I have often stated that people don’t choose a career in the kitchen; it chooses them. Those who currently work in restaurant kitchens need only look around the space they call home for 60 plus hours a week to see individuals who simply found themselves in their current role as if a magnet had drawn them there. They may have taken that first job – dishwasher, prep cook, sandwich maker, simply out of need for a paycheck, but it doesn’t take long for those who don’t fit to find their way out the back door. Those who remain seem to just belong. This is where they were meant to be.
I just read a terrific article by Jessica Hagy, contributing writer for Forbes, titled: 20 Ways to Find Your Calling. What was most telling about this piece was the compatibility with my theory about a career in the kitchen. She talks about finding “fit” and not worrying about what you will do tomorrow, what other people think, making long term strategic plans, or following someone else’s dream. She continues with advice that rings very loud: “Don’t confuse your job with a purpose.” When you find that fit, when things start to click, then you may have found your calling, what you were meant to do.
Do you doubt whether or not cooking is the right path for you? Good! Doubt may very well be an indication that it is time to go in another direction before you feel as though you might be stuck. This is where I feel that our system of career “choice” has gone sideways. We (our society) lead young people to believe that they must choose very early on and then commit to an arduous and expensive college education in preparation for that choice. Wow! Think about this for a moment, how many people do you know who invest four or more years in a college education only to decide afterward that this was not the career for them? It has become the right of passage for 18 year olds to move directly on to college, forcing a choice at some level, establish a line of credit and proceed to accumulate enormous debt by the time they are in their early 20’s.
Work before college allows a person to test the waters, add a few birthdays, build people skills, accumulate some skills, and potentially find that fit, before the commitment.
Let’s take a moment to consider a kitchen checklist that may help you to decide if a career behind the range is right for you:
- When you walk into your kitchen at work do you immediately feel at home?
- Do you enjoy being around other people who seem to have found their place in the kitchen?
- Are you excited to work with new ingredients when they arrive?
- Do you treasure your knives as some of your most prized possessions?
- Are you religious about sanitation and food safety?
- Are you pumped if a fellow cook or the chef tastes your food and says that it is exceptional?
- Do you tend to show off your battle scars: burns, cuts, stitches like they’re badges of honor?
- While working on the line are you constantly looking at plates returning from the dining room to ensure that customers ate every bite?
- Are you upset when a dish that you prepared sits too long under a heat lamp? Not just because you may need to re-fire it, but more importantly because you are angry that servers failed to respect your work?
- When friends or family ask you what you might want for a gift, you automatically pull out a “bucket list” of cookbooks.
- Do you save up your hard earned money to make a reservation at a restaurant you have heard great things about?
- Do you feel pride when you are in uniform?
- If your chef says that a feature you created is going to wind up on the next menu, do you feel as though the world is suddenly your oyster?
- Do you find that a 50-hour workweek was a light week? Are you confused by people who work a 9-5 shift?
I could go on and on, but you get the point. If you answered “yes” to most of these, then I think it is safe to say that you have found your niche. Now, if you are that person, and you are serious about sticking with it, becoming a chef and maybe someday and entrepreneur, then it is time to think about the value of an education.
To decide on attending culinary school before spending some serious time in a professional kitchen is just crazy. Those serious individuals who after time on the line find themselves in culinary programs are like a sponge. They are anxious to learn anything and everything about their craft. The degree or certificate is enlightenment, support for the “why” as well as the “how” and will serve to push your resume in the right direction.
There is no question that this same logic could be applied to many careers, and certainly to any individual. A calling cannot be forced; it must find the individual. Once it is there, you will know it. Enjoy the ride, be open to what may present itself to you, and if it happens to be in the kitchen then welcome to the club.
The photo in this article is of four great friends and chefs who found their calling in the kitchen, or should I say – it found them.
Chefs Charles Carroll, me, Michael Beriau, Joe Faria, Walter Zuromski
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