Wanna be a chef? Do you watch the big network and cable cooking shows and competitions and think to yourself, “I want to do that! I want to create innovative recipes and presentations and sell them to the people and make lots of money and maybe one day, if I play my cards right, become a celebrity chef!”?
If you do think this to yourself, you should consider the following: You have to work in a professional kitchen in order to become a professional chef.
I am a cook in a Mediterranean restaurant on the far west side of San Antonio, Texas. We have few cooks, so all of us do everything in our kitchen: prep, cook, clean—and, in the worst of times, seat, take orders, and bus.*
Allow me to share with you a recent episode that occurred in our kitchen.
A few weeks ago, two new cooks showed up for orientation. As usual, I hadn’t been informed that they were coming in to begin training, but that’s neither here nor there. They were both young, appearing to be in their very early twenties. One of them had never had a real job before and the other was currently working as a cook in a corporate kitchen for a big driving range (golf) chain.
They came in on a Thursday for their first full shift, just as the weekday lunch rush was dying down. There was about a ton of dirty dishes, a few hundred square feet of dirty floor, two full 60-gallon garbage bins, a couple of prep cooks with a 5-hour prep list, and I was single-handedly working the tickets that were coming in while my chef took a break.
Chef came into the kitchen and told them to go ahead and knock out the dishes, then he’d start them on slicing and dicing vegetables. After about thirty minutes, one of the new cooks came and asked me if I’d seen the other new guy. I hadn’t, and I asked him about the last time he saw the other guy. He said, “About twenty minutes ago.”
I checked the kitchen, the hookah lounge next door, the delivery hallway, and the restroom. No second new guy. I told my chef and he went outside and made a circular check of the plaza we’re situated in and its parking lot. The dude had just disappeared. He was still clocked in.
Half an hour later I took my break. I was discussing the sudden disappearance with Chef when his phone’s text notification sounded.
The message: I quit. I can’t work in those conditions.
That was it. My chef and I ruminated about the conditions he was referring to. It had been just an ordinary weekday lunch rush.
Now, I had applied and interviewed for the same job the vanished guy had had at the driving range. At the interview, the Executive Chef gave a detailed layout of the operation: prep was handled by prep cooks on the morning shift, there were dishwashers on each shift, every cook had a station that was pretty much their whole responsibility, and the closing cooks supervise the kitchen. Pretty much the same routine as in our kitchen: work.
If you’re a new cook or hoping to start working in a kitchen as an introduction into the culinary labor force, beware: there is work to be done. One doesn’t just show up, turn and burn, then leave. Oh no.
If you envision a dream job and are looking for adventure, beware: there is work to be done. You can sign on to be a cook and end up washing dishes. You can sign up to be a cook and end up slicing and dicing and making sauces and cleaning walk-ins and freezers. You may take out trash. You may wipe up blood spills and organize the storage spaces. You may sweep and mop. You may clean up the Chef’s mess after he or she is done doing secret things. You may even run to the grocery store and get a case of cucumbers real quick, before the soup is done. All of this might occur before you’re even able to touch the grill.
This is kitchen!
Fire and knives, baby! Fire and knives! And sweat. And back pain. And joint pain. And low pay. And long hours.
If you wish to become a chef, that means you wish to become a cook. If you wish to become a cook in today’s kitchen, leave your Food Network dreams at the door.
* Set and clear tables and assist wait staff.