What Every Young Chef Should Know
Have you just decided to become a Cook? Are you starting culinary school?
There are a lot of lists of what young cooks should know or how cooks should act. I just wanted to put in my two cents. Below is a list of some useful advice and warnings that will help make you realize that Kitchen life ain’t easy, but it can be worth it. I can’t guarantee you will go work at the best restaurants. Nevertheless, if you can heed my advice, I am sure you will make good food!
1. Sharpen your knife skills!
Look, you are coming out of Culinary school thinking you are the top of your knife game. Well, that is until someone asks you to chop 3- 9th pans of shallots perfectly without going over them. Suddenly, you realize you suck. Your shallots look horrible, you have no idea how to sharpen your knife and you’re in a world of hurt. You think about buying a new knife, or maybe just quitting. If you don’t work for a place like that makes you feel like you are bad at your job, quit. Not because it is stressful or belittling. I mean, work at a place where the skill level is so high, you feel like you don’t belong. Go to a place that cares about those little details, because that is how you will build your foundation! Also, make sure you have a good knife!
2. Know Your Basics
I know, you want to open the next WD-50, or work there. Forget that, don’t worry about it yet. First, learn how to cook a steak.
Hey! no, don’t put it in a f******* bag and then temperature controlled bath. Look, that works great once you really get what you are doing. However, until you get an understanding of heat, cooking, time, etc. Don’t cheat your way out of doing some basic things. It will make you a better cook, it will help you get what the heck you are actually doing.
Learn how to cook a steak, blanch a vegetable, break down a salmon and bake a souffle.
3. Research the Greats!
The future is awesome and there are some really cool modern restaurants. If you really want to get a good understanding of how the food industry has really come so far so fast. Look up the greats. Who taught Gordan Ramsey(Watch the video below). Who taught Marco Pier White? Who? Who is Escoffier. The more you know the stronger your base. The more you can really think outside the box! How do you do it? Read some good cook books and bibliographies!
4. You’re not going to be Sous Chef in 2 years (Don’t be mediocre).
Passion is awesome, ambition is great. Just make sure you are being realistic. If you are offered Sous Chef two years into your tenure, check where you are working. More than likely you are not that great, your restaurant is just mediocre or maybe just a mom and pop shop. Focus on learning for as long as possible. As soon as you are a Sous Chef, you have to be a manager and your technical skills will stop growing. You will have a limited repertoire to lean on for new menu ideas. Don’t worry about title, just spend time learning!
5. The sound of the ticket machine will scare you!
I have worked so many nights and had so many dreams with the sound of this machine running for hours. One of my chefs would let the ticket machine run until it hit the bottom of the floor. Then he would stack them all up and start calling out the orders. Yeah, and it kept running as he was calling. From 6 PM – 8 PM it won’t stop!
6. You don’t get days off
Are you coming from a corporate environment, and thinking becoming a cook is a good idea? Well, if you want to work in fine dining, forget days off. People want to go out for Valentines day, Mother’s Day, etc. Someone has to be awake to make their omelets, their steaks, their molten chocolate cakes. Yup, that is right, that is you!
7. Learn to clean, clean, clean
If you don’t mind a little bit of sexism, message me and ask me about the analogy my French Chef once used about cooks and cleaning. All jokes aside, you are going to spend at least 40% of your time cleaning and 10% of your time complaining about how messy the other crew left your station. My recommendation here, learn to be part of the solution not the problem! Just fix it.
8. Vegetarians are people too! and making good Vegetarian dishes is a skill!
Let’s be honest. It is really easy to make meat taste good..
Season, sear, serve. Yes, some preparations take longer, like braised pork belly or short rib. In the end, meat is easy. Now trying to please a vegetarian, that is another story. They have had all the afterthought dishes. They have had your butternut squash risotto, your seasonal pasta, your beet salads and guess what, they are tired of it. Jeff Bezos has a great line. He says, delight a customer. So do it. Delight a vegetarian. Have you ever thought about smoking vegetables? It adds another level of flavor that sometimes is better than meat. One of my culinary instructors worked for a place called Carmelita and he made a Smoked French Onion Soup! Brilliant and easy! So do it, wow a vegetarian, think outside the Risotto?
