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Jun 29, 2013 07:17 AM

Learning to cook at a restaurant

I live smack-dab in the middle of a very populated area that has dozens of restaurants of various types. I've thought about going to work for a restaurant (I have limited experience from years ago working in a restaurant kitchen) mainly to learn and improve upon my cooking. Do you think I'd be better off generally in a large chain restaurant (Bertucci's, Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden), or in a mom and pop place like an Italian restaurant, or diner?

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  1. You'd be better off taking a few classes, or just some new cookbooks. Kind of like reading, if one wants to become a better reader, one reads more. One doesn't need to work in a library.
    I went to cooking school, and while there, thought I should work in a restaurant to expand my skills. Nope, didn't happen. My skills were already pretty good, and cooking in a restaurant taught me more about working with a diverse group of people, and standing for long periods. It didn't help my cooking skills one bit.

    1 Reply
    1. re: wyogal

      restaurant-cooking can help people learn to multi-task because you're not just cooking one steak at a time, and i think lots of home-cooks have trouble getting dinner on the table because they don't know how to do this.

      but it's hot, stressful and dirty and unless somebody wants to pursue it for work, i agree cooking classes would be a better idea.

    2. so you're looking to improve your home-cooking skills and not pursue restaurant work? this may not be something most places want to indulge. i have worked for a few chefs who took on people from other fields as unpaid "apprentices", but they wanted to get in the restaurant biz for their career 2.0.

      many chains do not cook from scratch and lots of their food actually comes mostly prepped from commissaries. the food is often microwaved or deep-fried. not much to learn there.

      if you have friendly relationships, as a regular customer, with any of the small independent places it would not hurt to ask, but don't be surprised if they say no, even if you offer to work for free. if you're doing this only for personal gain, there's not much pay-off for them training you is there?

      you may be better off taking some cooking classes.

      1 Reply
      1. re: hotoynoodle

        I can't add anything to hotoynoodle's comments, they are spot on.

      2. Your average restaurant doesn't care whether you want to learn - they just need 100 lbs of potatoes peeled and a few thousand shrimp de-veined before service sobequickaboutit. And generally speaking, that's the kind of stuff you'd be doing primarily if you started in a lot of restaurants - more drudgery than learning.

        Large chain restaurants probably have nothing to offer you - their menus are designed so that they can be executed by comparatively unskilled and replaceable cheap labor. In other words, not much real cooking happens there.

        If you ask around enough, you MIGHT find a mom-and-pop place willing to indulge you by showing you a few extra tips and tricks if you're willing to do some of their drudge work for low or no pay. Maybe.

        But honestly, if you don't want to work in the field, you'll learn faster and more easily by just taking a class or two and/or doing your own research and teaching yourself. Make friends with good cooks. Bring an offering of booze and then watch em cook in their kitchen. Ask them for tips. Throw cooking competitions (i learned a lot doing this). Join a cooking club. Make new things just for the sake of trying out a new technique.

        1. I'll disagree with some of what others have said thus far. You can pick either a very well run chain restaurant or a mom and pop restaurant that makes the type of food you have interest in and learn simply by watching how others perform their tasks. You do not actually have to do the function yourself. In time though, if you show an interest to learn and improve, any kitchen member would show you how to do anything if you ask, the exception being a prick chef who thinks he has a secret recipe he has to protect. I never had any formal training in cooking, but I was fortunate enough to work in some very good restaurants encompassing a background in ethnic foods, corporate/franchise, private/catering/country club facilities......I can now cook Chinese/Asian, Latin, Mexican, Italian, French, Steaks,Chops & Seafoods....or cook and run a party of 50 - 500 with ease, obviously the latter with assistance as the number climbs. I learned it all simply from watching others at first and being inquisitive from hanging out in the kitchen while items were being prepped or made.....and I never had a back house position. I was always a front house guy..

          I can also tell you places like The Cheesecake Factory, Grand Luxe Cafe and Houston.....all do indeed make most of their menu from scratch....You can learn quite a lot of information, trade secrets and tips from a kitchen position. If you have skills, you can also advance quickly...especially at chain restaurants, as they want you to learn as many different positions as possible should they ever need you to jump into another station on short notice.

