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May 27, 2007 10:48 PM

Questions for professional cooks...

I need a bit of advice. Without any formal training or previous restaurant experience, I made the leap from “serious” home cook into the world of professional cooking and I’m now nearly a year into my culinary career. Of course, it’s barely paying the bills and the hours are long and hard, but I know this is what I want to do with my life. But so far I’ve worked for two respected “fine dining” restaurants in Manhattan and my experiences in each kitchen have been very different and I wonder if I’m on the right track.

The first kitchen I worked in was very regimented. Every move I made was carefully observed by the chef and any missteps on my part were met with harsh disapproval. There was a “system” in place in this kitchen, one that will perhaps be recognized by most professional cooks. I was taught to work quickly, cleanly and efficiently, and urged to be economical in my space and movements in every task I performed. I learned to be aware of my comrades in the kitchen and to announce my presence and announce dangers to others (“HOT!” “BEHIND!”, etcetera). This kitchen was also set up very well and its order was to be preserved at all times; everything had its proper place and all food was labeled, dated, covered and refrigerated properly and woe to those who failed to do so. I was taught to consolidate food into smaller containers whenever possible, to work with raw perishable foods over ice and to always cut waste into bowls for easy disposal, rather than ending up with a cutting board of say, shallot skins all over the place. Knife skills and safety were drilled into my head. I was taught to dutifully write down any instruction I was given for future reference, to “multitask”, to finish and clean up after one chore before abandoning it for another; in short, how to work “professionally”. I like to work this way. It makes sense to me. And I could endure the sometimes “bullying” outbursts of the chef when I erred, but the restaurant wasn’t doing well and as my hours and income dwindled, I decided to work elsewhere.

Now I’m working in a second kitchen that produces food of equal quality, but which isn’t nearly as disciplined, and this new chef, though much more appreciative of my dedication and reliability, doesn’t seem to mind the sometimes “unprofessional” practices of my coworkers. It’s a much more relaxed environment, but I don’t feel as if I’m being “disciplined” any longer and I worry about that, as unlearned and inexperienced as I am. I now find myself annoyed by the slow and sloppy routines of my peers, practices that would not at all be tolerated in my former kitchen . The work gets done nonetheless, and the food is still good, but I know firsthand from my former restaurant that it could all be done in a much better way for everyone. But it isn’t and the chef has a very laissez-faire attitude about it all. Nothing has changed about the way I work; no matter how tediously simple my present task might be, I can still hear in my mind the first chef rudely shouting “MOVE YOUR ASS!”, and I do. But these two kitchens are very different and I wonder if I’m in the right place to really LEARN about everything, or if I’m now just coasting through entry-level work with an easygoing chef. I can’t be sure myself since I’ve worked in only two very different kitchens and I’m not sure which one is more “typical”. I think I have high standards for my own work, but sometimes you just need to be shown that there’s a better way as well, and I wonder if I’ll be missing out on that sort of guidance now. In other words, should I wait much longer to put myself in a more challenging position or do rise as far as I can go in my current situation before looking elsewhere?

Any words of wisdom from professional cooks out there would be greatly appreciated.

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  1. Interesting assessments of your experiences so far.

    I advise you to only ask yourself what your goals are, and decide if the current situation is allowing you to move closer to them. A kitchen needs a range of personalities and skill levels in order to function properly. If you are doing entry level type work, I would suggest that you place yourself in an environment that fosters and nurtures your growth and development as a chef. If the sloppy and slow work of your peers is building a bad work ehtic or breeding bad habits in you, then I would get out fast, assuming that excellence is your goal. If you are able to maintain your own standards of excellence in spite of the negativity around you, you will likely get noticed for it and slowly moved up the ladder, as it were. It all depends on what you as an individual want to get out of your career. These are very random examples you have cited, and each kitchen will have it's own faults and merits. It's all in how you quantify your own progress. Obviously things were not ideal at the first place, else the business would not be flailing. Hopefully you learned about time management and the importance of the process of cookery. These are things that are now part of your own repertoire and they will help define you as a cook. The second place likely has shown you that the industry can be fun and that comeraderie can develop within the kitchen setting. This is also a valuable part of your growth. The kitchen brigade is often your surrogate family and it is important to enjoy your workplace. Now the question you must ask yourself is where can you go to continue the learning process and find a situation that fits for you. Nobody will hand your success to you; you must chart your own course and make your own way to the level you want to be at.

