What to expect when going to cook in a restaurant
I have found that a number of people who want to be a chef fall into one of three categories. Ask yourself which of these you fall under before deciding to be a chef.
- If you are one of those many people who want to be a chef because you think being a chef is a glamorous profession due to its heightened popularity then forget it. Do something else.
- If you are under the delusion that just because you are a great home cook means you can work in a professional kitchen, do something else. Going from cooking in a home kitchen to a professional kitchen is like going from playing football on your X box to playing professional football.
- If you have a genuine passion for food and cooking, have a great work ethic, great attitude, hunger for knowledge, are determined, disciplined and not afraid of being bent over (so to speak) and verbally “violated” on a daily basis then a kitchen is the place for you. Oh, I almost forgot. I hope you like working long, gruelling hours, weekends, nights, holidays, stress, pressure, hard, physical labor, the potential that you will abuse alcohol or some illegal substance, sweat and finally, if you decide to start a family while working as a chef, you will most likely see your kids grow up through photographs. If you still want to be a chef, then read on.
There is a parallel between sports teams and kitchens. They are both physically and mentally demanding, require teamwork, common goal(s), discipline, organization, camaraderie, hard work and thick skin.
That saying, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” is personified in both environments. Everyone must play their part. If the guard doesn't block his opponent the quarterback can get sacked and the entire play can be sabotaged. If one cook doesn't have his food ready when the others do, it can delay the entire table. If one table is delayed, it can delay other tables, possibly and consequently ruining the whole lunch or dinner service.
When you are new in either environment you need to prove yourself. You may catch some flack but take your blows, keep your head up and once you prove yourself you are part of the team. There is strong competition to get the starting spots on a sports team or the higher spots in a kitchen. If you don't perform, you can get bumped down a notch. Mistakes are often handled the same. On my high school football team I dropped a pass once and didn't live it down for a week. I once burned 10 pounds of apple butter at work and my nickname for the rest of the week was “apple butter.”
Every kitchen is different. A mom and pop or small, free-standing establishment will most likely be more laid back and less structured. In corporate environments such as hotels or restaurant chains you can usually expect more rules and higher professionalism. The higher the calibre the kitchen, the more demanding, more pressure and harder it is to work in. Five star establishments are run more like the military. With higher prices come higher expectations so you certainly can't expect to deliver those standards in a lackadaisical type environment.
The biggest difference between free-standing and corporate establishments is human resources. Free standing establishments don't have a human resources department that oversees and regulates how everyone is treating each other. In a corporate environment you would never see someone treat people the way Gordon Ramsay does on TV and get away with it. As an employee you have more of a 'voice' in a corporate environment. That is not to say that every chef in a free-standing establishment is a screaming lunatic. That would be unfair and just not accurate. The culinary world has changed. Employee rights have gotten stronger over the years and you don't see as much of that “old school” mentality of breaking people down to teach them.
Have you ever notice how sometimes professional football players perform well on one team but not so well on another? That is because every team has a different system or way of doing things. A player may fit well in one system but not so well in another and it has nothing to do with the player's skill. Same thing goes for kitchens. You may fit well in one kitchen but not so well in another and it may have nothing to do with your skill level.
The single most important thing any chef will look for when hiring a potential employee is a great attitude. You can teach anything to someone with a great attitude but you can't teach anything to someone with a poor attitude. A stellar attitude will make up for some other shortcomings you may have.
Any good chef , like a personal trainer, will push you beyond your limits to not only see what you are made of, but to make sure they are getting the best out of you that they can. It is their job.
Anyone can maintain a consistent, positive attitude when things are great but how about when things are not going so great? Let me paint you a picture. It is the middle of the dinner rush and your head is spinning with confusion trying to keep track of the 10 orders you have cooking at once. You keep going over the orders in your head, “OK this steak is medium-rare, this one is sauce side, this one no butter, oh shit gotta get that lamb shank out of the oven before it burns and I gotta get that veal chop on the fire.”
The chef then yells, “Where is that fucking steak?! Can I get it sometime before Christmas?! You are moving too fucking slow god dammit!” The chef screaming at you only makes you more nervous and you feel like you are in quicksand. The harder you work the more you feel like you are being pulled under and it only causes you to make mistakes. While trying to juggle all those orders at once you are having thoughts in your head of strangling the hostess because she sat too many people at once and you are, as we say in the restaurant business, “in the weeds” which means you have more than you can handle. Add to the mayhem the rush of adrenaline surging through your body is making your hands shake which doesn't make plating those intricate garnishes any easier.
From my experience I have found that up scale, free-standing restaurants will teach you better culinary skills and corporate establishments will teach you better management skills. There are always exceptions to every rule but as my old mentor once told me, “I don't know many of those old-school mentality, screaming chefs who can't cook well but I do know many corporate chefs with great management skills who can't cook at all.”