Even though there are certainly aspects of the job of “cook” that can and should change, there are others that truly define what it means to hold that title. Do you have what it takes? Do you really know what will separate you from the pack and set you up for a long and successful career in the kitchen? These are questions that should be asked, but seldom are as young people and older career changers begin their track to chefdom.
Every significant decision in life should be made with due consideration to its merit and your ability to see it through. Without truly analyzing the cost/benefit of and feasibility for success, a large decision will often lead to disappointment or failure. To this end – I would encourage anyone who is contemplating a career in restaurants to pull out a piece of paper, work through the following questions, and answer them as honestly as possible. I guarantee that your truthful answers will lead to a better decision.
You know that you have what it takes to be a cook if you have…
As much as we would like to change some of the requirements for long days, never being off your feet, grueling temperatures, and relentless stress – the restaurant business requires a level of stamina that few others can match. Do you have it?
 PHYSICAL STRENGTH
Stamina aside, cooks are constantly lifting, bending, reaching, and grappling with heavy pots full of stock, strap pans with 109 ribs, working through 7-8 pound salmon, slinging 50 pound bags of onions and cases of 100 count potatoes, lifting sauté pans in and out of finishing ovens, and grabbing the French knife at the bolster as it glides through relentless piles of vegetable mise en place. At the end of a shift, every muscle in a cook’s body, aches as if he or she just spent 60 minutes on the football field getting pounded by an aggressive defensive back. Do you have the physical strength?
As physically hard as the work is, the cook must be light on his or her feet. The cook performs a choreographed dance every night on the line as he or she gingerly moves a sauté pan avoiding a slip into pan frying, balances plates during set-up and with blistered, burned, and cut fingers that are oversized from physical pounding – sets a perfect garnish of micro greens with a pair of tweezers, and sauce reductions through a squeeze bottle. Do you have it?
 MENTAL ACUITY
Sometimes, above all else, the cook has to be mentally sharp. He or she must remember not only the steps in preparation of multiple menu items, but also the exact flavor profile of each dish. The cook must be able to adjust to reach that flavor goal consistently. He or she must be able to mentally sort and catalog multiple preparations simultaneously as the tickets are called off in rapid succession by the expeditor and never fail to remember where each dish is in the process of cooking. Timing is all about mental acuity. Do you have the mental acuity?
 A WILLINGNESS TO LISTEN
A person who is destined to be a cook must be able to concentrate on what is being said, delineate what is important from what is trivial, truly listen to details and not simply hear what is being said, and know that during the heat of service there is no time to repeat. When the expeditor calls out an order, the expectation is that each cook burns it to memory, catalogs it, and knows exactly what needs to be done. Are you a focused listener?
 ABILITY TO FOLLOW A LEAD
There are many things that happen in a kitchen that do not involve verbal communication. Sometimes they occur because everyone understands the sequence, sometimes it is because another cook, the chef, or the expeditor looks their way or gives a nod. Just like a quarterback giving an audible on the line, every serious cook needs to be able and willing to follow the lead and adjust if necessary. Do you have it?
 COMMITMENT TO ORGANIZATION
What defines a cook in a professional kitchen can be summarized with the term: mise en place. Cooks are organized to a fault. Cooks cannot tolerate an unorganized station, a cluttered work area; a poorly cut vegetable or portioned steak. A cook lives and breathes organization. Good cooks must have everything in place down to the way that side towels are folded. Do you have it?
 GREAT BUDS
There is one skill that is difficult to teach. It is more than a skill it is a physical ability. Some are born with it, some have the foundations that can be trained, but those who do not have the capacity will always struggle to be good at the craft of cooking. Great cooks have great taste buds. They are able to distinguish nuances in flavor, identify individual ingredients, know what is lacking, and remember how to replicate a certain flavor profile from memory. Do you have it?
 ABILITY TO FOCUS
Watching a great cook is enlightening. When cooks are in the zone their entire being is in tune with the process, the order, the team communication, and the pursuit of consistent excellence in cooking. This is absolutely critical. Are you focused?
 COMPOSURE TO ACCEPT CRITIQUE
Cooks learn through critique, not criticism. Even though the definition varies, in both cases the cook must be able to listen to evaluation of his or her work, listen to what is lacking and what needs to be done differently, learn to not take it personally, but use the critique as a learning tool and grow from it. Cooks who are crippled by the emotion of another persons critique will have a tough time getting through a shift. Do you have it?
“We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly, and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship.”
-Michel de Montaigne-
 THE STRENGTH TO BE SELF CRITICAL
The best cooks know what they need to do to improve. He or she understands that the standards that they hold high must be equal to or more stringent than those of the chef. A good cook is his or her own worst critic, thus they are always looking to improve. Are you self critical?
 PASSION FOR FOOD
Conversations with cooks may drift to the mundane and the trivial at times, but for the most part, serious cooks are fascinated by food. They want to learn as much as they can, taste whatever is new, and become articulate communicators of ingredient nuances. Are you passionate enough?
 THE DESIRE TO WORK AS A MEMBER OF A TEAM
There is little room in a kitchen for individuals who want the limelight. The successful kitchen is a place of team, a mecca for people who believe that the sum of the parts is better than the quality of any individual component. Great kitchens are a result of great teams. Are you a team player?
 THE DESIRE TO DO THIS
How badly do you want to pursue a career in food? Is this your calling, the one thing that will define you, the role in life that will help you to make a difference and satisfy your desire to be expressive? Do you have the desire to be a cook?
“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principle contain it or stand against it.”
 THE SENSE TO BE PROUD BUT HUMBLE AT THE SAME TIME
Cooks take great pride in their work, in a perfectly cooked dish, in a beautiful food presentation, in that rare compliment from a server or the chef, and in a busy night with no cook overs or re-fires. At the same time, cooks realize that their individual success on any given night is due to the work of others and they are not inclined to revel in what some might consider their good work. Are you proud, but humble?
Take the test; check your commitment and mindset. Does this sound like you? If it does, then the kitchen is the right place for you. If it’s right then go after it with everything you have – don’t look back – only look forward with a strategy and 100% commitment. If not – find your passion elsewhere.
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training