an environment that you feel challenged by but supported, where the leadership is apparent and encouraging and always leading by example. Most "green" or novice cooks are too intimidated to even question whether or not they would be allowed to stage at such establishments, but most chefs are quick to allow someone into their kitchen as long as they've displayed the aforementioned qualities.
Once you're inside the restaurant and you're ready to learn, stay focused and attentive. This is the time where you will be feeling out the nuances. If the menu seems rigid and you learn they've been running the same one since opening years ago, be careful. Food, just like anything else, can become very monotonous, and if you notice the kitchen culture doesn't seem to be interested in collaborating and creating new dishes, you will mainly be cooking and working your ass off to fill someone else's pockets. A very important saying, as coarse as it is: "If you feel like you're getting f****d, you probably are." Anybody who feels this way on a daily basis will grow resentful in their environment and will project onto the most undeserving.
Approach your stage with discernible goals, such as: I want to learn how to become a better line-cook, or I want to learn more about Japanese flavor profiles. If you have to pick herbs the entire time you're there and nobody goes out of their way to help you or impart knowledge, take it as a red flag.
A stage isn't just an opportunity to see the inner-workings of your favorite locale, or a test to see whether or not you'll stab/burn/or scald somebody by accident, it's your chance to consider some very important questions:
Am I okay with pushing myself, pushing my team, and being pushed by these particular chefs to be the most efficient and professional cook I can be?
If you're really emotional and can't take criticism well, even if it's poor or even incorrect criticism, a professional kitchen may not be the most suitable environment for you. One of the more frustrating aspects of the job is the fact that most kitchen veterans believe they do everything the best (meaning only) way. Everyone works differently, and everyone finds their own way of doing things, it's just a matter of not offending your peers and chef-bosses by blatantly ignoring them.
Am I okay sacrificing my mornings for much needed rest, possibly six days a week, and heading into work when most are about to leave?
(Most line cooks head into work about 2-3 PM to prepare for a dinner service.) This means they often leave work by midnight or later, stay up an hour or two afterwards to wind down from the job, and end up waking up "late" almost every morning.
Will I learn here? What will I learn here? Will I be challenged here?
If you're brand new to the profession, you must understand that you're ultimate goal as a line cook is to learn how to be prepared for an all-out war by never running out of ammo (your product or mise en place). When "everything is in its place" and you don't have to leave the trenches for something you forgot in the walk-in refrigerator mid-rush, you've accomplished 80% of cooking. Once you've mastered this, you must learn to stay focused, not panic, have fun, and cook beautiful.
By "cook beautiful," I mean it as a certain state of mind--where the focus is on your economy of movements, a flow state where you are constantly considering the next few moves to ensure a dish or menu comes together at the best possible moment. The next consideration is doing all this as cleanly as possible which will enable you to balance more and keep your mind de-cluttered. Pro-tip: timers are your friends.
It takes many mistakes and an almost foolhardy persistence to master a difficult station. Every legitimate chef is a solid line cook. Yet not every line cook is a solid prep. cook or pastry cook, or even dishwasher for that matter. Learning the profession involves a great deal of skill-stacking, and the more you expose yourself, the better off you'll be.
Will I be okay with the "less glamorous" aspects of kitchen work, i.e. deep cleaning?
I've developed a sort of deranged mantra when it comes to the kitchen. It goes something like: "Half of cooking is cleaning." Thanks mainly to cooking shows, people brand new to the trade have become disillusioned by the fact that cooking requires a great deal of cleaning. You never get to see your favorite celebrity chef bang out dishes on a Friday night, or scraping gunk off a grease trap, or individually throwing out food items from the trash because somebody overloaded the bags--making it impossible to lift over the lip of a dumpster without tearing.
Not only is this work challenging and relatively dangerous, but it can be very dirty at times, but it's the job of the chef to mitigate this uncleanliness and to do so intelligently and responsibly. Because of this, it is in my opinion that every aspiring chef should start by washing dishes. If you can handle the toil of this physically demanding and mentally dulling position for days at a time, then you deserve an opportunity to express yourself via beautiful ingredients and esoteric techniques. Not only is this a sort of rite of passage, but washing dishes will teach you how to be organized and efficient and will make you appreciate how important every teammate in the kitchen truly is.
