You’ve watched the Food Network since you were knee-high to a Wagyu calf. You helped your (mom, grandmother, older sister, best friends uncles mistress) in the kitchen and like a sponge you soaked it all in. You’ve thrown dinner parties that were such a success (they still talk about your Thanksgiving turkey) that people have wondered why you don’t do it professionally. Now, you’re bored with your career and looking to do “what you really love”. Or your fresh out of high school and couldn’t swing a tour at one of the colleges you applied to, let alone get accepted. You’ve done your homework, picked out a culinary school or gotten in at a local eatery in your neighborhood making salads. You’re up for starting at the bottom, the long hours, mediocre pay and non-existent benefits package? GREAT! But before they give you the pretty white jacket with your name on it above the cool logo, there are a lot of rungs on that ladder of success.
Over the course of the last 12 years, I’ve had students of every age and background. From snot nosed kids out of high school to 50 year old IT dotcom busters having to start again. What I have noticed from all these students, regardless of age, intelligence or social standing, is that they all have the same misconceptions and they all make the same mistakes their first time in a kitchen. Now granted, I don’t expect you as a student to come into my kitchen and know the ropes; chefs understand the learning curve although some are more patient about it than others.
Working in a kitchen is dangerous. The whole point of a kitchen is to induce a controlled damage upon flesh, whether it is cow, chicken, pig or fish. Knives and sauté pans and char broilers do not distinguish between human flesh and animal, they will burn and cut you as they were intended, as if you were on tonight’s menu.
That being said, I’ve compiled a list of things every FNG should know before walking into a kitchen, whether it is off the street or straight from some prestigious culinary institution. A few of these are to keep you out of harm’s way and a few are to keep you out of the Chefs way, who generally will not bother to remember your name until you’ve lasted about a month in his kitchen. If you find these helpful, please pass them along, any that I may have overlooked, feel free to add in the comments section.
First, one of two phrases will be put on my tombstone. Either “Watch your back!” or “Behind You”. These 2 phrases will eliminate 80% of all possible catastrophes in the kitchen. Cooks work on a hot line designed to allow them to take as few steps as possible. Therefore, cooks spin all night long from mis en place to cooking unit with knives, hot pans, food and all other manner of things, they are not expecting you to be standing there. If you walk behind someone, let them know, loudly.
Never start a sentence with “At my last job…” unless your last job was at Alinea or some other bastion of culinary extravagance. Chefs are trying to differentiate themselves, trying to set themselves apart. If the chef wants your opinion, he’ll ask for it, just make sure you give him YOU’RE opinion.
Graduating from culinary school does not make you a chef, sous chef, or chef de cuisine, nor does it grant you any type of favor in the kitchen. It just gives you a broader knowledge with which to start with. The transition from culinary school to a working restaurant is difficult; you need to gut it out.
Come to work prepared. Don’t ask if you should bring in your own knives, that is like a tennis player asking if he needs to bring his own racquet to Wimbledon. Have on the right shoes, clean, unripped pants, preferably black and a hat if required.
And lastly, have fun, act like you want to be there and learn. As chefs, we are natural teachers. It is a very specialized industry and the only way for us to further that is to pass on what we have learned to a new generation of cooks. Take notes; ask questions, oohhh and aahhh when appropriate, stroking a little ego goes a long way some times.
You’re in for a long ride, for some longer than others. But you will have that night where your creation was featured, it sold like gangbusters, the chef slaps you on the back and buys you a beer, and for one of THOSE nights, you’ll realize the whole thing was worth it.