    Both of these jobs provided you with the most important thing of all: experience. Most chefs hire based on experience first. Education and attitude are secondary, although very important. The experiences you have had will allow you the leverage to format how and where you will go from here. You can decide. I would suggest doing a few "stages" or trials in different kitchens before you take your next job, keeping in mind the ideal which you have hopefully established from your experiences. A good cook is always in demand and hard work, dedication and integrity get noticed. If you drop any of these qualities from your profile, it truly doesn't matter where you work. You can always find a job that gives you a paycheque.

    The answer to your question simply depends on you and upon deciding which direction to take your career. Wherever you go, take what you like and leave the rest.

    1. Do you like working in the more relaxed environment? I know I would. I'm a professional pastry chef, and I am not the world's most organized and speedy employee. I march to my own drum, so to speak, and I feel I do my best work this way. Sometimes I'll get an assistant who insists on doing everything in a more regimented fashion, but sometimes this is actually wasteful. For example, in culinary school they teach you to have your mise en place totally ready before you start a recipe. Let's say you're making creme brulee. You heat up your cream with your sugar and vanilla bean, separate your egg yolks into a--well, culinary school tells you to put them into a deli cup, right? So then you scrape them out of the deli cup into a bowl and temper in the hot cream. So you've just lost some yolk. Why don't you separate the yolks directly into the bowl? Also, I've seen people cut up the green tops of scallions and throw away the white part, and then lunch crew comes in and cuts up the white part of a new bunch of scallions and throws away the green. Sometimes fascist chefs are just hidebound. You can learn great things from less regimented chefs, too. And great cooking isn't about tidiness and speed, it's about finesse. Read some great cookbooks, the food section of your newspaper, Cook's Illustrated. That is how you will improve your game. At least that's my two cents.

      1. So, what about the food? Do you like the food at your current job? If so, then go as far as you can go, talk to the chef about taking on more responsibility, find extra projects you can do, etc to make it work for you. Do you really want to be on your third job in 'nearly a year'? Try to stay at least a full year in any job, so you can see what that chef does for all the seasons. Hopping from job to job after a few months just makes you look flaky, and the more short-term jobs are on your resume, the less employable you're going to be. When you send in your resume with four months here and six months there, chefs look at it and wonder why you think they should bother training you if that's as long as you're going to stay. Training is expensive, and high turnover sends a LOT of money down the drain.

        1. I found myself in the same situation when I started my career, where I said "What the hell am I doing here? Where is the discipline? What bad habits am I learning?"

          I went from hats and proper pants to bandannas and khakis, from "Yes Chef!" to being made fun of for calling the Chef "Chef"... the calibre of the food didn't betray this difference, so I was pretty shocked when I started there.

          While I do agree that leaving too soon makes you look flaky, on the other hand there is no sense in staying there longer than you need to, and possibly compromising your CV (depending on the reputation of the kitchen staff of your current restaurant).

          In my opinion 6 months at this more casual place is sufficient, of course depending on the kitchen culture in Manhattan (I'm in Toronto).

          2 Replies
          1. re: Olivia

            The first place did practice great procedure, meant to keep the kitchen running, well, safe, and economical. Unfortunately, it also had a pompous and abusive sounding managing chef. So you learned good techniques and practices that you can see work well. And you also know that, like most folks, you also respond better to positive rather than negative verbal dialog.

            People who observe and learn from every experience tend to be happier and more well rounded. You feel that you like the practices of the first place and the "social" environment of the second, so use that knowledge when you chose your next place. If you feel like you are still learning, and being happy where you are, stick around and see what else you can learn. With a more casual place, such as where you are now, sometimes it is much easier to pick up new things and areas of expertise. Ask more questions, see how they plan a menu, buy product, all much easier to do in a less strict hierarchy.

            1. re: Quine

              In my professional opinion it comes down to this: If you want to be taught to do everything correctly by someone who knows how to do it, go to the strict, European style regimented kitchen. Your eduction will happen faster, and you'll learn more. We American cooks tend to be sloppier, more wasteful, and less attentive to detail. Deal with the verbal barrage, and take from it everything you can. My guess is that you learned more in the first two weeks under your old chef than in your entire time with this new chef. At this point in your career I would focus on getting all the fundamentals in line, and then move on to everything else. I just don't think you'll get the attention you'll need from the more laissez-faire chefs.

          2. read your post again. your answer seems to be pretty black and white. go where you feel happy and feel that you are learning. from what i can tell, you know where you are happiest. you need structure and the first style of restaurant (i suggest a more successful one, however) is clearly where your heart tells you to be. cooking well is 50% passion anyway...quit, move on, and the others are right, find one where you will stay for no less than a year this time. enjoy.