This is probably the biggest and most often avoided question:
Am I willing to be paid some of the lowest salaries legally allowed? Or another way of looking at it: Am I in a position where I can afford to be paid so little?
Most in the industry are poor. Very few restaurants have caught up with the option to provide benefits. The restaurant as we know it is an antiquated business that unfortunately cannot compensate its employees nearly enough correlative to the effort, time, and stress involved in the profession. Here's a very interesting article that paints an accurate portrait of the restaurant scene in major cities: There's a Massive Restaurant Industry Bubble, And It's About to Burst.
The ideal situation in my mind is making passive income outside the restaurant--something like publishing an eBook about Walking Across America, or starting a business that requires something akin to a 4-hour work-week. By passive income, I mean something that makes you money without much effort, if any at all, and using a restaurant job to hone your craft, your hobby that you really enjoy and wish to learn more about.
When your chef salary or hourly rate is your only means and you're in debt, or not even in debt, there's hardly any to set aside for the future, which to me is an issue. It may not be for you, but if I make it to old age, I simply do not want to be broke. After five years in the industry and after having started two different little food businesses, I've learned it's very difficult to make good money with great food, especially in such a food-centric city. That's not to say awesome opportunities and collaborations won't arise!
The restaurant that I consider my culinary school is called the Odd Duck in Austin, Texas. I worked as a prep. cook for six months and then eventually started cooking on the line for lunch services. Before my first day working there, I called the restaurant to make sure when would be a good time to stage. The chef told me everything I needed to know to be successful day of:
Bring your tools: My personal choice here would involve a bain-marie to hold most of them (Spoons, slotted, sauce, and flat-edged, fish spatula, rubber spatula, tweezer-tongs both short and long, offset, vegetable peeler, cake tester, kitchen shears...)
Make sure your chef's knife is sharp, consider bringing your petty and pairing knife as well. Also, read one of my older articles on the subject.
I remember at one restaurant I worked at, we had a stage come in from culinary school who was bragging about how great and sharp his new $400 chef's knife was. Funnily enough, he ended up leaving his treasured knife behind and had to pick it up the next day. Although this wasn't the only reason he didn't get the job, we learned enough from that mistake of his.
Wear non-slip shoes. Converse may look cool, but taking a spill into dirty mop water, or better yet, the edge of stainless steel prep. table, definitely does not.
Bring a small notebook, pen, and sharpie. The more recipes you constantly have on you, the less you'll have to ask for it down the road, the less you'll have to seek out the house recipe book, and the more likely you'll help others with your accumulated knowledge.
Get into the habit of labeling anything you plan on keeping around for later consumption. Many painful and stressful accidents will be avoided with this invaluable practice.
Dress Code: Some kitchens are more formal than others. Luckily, chef attire can be rather inexpensive.
Know the lingo: Here's a real in-depth article that covers all the bases.
Last bits of advice:
This profession involves a constant sense of urgency. Anybody who is standing still in a kitchen, clearly unaware of what needs to get done, for themselves or for their team is a weak link and most likely will fail the stage. There is always something that can be cleaner, neater, consolidated, or prepped.
Get in the habit of thinking at least two-steps ahead constantly. If you work in a large kitchen, this will save you miles over time of unnecessary walking to forgotten or overlooked items. This all really has to do with focusing and not letting the often hectic environment of the kitchen distract your thoughts and deter you from completing the tasks at hand.
It's always okay to make a mistake, unless it happens again, and worse-still, thrice. Mistakes in a kitchen are not entertained well very often because they waste time, product, and create tensions within a team. They are also clear indicators of weak-points and may uncover underlying symptoms of a larger problem (poor team culture, for example, or the impetus to buying a new kitchen appliance: a digital timer).
If you are confused about the seemingly interchangeable terms of "Chef" and "Cook" or "Professional Cook" as I have been, allow me to share a conclusion I've come to: A chef is someone who wants the best dining experience for his/or her guest and can be held accountable for the cuisine they put out. My old boss' words of wisdom: "We are in the business of making other people's nights." And that's the truth.