9. No one will be around on your days off
Most fine dining kitchens close Monday and Tuesday. Why, well because most people want to eat out closer to the weekend. When everyone else is going to work on Monday, you might still be in bed. Don’t think that means you get to lie around on your Monday. You put in a 55 hour last week. That never allowed you to do chores, or errands. Get moving, you got a lot to get done before you start the next week.
10. Everyone will suddenly expect you to cook on your days off
You know, its funny. Most people don’t come up to a carpenter and ask if he will be over for their party and when he arrives, expect him to build them a new bed frame. At least, not without paying him. Well, not so with cooks. Everyone seems to get the idea that if you cook at work, you can cook at their parties. Why, well, can’t really explain the exact reason for this paradox.
11. Learn to cook at least 3 pastries well
One day you are going to walk into a kitchen where no one wants to do pastries. Yeah, it has happened to me. That is awesome. First, make sure you are solid on a few desserts, make sure you understand how to properly contrast textures, flavors, etc. Show them you got the goods to do it! Then, you will suddenly have a free window to create your own dishes. Maybe the Chef doesn’t even want to think about it. Awesome, that opens up a great learning experience, take it!
12. Static rolls down hill
The kitchen is not for people with soft under bellies. There are many reasons for the corny quote “If you can’t take the heat”. Chefs and cooks love to give each other shit. It is just part of the game. So don’t be hurt and don’t take things personally.
13. Working for a 2 star Level Michelin Restaurant is Hell
Alright, I have never worked at one. However, working at any restaurant that is on the edge of winning an award is high pressure. It is not to say that having the award doesn’t come with its own stresses. There just seems to be more anticipation when trying to win an award. Maybe take a moment and watch Gorden Ramsey as he tried to win his third Michelin star.
14. Walk-ins are great
When it is 90 degrees outside, or after a 5 hour rush sitting in front of 450 degree ovens. Walking into a giant walk in feels amazing! You can have private conversations, cool off, or simply stress out a little bit. However, make sure there isn’t a window in your door. I have once watched a Sous Chef walk in and punch a box of produce after a stressful rush.
15. The Dishwasher is the most valuable player on your team
You think I am lying. Just wait until he or she doesn’t show up. See how fun the rest of your night is when you’re out of pans, spoons, and plates. Yeah, things aren’t so funny anymore. So respect your dishwasher and realize they are working their butts off to make you look good.
16. Something is always going wrong
Something is always going wrong in a kitchen. Produce hasn’t come in on time, the morning crew didn’t finish all the prep, the nigh crew left a mess, and there is a fire in the walk in. Alright, the last one never happened. Nevertheless, my point of advice here is “Cooks come with problems, Chefs bring solutions.
17. Don’t worry about awards
I remember one day asking a Chef who I had worked at with at several different restaurants when he thought he would win an award. I was young and naive, but he gave me amazing advice. He said “Ben, let’s cook good food first, if we do that, awards will come”.
Some say that the James Beard Awards are slightly political anyway (e.g. Anthony Bourdain).
If you are lucky enough to be well off, or have rich parents do what I couldn’t do. Heck, even if you can’t afford it, figure it out. Go to Noma, El Cellar De Can Rocca, and Mugaritz. Learn some real techniques. You can only learn so much from your local restaurants. Get out there, be uncomfortable, work for free. It sucks, but if you want to be the best, you have to be with the best.
19. Focus on where you work, not what you make..sort of
You should find a balance between a good kitchen and a fair paycheck. Above I said, work for free. If you are offered the opportunity to work at the top 10 restaurants in the world for free, I would say do it. If you have 2 years experience and could work at a Jame Beard Award winning restaurant for free. I would have questions. You can only work for free so long. Make sure you take a fair assessment of your skill set.
20. Learn from everybody and teach everybody
Never stop learning, from anybody and everything. When I worked at the Herbfarm. Chef Chris Weber could tell you about every bit of produce we got in. Whether it be the local saffron we got in from the NW coast or the ducks we got from the foie farm. He would know everything about the people involved and the process they follow.
Looking back, I still want to be a cook. I love cooking and so I get why people want to do it. It is funny, being in the tech industry, I have come across so many people ready to switch careers. Suddenly they want to become chefs. It is funny to me because I have made the opposite switch. So part of me wants to tell them No, but of course there is a part of me that wants to encourage young chefs. Go and be the best chefs, cooks and pastry chefs you can!