          24 Replies
          1. re: fourunder

            You'll certainly learn from working in a restaurant. But first and foremost, you'll work. Cool if that appeals to you, and especially if you think you want to work in the business. But if the only goal is to learn to cook, there are less round-about ways to do so.

            Can't speak to the cheesecake factory or grand luxe cafe - haven't been to either. But if I wanted to learn italian food (or even italian american), there would be better options than applying at an olive garden.

            1. re: cowboyardee

              While I concede there are many chains that have cryovac packaged soups, sauces and other iitems....there are also many that do not and prepare items for the day. I know of Mexican that make their own tortillas, rice, beans, sauces, chicken and carne asada for daily service. They make their own guacamole, salsas and etc. While I have no specific knowledge of Olive Garden....I do have some insight into the Macaroni Grill and Maggianp's from years past and they do make their own sauces on site. They are prepared for service and ladled out, just like they do in fine French and Italian restaurants. I've also seen some pretty nifty cooking coming out of Carraba's while sitting at the counter. I have never been to Bertucci's...but on my recent trip to Myrtle Beach I almost did. Instead I opted for BBQ, but I did go back to get a menu at Bertucci's to see what it was like. On the cover it states,,,, They make their dough daily, their sauce is crafted from their farm fresh blend (Pomodoro) and their vegetables are fire roasted every morning. looking inside the menu, it appears there are other limited sauces available and many of the items are made with their brick oven.. While it may not be extensive, it certainly appears like their can be important things to learn.

              As someone who has owned and worked both the private and corporate sector with success.....I would welcome an invitation to see and learn how restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster operate.....I would not discount it just because I did not like the food

              1. re: fourunder

                Frankly I just don't know that much about how most chain restaurants operate. Those that I do know a little about - olive garden, red lobster, applebee's - I wouldn't recommend as places to learn to cook. You could probably learn a thing or two there, yes. But you could almost certainly find a better place to learn.

                No snobbery intended. There are good chains out there, and bad independent restaurants. If you say Bertucci's and Cheesecake factory do a lot of fresh cooking, I'll take your word for it.

                Still if you want to learn to cook, working at an Olive Garden seems like a pretty round about way to do so. Heck - if I saw a post on my local chowhound board that someone would be willing to bring a six pack and pay for dinner if I'd be willing to show em a thing or two, I'd likely be game. You don't have to be a professional to learn from good cooks (even professional ones).

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  I worked in three different corporate owned chains in the 80s....simply as a staff member, then as a trainer and manager. I learned very much about running both front and back house operations properly, especially when it came to specification and policies for standards, recipes, guest services, maintenance, hygiene standards, staff relations and etc. It prepared me well to step into ownership and management of catering facilities and country clubs later. Every conceivable detail is researched and addressed and made available to every employee, I found my experience to be very valuable for my career is the food industry.

                  1. re: fourunder

                    If you want to work in the field, there is no substitute for on-the-job experience. But it seems to me you're talking about a professional's well rounded skill set, not the narrower skill set of an accomplished cook. I had the impression the OP is interested in the latter.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      I would agree with that....but I'm just adding that I learned how to cook from working in restaurants and never having a back house position.....I learned by observing, inquiring and helping out....and practicing at home.

                      1. re: fourunder

                        I did work in the kitchen at Red Lobster for about six months back in the 1980s, unfortunately they promoted me to dining room manager a lot faster than I would have liked. I came from being the cook at a deli previously, which was different from a chain in that I could do anything I wanted. At the deli, I learned on my own, with the owner's blessing, which was fun; but Red Lobster officially trained you and had senior staff that were all too happy to pass on all the tricks of the trade. Yes their recipes are standardized but everything pretty much was made from scratch.

                        Since all I had done up to this point was home cooking, I was amazed and sometimes overwhelmed by it all. I eventually moved on to another facet of the food business so didn't get to the high end part of it. Sort of regretted that but my husband was fed up with my hours. For me, they passed with the speed of light.

