The transition, I’ve found, from being a home cook to a primarily professional one is very difficult. In cooking for mostly family and friends, with an occasional dinner party or two thrown in, you are very much the focal point of the meal for all your adoring fans of the moment as you lovingly and carefully plate your final finished products for people who usually aren’t paying for you or for the food, or if they are, it’s to a charity of their preference. The environment is relaxed, you are usually working with ingredients that you are familiar with, appliances you are accustomed to, and if it’s not perfect, after everyone is plied with appropriately paired (or not, just so long as the guests think they are) wine and/or cocktails, you can honestly do no wrong. Particularly if you are confident while cooking, or at least give the appearance of confidence, chat with the guests and make everyone feel special with little treats and appetizers.
Your help, if you have it, are focused on the one or two things that they feel comfortable with, such as plating salads, making a dressing (under your supervision of course) or simply getting things out of the oven. There is always a male family member whose specialty it is to carve the protein, as long as it isn’t fish – for some reason unknown to me the very same adult male who can fearlessly massacre carving a turkey won’t touch a whole fish. You are, in all honesty, the hero of the moment. You feel good about yourself, your guests feel good about their meal (with the perfectly paired wine, which you likely honestly have no idea about, particularly if you don’t drink) and at some point during the afterglow you think to yourself, “I could be a real CHEF!” I mean, how hard could it be, right? After all, based on the unabashedly flattering comments from the mostly tipsy and very full guests who have the added glow of giving money to someone that they don’t know, tax deductible, of course, to trust to do what’s right to save a starving dog or cat, you are relatively certain that you are at least the chef that Sandra Lee is and quite possibly better than the blithering idiot Rachel Ray, whom you secretly believe is beautiful, in her own way, of course.
In that moment of ignorant bliss, it is easy to leap at a decision, easy to dream of running your own kitchen, of your moment or three in the sun on the Food Network or Travel Channel (who knows, even the “Today Show!) with adoring fans clapping as you ply your trade and knowledge gleaned from cooking shows and magazines and the hundreds of cookbooks that you’ve accumulated since you first watched Paula Dean make biscuits and gravy from lard and sausage.
For most of us, it’s not quite that simple. If you have plenty of money, time, little to no financial responsibility or immediate family that need your help on a daily basis, then there are such acclaimed schools such as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Le Cordon Bleu and so on. There are a plethora of such schools now scattered all over the U.S., Canada and if you really want to get adventurous and have truly unlimited funds, then you can travel to the Amalfi Coast of Italy; Paris, France; New York City, NY; the Hudson Valley, CA; London, England; or even Sydney, Australia and study in some of the most acclaimed chefs and students in the world.
Even then, after abandoning what family that you have and embarking on what will no doubt prove to be a life altering experience, there is no guarantee, immediate or otherwise, that you will get a job. There is also the very real chance that you will quit your job, assume a ton of debt and actually not enjoy cooking! I don’t have the statistics for the number of dropouts in some of the harder and more prestigious (and expensive) cooking schools, but I do know that it is quite high, with some VERY disgruntled students leaving the programs.
“What??” They say, “They wanted me to WORK at the CIA! After all the money that I gave them to attend classes, they wanted me to work in a kitchen too?” I have to get up at 5:00 a.m. is also a common lament amongst the more spoiled that attend such schools, mostly from those whose parents, awash in pride that their previously unmotivated brat actually wants to do something, foot the entire bill in the hopes of seeing their child in immaculate Chef’s Whites on television, preferably on some reality show, living the dream of cookbook deals and being an Executive Chef for one whole year in Bobby Flay’s endless chain of constantly opening restaurants, where even the famous become lost in the confusion.
My mother cooked for nine to twenty people, seven days a week, three times a day for nearly forty years. She can truly make it look effortless. In her own kitchen, she is a God. Everything is perfect. She knows exactly what everyone wants, how hot her stove gets, which pot is where and what each recipe is. She went to work as a cook a number of years ago and vehemently hated it. She said, this mother of seven, a child of the coal fields who grew up in poverty that it was the hardest job she ever had.
The reality is this: It’s hard. It’s painful. You get burned. You get cut. Your feet hurt so badly that you don’t care about the burns or cuts. You get so tired you can barely see. When you first start in a kitchen, you don’t know where anything is and for the most part, the other cooks are too busy to show you, expecting you to hit the ground running, especially if you went to some fancy cooking school. Most of them didn’t. Most professional cooks were lucky enough to find a mentor early, worked harder than anyone else and became a not-very-well-paid professional through time, mistakes and work.
A professional cook is nothing like what you see on T.V. A professional can scrape together a thirty plate dinner in a matter of minutes with whatever ingredients are on hand. A professional is expected to, and does, work sixteen to eighteen hours a day when necessary and not at all when he or she is not needed. The professional cooks is rarely salaried, most likely will never have a desk and will rarely, if ever, be overweight. Running stairs with stacks of plates, hundred pound sacks of onions, potatoes, flour, rice, boxes of meat and hotel pans full of food will see to that.
You also rarely get to eat, and when you do, it’s not likely you’ll want to. I know that before I started cooking in a professional kitchen, I loved bacon. So much so that I wouldn’t buy it, because I would eat all of it. Now, after a few months of cooking thousands of pieces of bacon, you can literally chase me with the stuff.
So, we’ve established a few things. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard. It’s difficult to get a job and even harder to keep it. It’s painful, especially if you’re like me and have a few knee and ankle reconstructions in your past, mixed in with some arthritis and other inevitable health problems associated with mistakes of your youth. It doesn’t pay all that well.
At the end of the shift, when I stumble towards the car in the dark, knowing the satisfaction in my heart of hearts that I have done a good job, that I have worked as hard as I possibly could, and, most importantly, that my chef shook my hand and said: “Good job today, Ron.” I can honestly say that I have never felt better in my whole life.
That is the secret of cooking professionally.