So you want to be a chef. Great — so does everyone else who’s watched a little too much Top Chef, Chopped, or Iron Chef. Especially after another dreary day spent in front of Excel at the office. And let’s get real — it’s hard to deny the sex appeal. Big, sharp knives, flames, creativity and passion — chefs are the new rock stars. But what aren’t they telling you on those slick tours with shiny kitchens or in those fancy brochures that make it seem like a dream come true? Here’s a perspective from the trenches you’ll want to consider carefully before you give the finger to the boss and put on your whites and toque.
Cooking at home is a chore for some people, and for others, it’s a way to unwind for a couple of hours, especially if you’ve been sitting all day with little physical activity to break the monotony. Chances are, if you’re thinking about going to culinary school, you’re part of the latter group. You can’t stop daydreaming about idyllic farmers markets while stuck in your cubicle and the smell of basil gets you excited. Really excited. That’s great. (Photo courtesy of flickr/architekt2)
But allow me to make a suggestion: If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, try it before you apply to culinary school. It’s not as hard as you’d think to get a part-time entry-level job as a prep cook at a small neighborhood joint or even a large chain. It’s normal for restaurants to have high turnover, so the good news is, you should be able to land something in no time, as long as you’re not picky.
You’ll learn things about working in a restaurant that will remain just as much a part of reality when you make it big in some Michelin-starred joint. You’ll get to experience the typical, 12-hour shift; the heat of the kitchen on a sweltering summer day; the sheer physical nature of carrying heavy pots filled with gallons of hot soup, used cooking oil, or boiling hot water; taking things in and out of ovens using only flimsy side towels (no floral-printed oven mittens here); cutting or burning yourself on a regular basis; the power of the professional stove (low heat feels like maximum on a lousy home stove); and simply standing all day. If it gets busy enough, you might not even have time to eat, ironically.
After all this, reflect upon whether you feel like you’d make a better customer than a cook. You may realize you like eating at restaurants more than you like cooking in them.
2. Not Every Chef Went to Culinary School
If you took my advice and schlepped your way through the bottom ranks at some diner, and you still want to go to culinary school, congratulations. You made it. But what you’ll probably find at the end of school is that you learned more useful things in the two months that you were working at that place than in six months at culinary school. And for that reason, you’ll understand why there are some chefs out there who never bothered — they’re perfectly successful without having gone. Experience filled in most of the blanks for them, but they were willing to start off as dishwashers.
The truth is, traits that would render someone unemployable in other industries are generally considered pluses in the restaurant world. Joining a kitchen is a lot like joining the military (only, theoretically, the food is better). Chefs tend to see things in black and white, dislike long explanations (whether they are correct or not), and are sometimes confrontational, aggressive, and controlling. They expect people to read their minds, and whether you realize it or not, no matter what else they’re doing, they’re always watching you out of the corner of their eye. You won’t notice though, until something goes wrong. And if something does go wrong, punishment comes swiftly and usually involves some combination of humiliation, verbal abuse, and the assignment of a menial task such as crushing 60 heads of garlic. (Photo courtesy of flickr/US Army Korea - IMCOM)
This is the sort of environment that makes it especially difficult for office people to make the transition because it’s the complete opposite of what they know. But these things shouldn’t come as a surprise — it’s understandable that the relentless competition, low pay, long hours, and hectic pace would wear on even the hardiest personalities. It’s only human to vent one’s frustrations. And the nature of the restaurant business requires speed. Which brings me to my next point.
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