                        At Red Lobster, I learned from the other cooks (who were great line cooks at our place) countless tips on how to grill a steak, how to broil seafood, how to deep fry, how to prep and do mise en place (not that they called it that) and in general how to be unafraid to slam out huge quantities of decent food in a timely manner. I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything, I was going to college at the same time for a restaurant management degree, but would have to say I learned as much on the job as I did at school.

                        1. re: coll

                          This is a great story and thanks for sharing....

                          The others seem to forget, you cannot cook without first prepping.....Also, I never heard of a prep cook being required to wash dishes....I have no idea what type of places some have worked in...but I have never encountered seeing the job descriptions ponied up in this thread in any restaurant I have been involved with....but just to quell those who an owner, I often helped the dishwasher clean everything and anything that needed to be cleaned for service of the restaurant and especially at the end of the evening if he was particularly swamped.......and BTW. I always fed the dishwasher anything he wanted to eat that was on the menu....with the exception of Maine Lobster....which curiously was never asked for. Probably due to the fact they did not want to appear greedy and take advantage.....unlike the the rest of the cooks.

                          I know I could learn more in a month in a restaurant kitchen...than a year of cooking classes going once or twice a week.. Line cooks needless to say are very valuable, and one of the hardest jobs to perform well is the Broiler position, where timing is essential and cooking to temperature requires much skill with great eyes and a great sense of touch and feel.

                          1. re: fourunder

                            I was hired as a cook right off the bat. No need to start at the bottom. It was part time because I was going to school; as a matter of fact they tried to keep everyone's hours low so you weren't eligible for health benefits. So to answer the OP, if you want to learn to cook part time, in a schoolroom manner, a chain isn't a bad place to start. I had no experience, but they made me expo very quickly. Talk about learning on the job, the first time almost killed me!

                            When I became a manager, the training period was several months. Each week you had to work a different position, including dishwasher. It is essential to know how to cover when someone doesn't show up for their shift, until you can get someone else in. You would never ask someone else with a different job description to step in, unless they volunteered.

                            1. re: coll

                              When hired @ National Chain restaurants, like Red Lobster and the ones I've mentioned above, they require you to go through a training period, usually two weeks. The first week is spent in a classroom environment reviewing the menu, policies and procedures. The second week you shadow someone to learn the position hired for.. Yes, you may only do hard labor and tedious prep work...but you can learn as much as you want with the effort you put in......and yes, you can learn to cook when it's slower or during the down time...learning to saute, deep fry or broil/grill. They may not let you broil a Dry-Age Steak on you own.....but they certainly will start you off by letting you make a burger. The concept and procedure is the same.

                              1. re: fourunder

                                Gaining confidence is a major key to being a good cook.

                                1. re: coll

                                  I would further add...if I could get a stint at a good BBQ place....or dare I say Famous Dave's....I would happily work for free labor and staff meal just to poke around and see the process they administer to their products...and where they purchase from.

                                  1. re: fourunder

                                    I know you know, but just check the garbage dumpster at the end of the night for empty cases to see their supplier. The tiny ID tags are color coded. That's what salesmen do!

                                    1. re: coll

                                      or......park yourself in the lot in the morning....

                                      When I used to drive my son to school in the mornings i would pass Riverside Square Mall which has housed the following chains....

                                      McCormick & Schmick's
                                      The Cheesecake Factory
                                      PF Chang's
                                      Rosa Mexicano

                                      the Food Service and Meat Purveyors were all lined up making deliveries from 6-8AM.

                            2. re: fourunder

                              i have worked primarily in fine dining, including some james beard award chef-owned places. some had relatively small kitchen staffs where dishwashers sometimes did very basic prep, like shelling peas. they were NEVER fed menu items. ever. (nor was anybody else.) i recall one who was eventually promoted to line cook, but that was after about 5 years. others may have moved on and up elsewhere, but i don't know.

