Painted in Waterlogue

The kitchen is one of those few remaining places where the entry-level employee can aspire to become the chef and even restaurateur. The school of hard knocks is alive and well in kitchens all over the country.

“The School of Hard Knocks is an Accelerated Curriculum”


Cut to the chase – “How do you do that?” The school of hard knocks provides individuals with an opportunity – each and every day, to acquire a new skill through observation, questioning, and action. Watch and learn has been a method of operation used in trades for all of time. This requires a foundation for learning to take place – the foundation includes:

  • A desire to learn and grow
  • A staff with a willingness to share and show
  • An environment that encourages cross training
  • Upward mobility based on ability and willingness to learn
  • An open loop understanding that whatever you are shown how to do must be again shared with others willing to learn

I would hazard a guess that most of those who are reading this article had their start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher. I might even go so far as to say if you didn’t start out as a dishwasher then you are at a disadvantage. I can’t think of a single chef with whom I have worked who did not start by diving for pearls at the pot sink. These individuals are not just filling an important and often maligned position – they are observers of the environment, and window shoppers for a career and a professional purpose. Every dishwasher has the opportunity to be more engaged, and many are the next great chefs waiting to rise up.

It may be unwritten, unless of course a property is fully engaged in an apprenticeship model, but there is a progression that allows that entry level employee to realize that the opportunities before him or her are totally within their control. So, here is how it happens – more often than not:


STEP ONE:                 The DISHPIT

This first course is focused on a diverse skill set that includes understanding the overall mise en place of the kitchen (everything has a place and everything needs to be in place), the value of the most expensive inventory in the restaurant and how to properly care for it, the importance of a clean canvas for cooks and chefs to paint on, organization, sanitation and safety, speed and efficiency, and how to observe the workings of the entire kitchen team. Without this time in the “pit” an appreciation for these important parts of the kitchen operation may never be realized. This is why everyone needs to start with this first course in the curriculum.


Hard knocks students who have aspirations of growing in the kitchen will seek out “extra credit” by filling in any down time with building those basic food prep skills that seem to fit with the “dishpit” schedule. This would include peeling onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, shallots, chopping and washing parsley, cleaning other vegetables, putting away deliveries and rotating stock, checking for freshness and quality, icing fresh fish, and labeling/dating products received. Those who are serious will look forward to adding these skills and learn to become even more efficient in the dish area so that they can dedicate more time to building confidence with basic food handling. Chefs notice this commitment and always make a mental note of this desire for “extra credit”.


Those hard knock warriors who are blessed with working the early shift will typically find that the dish area is crazy busy in waves and that if they are organized and able to stay ahead there will be opportunities to step in and help the breakfast cook during a rush. The best hard knock warriors don’t wait to be asked, they can sense, through observation, when help is important. Stepping on the line, the dish warrior knows how to set up plates with garnishes, add that rasher of bacon or sausage, pull down a dupe when the eggs, French toast, or pancakes are added by the line cook, and proudly call out “pick up!” Like the extra credit for prep work, the line cook is always grateful and will likely let the chef know about the warriors desire to learn and willingness to be a team player.


It is inevitable that at some point there will be a need for another breakfast cook. The hard knocks warrior is ready to take on the challenge and move up from dish warrior to his or her first position as a cook.   After observing technique for months, the eager warrior is prepared to flip eggs, make the batter, cook the bacon, sausage and homefries, and prep the garnishes for a shift. It doesn’t take long to become fairly proficient and win the trust of the service staff. He looks to his left and sees a new dishwasher working his or her way through that first class – willing and able to jump in and help during the rush. What goes around, comes around.


The next progression is typically a move to the prep shift. It might begin as one or two of his scheduled days away from the breakfast line, but the hard knocks warrior is anxious to make this transition – this is where he will learn about food, pick up classic cooking methods, begin to build a palate, refine knife skills, and start to truly feel like a cook. Banquets are a rush when and where the new cook learns about large scale organization, advance prep timing, plating techniques, and the speed necessary to serve large groups in the shortest amount if time. As with normal prep, the new cook also learns about controlling waste, full utilization of ingredients, adjusting technique and seasoning to accommodate variations in raw materials, how to follow standardized recipes, and all the food safety issues that are critical during the prep phase. Before long the cooks schedule has shifted to full time prep and banquets and his confidence level is growing exponentially. This is the culmination of the first phase of the curriculum – success, so far passing with flying colors. The chef makes note that this warrior has the passion and the commitment, and is rapidly becoming competent with a wider range of skills. Soon it will be time for the next move.


