Words of Wisdom for the Class of 2009
Congratulations Class of 2009. You’re a graduate, so pat yourselves’ on the back and give a giant round of applause. You’ve made it through the long hours, hard classes, and sometimes boring professors. Finally it’s the day when you can take off the toque and walk out a free cook.
As you push through the doors of your culinary school, realize the wide world of restaurants is a tough business. You’ve managed to acquire a job and it’s time to put your schooling to use. Here is some tried and true advice based on experiences in some of the toughest restaurants. Take it with a grain of salt and use it as best you can. Be advised this is a harsh environment and these words of wisdom are meant to help you steer clear of many of the problems you may encounter. The advice may seem jarring, but it’s tough in hopes you avoid bearing the worst brunt of kitchen abuse. With your guns of knowledge fully loaded, you will be ready to learn and grow into the best cook possible.
- First of all, swallow your pride just a bit. Yes, you graduated culinary school, but, compared to everyone else in the kitchen, you don’t know much. Head into your new kitchen home acting like hot stuff and you are more than likely going to get pushed around. Treat the older and wiser cooks with respect, and if you are lucky someone might tell you there is tape stuck all over the back of your chef’s coat. If you go in showing respect, chances are you will gain some along the way.
- Be prepared. Always have a sharp knife, a notebook, and a sharpie. If you can’t manage those three things, think seriously about whether this is the career choice for you. You will always need these tools. You don’t want to be the guy with a dull knife when the chef comes around and borrows it, do you? And you need a notebook to write down everything. Because you won’t be able to remember anything when the chef, sous chef, and senior line cooks are barking orders down your throat.
- Appearances are everything. Don’t walk into the kitchen looking like you just rolled out of bed. And it’s a good idea to have a clean jacket, hat, knife, and apron if you are staging. Even if the restaurant tells you they will provide these things, it’s better to be safe then sorry.
- Never, ever wear Crocs in the kitchen. They have holes in them. Hot liquids go through holes. Sharp knives go through holes. Please go and buy a decent pair of chef shoes. Preferably a wooden soled pair, because you are starting a job that requires you stand on your feet for 10-12 hours a day. Wooden soles will hurt your feet at first, but you will adjust and they are the best thing for your back. The only person who can get away with wearing the ridiculous Crocs is Mario Batali and that’s because he is a rock star.
- Always say “behind you,” “hot behind” when you are carrying something hot and “sharp behind” when you are carrying your knives as you pass behind your coworkers. If you don’t, you will get burned, stepped on, cut and even worse, you will hurt your coworkers. This is not optional.
- Always wrap and label everything you touch. Pull out that sharpie and put it to good use. Always take the tape labels off of everything you send to the dish pit. If you don’t, there will be a sticky residue left over from the tape. This residue is a sign of laziness. Do not be lazy.
- Always keep at least two side towels on you. Use a towel to touch any pan. Even when you know it’s cold. Take a pan from the freezer, use a towel. Trust me on this one.
- See the chef over in the corner, leaning against the counter, chatting with the manager? Don’t do that. Follow suit of your fellow co-workers and stand up straight with your head down, working quickly, very quickly. At one point, that chef did the same thing, but now he is the chef and has decided he has the time to chat it up. Hopefully, one day you’ll have that option as well. Today, however, you are being paid minimum wage to attempt whatever task your sous chef has given you. So be quiet and work.
- Always work like you are in the weeds. Quickly and efficiently. That way when you are actually in the weeds you will be ready. And everyone around you just might believe you are taking your job seriously.
- There will come a day when someone newer and less experienced comes along and you suddenly get moved up from the lowest spot on the totem pole. When this happens, it is likely that your coworkers will invite you along for drinks after work. This presents a dilemma. Commodore in the work place soothes the anxiety of a high stress environment and bonding over beers after work definitely helps in building a solid team. However, if you party all night with the guys, then everyone knows why you are lagging the next day during prep time. And it’s probably not the best idea to have one too many drinks and call your sous chef a jerk, especially when you need him to help you get set up for a big party the next day. So be fair warned, when you play with fire, you may get burned.
- Try not to make constant references to culinary school. You graduated and that’s wonderful, but no one wants to hear stories about your professors or your recipes. We all had them and we all have learned new and better skills and tricks. So start learning your new tricks too.
- There is always work to be done. If your prep list is done, then prep for tomorrow. If you are done with that, then clean. What if you’ve already cleaned your station? Okay, detail all of the equipment with a toothpick. There is always work to be done in the kitchen. If you don’t find it, chances are someone will find some work for you, and you probably won’t like it.
Kitchens are tough, hard places to survive in. They are full of a lot of ruthless, unyielding, people who only look out for themselves. You have to really, really love food and have tough skin to survive in this world, but at the end of the day if you are doing what you love, it will get you through the rough patches. You will almost certainly get yelled at, but everyone does. When you are eating that amazing juicy fig, or plating the perfectly cooked steak, it will be worth it, I promise. Hopefully this advice will help you along your way. Good luck and welcome to the kitchen.