                              a handful of peeps wanting to switch careers were taken on-board, but again were started out doing very basic prep in the off-hours or out of the way of the main line during service so that they were not underfoot. it was a very long time before these people moved either to the line or pastry kitchen.

                              in places with bigger staffs i can't recall anybody walking in off the street and getting a prep cook job. i suppose this might be different in lower-priced places?

                              as a manager-in-training for a large high-end steakhouse, i had to spend a week in many positions. even with my culinary school background and years of foh experience, i wasn't much help on the line for just 5 days.

                              line cooks who can execute properly keep the restaurant humming and are an integral part of the place being successful.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                That's a great resume...

                                as for the dishwashers, I feel they are the most important and least recognized employees in the house.....Feeding them a meal that costs only a few dollars is a no brainer for me to keep them loyal.

                                1. re: fourunder

                                  i don't disagree about the heavy lifting done by dishwashers. however, i've never been the one to decide their rate of pay, nor what they eat.

                                  some of my chefs have been shocking skinflints.

              2. re: fourunder

                i've never had a chef who wouldn't let foh people watch or help with some basic prep in the kitchen. it helped you understand how the boh functioned and what went into the dishes.

                that's entirely different than a non-restaurant person simply seeking to improve personal skills.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  Doesn't the OP indicate he is willing to work in a restaurant?

                  1. re: fourunder

                    "mainly to learn and improve upon my cooking."


                    perhaps we are reading this bit differently? am happy to stand corrected if op wants to pursue restaurant work.

                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      My point of view is if someone is willing to work...they are motivated to learn and improve at the same time......they can get paid, instead of paying out.....but, I agree the work can be hard and the commitment is great.

                      As for the classes, hears a school or concept that recently opened in my area. It indicates classes are $75-135, depending on duration....and there are 25 classes a month. Let's say conservatively, a interested party takes one class a week or four a could cost $400-500 for the instruction. It's possible to find a part time position and gradually grow into a more committed schedule.

                      Hopefully, the OP will clarify his intent and desire more specifically

                      1. re: fourunder

                        as already mentioned, an unskilled worker is likely to be doing the most menial of prep work, for free or minimum wage. presuming the op has a full-time job, this isn't a flippity little whimsy of a commitment.

                        depending upon the op's long-term objective time vs. money matters in a big way to most.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          As one who has NO background in restaurants, I'd think the OP would just be in the way if not doing something like peeling potatoes. And that most busy and small kitchens just can't handle any more chaos.

                2. As someone who has been working in a French Bistro, if you want to learn to actually 'cook' (as in getting on the line) you're looking at huge time commitment before most places will let you start turning out food to be served. You should expect to be peeling, chopping, and even dish washing for a few months at first, but if this is what you're expecting it can teach you a ton about food prep and really make you a better cook in and of itself. Just being in that atmosphere will help you pick up on other things as well, and in a kitchen full of helpful people you'll learn much much more than you'd ever expect about things you'd never think of outside of a restaurant kitchen.

                  A kitchen job, however, can be very exhausting and time consuming, and you're generally required at work when everyone else is out socializing (think Friday Saturday nights). Depending on your schedule and what else is going on in your life it's definitely a rewarding and learning-intensive experience, but it might be more reasonable to sign up for a few classes instead. Also in regards to your original question I think I would definitely research a chain restaurant to make sure they're making things from scratch first or just call up somewhere else and confirm most of their menu is made in-house.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: JVHcook

                    I would think that if you want a job at a restaurant you'd have to accept working when it was convenient for them, at the tasks they want you to do. And as JVHcook said, a lot of time peeling, chopping, washing dishes, before you get to actual cooking.

                    So you could learn a lot, but it would take a significant investment in time, and might not be compatible with your day job (not being able to arrive at work before 6pm could be an issue for a restaurant, if you have a 9-5 job.

                    As far as something like offering to work for free if they'll teach you - I think that would depend wildly on the restaurant. For some, it would be too much of a burden, or a distraction while trying to get food out.

                    Before pursuing that sort of deal, I'd check local labour laws, as they may not allow restaurants to use unpaid labour for jobs that are normally paid.