The new cook is given a shot at the line – this is the “big dance”. He has watched in awe as the evening brigade entered the kitchen every day with a swagger and determination that can only come from confidence in skills. Now he would be part of this team of pirates. To his dismay, this is like starting all over again. The skills and timing are different, and unlike prep, he is now responsible for learning how to bring all the components of a plate together. He is relegated to the fry station with the majority of items battered, breaded and fried. Pommes Frities, onion rings for the grill, a few fried appetizers and quick items for the bar, and service as the gopher for the more important line positions when they need back ups from the cooler. Oh well, this is the price of admission so the cook is determined to be exceptional at a job that he knew could be easily mastered. It doesn’t take long for the rest of the team to recognize his dedication and enthusiasm, so they begin to give him a chance to step in and learn parts of the sauté station and grill. In short time, the new line cook is filling in on other stations during the slower nights of the week. Mission accomplished – he is now a line cook.


Take a step back – filling in on grill and sauté is different than owning those stations and learning the nuances of organization and timing, and building a palate that allows every dish to taste the same – every time. The cook’s education is only beginning and spending the better part of a year at each of these stations will be necessary before he can proclaim a high level of competence. Learning degrees of doneness, how to stall preparation on an item without losing quality, how to adjust timing during a rush of activity, how to communicate effectively with the expeditor and fellow cooks – all of this will take time.


At this point in the curriculum, the cook is gaining confidence and the respect of his peers. He is confident with breakfast, prep, banquets, and each of the evening line stations. The chef, recognizing this portfolio of skills, promotes the cook to Roundsman. This means that the cook can fill in at any position in the kitchen with the exception of bakeshop and as such carries the first inkling of leadership. Other cooks begin to refer to this kitchen warrior for advice and station tips – the new cook is coming of age and ready to move on to the advanced section of the curriculum.


At this point the hard knocks warrior knows that his career will be in the kitchen and he begins to have visions of eventually holding a chefs position of his own. He also comes to the realization that there is another whole world to the restaurant – the front of the house. He notes that the chef seems to have a solid understanding of this part of the restaurant and is able to communicate quite effectively with the front manager and service staff. He decides to ask the chef if he can spend some time “out front” to develop an appreciation for the service component. The chef agrees to schedule one of his days each week as a back wait so that the warrior can see the front from the perspective of the importance that service has to the whole dining experience. This is eye opening and very educational. The time spent in the front will help to form the type of chef that this kitchen warrior will become in the future.

STEP TEN:                  SOUS CHEF

After a little more than a year as Roundsman, our competent cook/student is ready to move to his final portion of the curriculum – management. The chef is confident that this hard knocks kitchen warrior is nearing graduation, and is ready to become a “bigger picture” leader in the kitchen. The move to sous chef goes way beyond the ability to cook. The sous chef must now play a role in menu planning with the chef, build staff schedules, learn how to take inventories and monitor the financial performance of the kitchen, deal with human resource issues, hire, train, and sometimes discipline employees, determine what and how much to order, and facilitate production and service. During the evening he will step into the role of expeditor serving as the intermediary between front and back of the house and controlling the pace of the line. He jumps in with both feet knowing that this position will be the portal for his career goal. It may take a few years at this level, but our new leader who began as a dishwasher knows that sous chefs become working and executive chefs, and who knows – maybe even a restaurant owner in the future. Just think, less than five years ago he was pushing racks through the machine and stacking dishes for plating on the line. Anything is possible.

The school of hard knocks is as fine a curriculum as you are going to find, one that has been the vehicle for many of the world’s greatest chefs. Our job as chefs is to create the environment for this to happen – time and again.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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