Ok, I’ve been steadily bashing and making fun of a certain stereotype of home and celebrity chefs, partly out of jealousy and partly because of a general lack of respect. Honestly, mostly due to jealousy. I wish I could get paid to write and cook in my $50,000 home kitchen, but I don’t. That’s ok! There is a place for me in the culinary world, it just so happens to be in an actual working kitchen, which I admit was and sometimes still is a scary place.
If you are like me and I suspect, or hope, that there are a lot of you out there, then you just want a chance to work in a professional kitchen. You are willing to work hard, listen to what you are told and be on time every single day. You have no success at finding an opportunity to do so, namely for the following reasons: You make too much money at your “real” job. It is hard to walk away from security, especially in these financially insecure times. You will most likely lose your first job for an opportunity that honestly, doesn’t pay very much, offer any benefits or guarantee anything beyond the recipe you happen to be working on. You’re also afraid of the age distribution in restaurants, namely, that most of the other employees will be younger, faster, in better shape and have more to gain than you do. You, the home cook with a real job, have much more to lose than you have to gain.
With that said, here is some advice. I skipped the whole bit about your wife or husband or significant other going ballistic and seriously contemplating sending you to a shrink. You’ll probably have to use connections to get a job. Honestly, no one is probably going to hire you off the shelf to be a prep cook (that’s where you will start, and likely remain). Is it illegal to make judgment calls based on age and fitness? You bet. Is it reality? You bet. Let’s face it, forty is pushing it to learn a new career, especially one so physically demanding.
Don’t think your connections include the owner/personal friend who owns a restaurant. Don’t put them in the awkward position of having to ask you to leave later. Trust me, this individual would rather you be a friend and loyal customer than employee. Talk about cooking, talk about restaurants, talk about travel – don’t talk to them about a job. As one chef friend told me, “My friends are more valuable than employees.”
Never pretend you know more than you do. It will become painfully honest when you are asked, for example, by a harried sous chef who is young enough to be your offspring to prepare a white sauce five minutes into your first shift. If you can’t bone a chicken, clean a fish or julienne a carrot, then say so. Someone will show you. Reluctantly at first, but they will show you.
Do no bring your own fancy chef’s knife unless it is truly beat up and used. Most cooks use their own knives, and most of them can’t afford anything more than a banged up Wusthof, which they use their entire career. I work with people whose knives are worn down so much from use and sharpening that they barely resemble the original blade.
Ask the chef how you should dress and be clear of your title. Be aware of the limitations of your title. A kitchen is much like the military with a clear chain of command. Don’t overstep your bounds and strive to learn as much as you can.
Provided you get the job, of course. Making it through the interview will be an odd experience, mostly devoid of the normal chit chat. The chef probably decided if he or she was going to hire you when they walked through the door. All you can do is mess up. Pretending that you cooked in Italy (but you just don’t remember the name of the restaurant) when you really just travelled through will not go over well. Again, be honest with what you can and cannot do. Don’t give the impression that you can do nothing, but that is better than claiming you were the Assistant to an Award-Winning Michelin Star Adorned Chef, whose name you have once again forgotten. Give your chef every chance to help you succeed, which all chefs want to do. Lying is counterproductive.
If you get the job, don’t dress like a chef. If you are not provided a uniform or instructed on what to wear, ask the chef. Default clothing for newbies are tough but comfortable black pants and a dark shirt you aren’t afraid to ruin and above all, comfortable, breathable shoes. You’re going to get foot rot anyway, just prolong it as long as you can.
Don’t appear too afraid of the ovens. It’s natural to flinch away from something that is around 500 degrees and is being opened about a thousand times a night. I know I heard the timer buzzing in my sleep. You will get burned a few times. It’s ok. Make sure you use dry rags every single time you head for the oven or you’ll end up blistered and in agony three steps from your destination, forcing you to drop the pan with the day’s featured item right in front of an already exasperated sous chef.
Regardless of who hired you, the sous chef is your boss. Hell, everyone is your boss. The dishwashers will make fun of you. The wait staff will yell at you. If you’re not careful the person in charge of cleaning will have you mopping the floors mid-shift. You’re going to have to sort through who does what, when and for whom quickly.
Kitchens are like battlefields. Every square inch of real estate is claimed by someone, even the tiny workspace that you will be assigned to. Cooks are by nature aggressive, abrasive, combative, jealous, secretive and suffer madly from kleptomania. Leave your knife at your station – it will vanish. Go yelling around the kitchen for it – you’ll never find it again. Ignore that it’s gone, pick up one of the hundreds of white-handled serrated knives, never say a word and it will be back where you left it later.
Work hard, keep your head down, and above all else, don’t lose your cool. Those guys and girls jockeying you around? They were treated the same way, only worse. Much like the coal mining days of not that long ago, hazing is expected and tolerated. No matter where you’ve came from or how many board of director meetings you have chaired, your coworkers will only respect what you’ve done today. Tomorrow you will start all over again.
Is it worth it? For me, it was and still is. I was treated very well, as that is the nature of our kitchen, but don’t expect that everywhere.
So, if you want to be a cook (I can’t help you with the chef part), then lace up your black shoes, sharpen your knife and prepare for war. That’s what you are in for.