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Starting a stage?

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I've been pondering culinary school, but there are a few things in my way: I'll be setting off for Peace Corps duty next Summer and I don't want to take out tens of thousands in loans only to let them accrue interest while I'm away. And, besides, I've never set foot in a real restaurant kitchen before. I'm a pretty practiced home cook, general cookbook and food writing nerd, yadda yadda, you've heard the story before.

I've decided that the best thing for me to do is to just find work in kitchen, start at the bottom, pay my dues and over the next year or so accrue some experience to find out if this is what I really want to be doing.

That said: What's the protocol here? I'm living in a small, but not quite isolated area in the Mid-West at the moment. There are a few restaurants nearby and plenty of chains. It's sort of narrowed my options to a few nearby places. Is it better to call ahead or to just show up and ask? Are there certain things they look for or will they be happy just to have an extra hand?

Any tips are much appreciated as I prepare to just sort of dive into it. Thanks!

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