Over the years I have noticed how cooks and chefs can easily be grouped into one of three categories: 1. Excited and on the rise, 2. Content but realistic, or 3. Stuck. In all cases, once a person finds him or herself in the kitchen the feeling is – “this is it”, the kitchen is where I will remain. To some, this is perfect – right where he or she was meant to be, but to others, the opposite is true.
Each category can be more specifically defined as follows:
 EXCITED AND ON THE RISE: Line cooks who enter the kitchen with a vision of where they want to be. A career is mapped out in stages with all of the necessary tools that must be accumulated along the way: prep cook – line cook – roundsman – sous chef – chef – or even restaurateur at some point. This individual understands that the work will be hard, the commitment will be total, the required skills will be substantial, and the personal brand building will be essential.
 CONTENT BUT REALISTIC: The cook who is perfectly content to stay with his or her role as prep or line cook, a person who progressively becomes better at those positions to the point where they are extremely valuable to a restaurant, a person who is fulfilled by what they do, but who understands and fears (to some degree) the reality of age: “I can’t physically do this forever.”
 STUCK: This covers the cook who wound up in the kitchen by default. The work may have seemed intriguing and exciting at first, but the reality of long days, working on his or her feet under conditions of intense heat and high levels of stress have changed the cook’s outlook on a kitchen career. Now, this person sometimes feels like he doesn’t have any other options and as a result, the job becomes a heavy weight on his or her shoulders. The cook feels like there is no way out.
In all cases, most cooks and chefs, if they take the time to look forward, realize that the physical, emotional, and mental toll that kitchen work takes on them will run its course until they can no longer perform at peak level. Once they reach that point the question is always: “Now what?” I have watched the same outcome in professional sports where an accomplish athlete finally realizes that “This is it, I’m done.”
What most cooks don’t realize is that the skills and attitudes that they develop in the kitchen are transferable and highly sought after by other businesses. Far too often a consideration to hire or apply is based on a predisposed feeling that “Oh, you are a cook. I don’t think there is a place in our organization for that skill set.” Note- the skills that all chefs and cooks possess and understand that beneath the surface these are what any company, in any business sector is looking for:
THE KITCHEN IS THE TRAINING GROUND FOR OTHER CAREERS
- Cooks and chefs, by nature, are INQUISITIVE, always seeking to discover and learn more. They want to figure out WHY rather than simply follow a process for the sake of the process. In any business this attribute is what helps a company grow and prosper. EVERY COMPANY WANTS INQUISITIVE PEOPLE.
- Cooks and chefs, over time, learn to allow their CREATIVITY to rise up and shine. As I have stated before, most of the serious cooks that I know are frustrated artists looking for a creative medium where they can express themselves and earn a paycheck. EVERY COMPANY MOVES FORWARD ON THE EFFORTS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE.
- Cooks and chefs, out of necessity must become ORGANIZED AND ORDERLY in the approach they take to their work. We refer to this as mise en place, but in essence every job, every career requires mise en place to ensure efficiency and productivity. EVERY POSITION BECOMES MORE EFFECTIVE WHEN ORGANIZED PEOPLE ARE INVOLVED.
- Cooks and chefs learn very quickly to become PROBLEM SOLVERS. This is an independent process as well as a team process. In a kitchen, every day brings challenges that require cooks to come up with solutions in the moment. The more experience that a cook has, the more fine-tuned his or her ability to solve problems. I CAN’T THINK OF ANY BUSINESS THAT WOULD NOT BE ENHANCED BY EMPLOYEES WHO ARE ADEPT AT SOLVING PROBLEMS.
- One of the first attitudes that cooks and chefs develop is an understanding of the importance of DEPENDABILITY. As Woody Allen once said: “85% of success is showing up.” This attitude stems from an understanding that everyone else in the organization is impacted by every individual’s outlook on being dependable. DEPENDABILITY IS CRITICAL IN EVERY BUSINESS.
- Because the restaurant business is driven by constant DEADLINES, all cooks and chefs learn to build their work around the necessity to get it done when it needs to be done. Cooks cannot put things off till tomorrow. A COMMITMENT TO DEADLINES IS CONSUMMATE TO THE SUCCESS OF ANY BUSINESS.
- Next to family and friends, a cook’s TOOLS are maybe the most important key to every day existence. Cooks understand that they will not be able to function effectively if their tools are not protected and maintained. This goes beyond even the cost of replacement – it is a life lesson that is understood based on experience. EVERY CAREER CHOICE IS DEPENDENT ON CERTAIN TOOLS THAT WILL ALLLOW THE WORK TO BE ACCOMPLISHED AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF EXCELLENCE. ALL BUSINESSES CAN AND SHOULD RESPECT THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND THIS.
- What gets in the way of success in many organizations? By far, one of the greatest obstacles to business success stems from the inability or lack of desire to WORK WELL TOGETHER for the common good. Cooks and chefs learn this early on – success is determined through the effectiveness of a cohesive team. EVERY BUSINESS THRIVES ON TEAMWORK.
- Cooks and chefs know that their success is based on how well they prepare and present food every day, every meal, with every piece of prep. Kitchen employees learn to be OUTCOMES ORIENTED and live by this common belief: “If you don’t have time to do things right the first time, when will you find the time to do them over?” THRIVING BUSINESSES IN TODAY’S HIGHLY COMPETITIVE MARKET MUST HIRE INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE OUTCOMES ORIENTED.
- The effectiveness of employees is not always determined by how well they perform when everything is going well, but rather how well they perform when things are going sideways. Great employees in every kitchen that I have worked in are those who are able to HANDLE THE PRESSURE. Things can always go wrong; deadlines are changed often, the unexpected should always be expected, and those organizations that have EMPLOYEES WHO CAN HANDLE THE PRESSURE WILL ALWAYS RISE TO THE CHALLENGE.
- The best cooks and chefs take great PRIDE IN WHAT THEY DO and are always anxious and willing to sign their work. Every knife cut, stock, sauce, portioned steak, filleted fish, and finished plate is a statement of pride. PRIDE IN WORK BENEFITS ANY ORGANIZATION REGARDLESS OF THE PRODUCT OR SERVICE THEY PROVIDE.
So, for all of those cooks who feel stuck, for all of the cooks and chefs that fear their skills will reach a point of diminishing returns resulting in their ineffectiveness, know this:
The skills that you develop in a kitchen are the exact skills and attitudes that any business would relish. You can move on to something different and feel comfortable with your ability to rise to the opportunity.
To all companies looking for employees who will make a difference, you may want to consider the veterans of the range. I can’t think of anyone who would be better for the task at hand than an experienced cook. The technical aspects of a job may need to be taught, but what cooks bring to the table are skills that are difficult to teach – they must be part of who the person is.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Cook’s and chef’s possess the habit of excellence. This is who we are.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training
Will P said:
I cannot express how comforting this was to read. I’ve been a line cook for 3 years now and at 21 it’s the only job I’ve invested a meaningful amount time into so far. I’ve risen to the lead chef of my kitchen over those years and it’s coming to a point were I am outgrowing my shell; needing to find my next occupational station in my life. I’d felt trapped not that I don’t take pride in what I do it’s that there is more to life for me to accomplish. Just by reading this article it really touched me telling me that the past 3 years wasn’t just running circles I a dead end job;like my mother constantly said, but an investment to my character and a set of valued skills I could not find it I had not chosen this path.
Thank you for giving a young chef hope.