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Quite often I have read posts from individual cooks who express a high level of dissatisfaction with their choice to work in kitchens. In some cases this dissatisfaction leans towards contempt – loads of anger pointed at the job and those who employ cooks in service of the guest. While many of the concerns expressed by these cooks has merit (rate of pay, lack of benefits, commitment of hours, etc.) I feel that much of their distaste is a result of their own doing, or lack there of. Maybe I am just fortunate, but I tend to feel that the first job in a kitchen is just a springboard toward opportunities that you can make on your own. This is a reflective moment of my trip and one that many of my friends have experienced as well. This is food for thought.


[]         THAT FIRST JOB:

Like many other chefs – it was that first job at maybe 15 or 16 years of age that set the course of their career. Like many, I was a not so inspired high school student who fell into that first job as a dishwasher. I didn’t know at the time that this would be the start of a lifelong career.


I loved that job. Maybe it was because I received a paycheck for the first time, maybe it was being around food all day long, or maybe it was the immersion into the lifestyle of food service workers that made it special. Whatever it was – I thoroughly enjoyed my time diving for pearls.


At the age of 17, like so many, I was faced with a decision – what was I going to do with my life? My parents saw college in my future – I saw playing drums in a band as my life pursuit. My parents won, so I chose a school that focused on hospitality. Since I loved the dish area and my time assisting the breakfast cook during the daily rush, then maybe I could become a hotel manager some day.


Leaving college after two years I found myself interviewing for an assistant managers job at a Holiday Inn dining room. The manager was brutal during a three- hour interview as he pointed out everything that I didn’t know. In the end he did me a tremendous favor when he suggested I go back into the kitchen, learn whatever I could, and then gradually work my way back into a management opportunity.


I fell into a position as formal apprentice in the kitchens of the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel. This was a real kitchen with a talented and experienced Executive Chef and the classic brigade of chefs and cooks that was established a generation before by Escoffier (or so I learned later on). I rotated through every position from butcher to banquets, garde manger to pastry, and saucier to line work. It was a two-year whirlwind of immersion in a busy 1,200 hotel with hundreds of events every week and two active restaurants. I started to actually learn how to cook and build my confidence. My connection with a diverse team would become invaluable in the future.


As much as I enjoyed and learned in that kitchen, I felt still compelled to move towards a management position. I knew very little about managing operations or managing people. Through a friend I heard of a position as assistant manager in a cafeteria operation. I jumped ship at the Hilton and traded in my chef whites for a jacket and tie. A different type of operation, a significantly different level of commitment to cooking, a union shop, and comfortable cooks without much desire to improve was a real wake-up call. Learning how to interact and try to help others self-motivate was a real education. I struggled and was successful to some degree and failed miserably with other tasks. In the end, I became better at what I did because I took the leap.

[]         IT’S A BUSINESS:

What I did learn was that operating a kitchen is more than producing great food and demonstrating your skill at logistics management – operating a successful kitchen is a business endeavor. I learned about inventories, and recipe costing; I picked up the ability to determine selling prices that work and I discovered the realities of profit and loss. Everything that I did learn through this experience would be essential throughout the rest of my career.

[]         ESCAPE:

All said – as much as I learned, I was totally stressed by the level of resistance to change, the lack of commitment to solid cooking, the 9-5 mentality that I was not accustomed to, and the back-biting environment that came from a lack of team. I had to go back to my happy place – the kitchen. I worked in fine dining restaurants as a line cook, traveled with my wife to Canada to run a kitchen at a experimental school for wayward kids, and finally found myself in the Adirondacks as a chef for a destination resort. It was refreshing and draining at the same time, but it helped me to regain my footing and focus on the importance of food. Yes, it was an escape, but more importantly it was an opportunity to return to my stakes in the ground.

[]         SURE I CAN TEACH:

The toll of the kitchen, like many cooks point out today, is measured in missed family opportunities, excessive hours, physical and emotionally demanding work, and little opportunity for a pat on the back. I was fairly good at what I did and when I felt as if my skills fell short, I simply put in more hours. Something needed to change. I stepped into an opportunity to take on a position as instructor at a hotel management college with a desire to start up a culinary arts degree in the future. This decision would take me through the next 26 years as teacher, department chair, and eventually dean. As comfortable as I was as a cook and chef, I was now very comfortable as a teacher and administrator. I moved from dishwasher to Program Dean – quite a leap.


One of the first things that I understood about teaching culinary arts is that I knew very little about culinary arts. Sure – I worked in busy kitchens, I paid my dues on the line, I prepped for thousands of banquet meals, and I was adept at making stock in 50 gallon kettles and a version of Bordelaise for 1,200, but I really didn’t have a clue about food, how ingredients were grown, why certain cooking processes were done a specific way, what happens during the cooking process, how to develop a palate, or the intricacies of effective plate presentation. In other words – I could cook, but I didn’t have the answers to teach. So, I set out to discover, study, research, shadow, find mentors, participate, and learn. The teaching job gave me an opportunity to become a better chef, and a much more effective teacher/trainer.


Hey – why not. As I learned more about food I became enthralled with pushing myself in competitions. I entered show after show and grew with each experience. I even made it to the Culinary Olympics as part of the New England Culinary Olympic Team and we won more gold medals than any team since. Along the way I discovered the importance of team, not just teamwork. I became friends with some of the most talented people around and built my personal brand on the skills and aptitudes that were a result. I was beginning to really understand food and the importance of what chefs do.


These new friends opened many doors through the competition network, the ACF, The World Association of Chefs, the Research Chefs Association, Slow Food USA and the Center for Advancement of Foodservice Education. My personal network was becoming substantial. Friends are there to help friends.


At one point I was trying to decide whether to team up and take a year to study for the ACF Master Chef exam or take two years and work on a Master’s Degree. In the end I decided on the Master’s Degree that seemed most appropriate in my current career in education. Besides, I felt that my odds of completing an advanced degree were far greater than my chance of passing the grueling Master Chef exam. In 2001 I was recognized as the ACF National Culinary Educator of the Year.


I began to develop programs for students to experience a semester abroad. With incredible international partnerships we created those experiences that allowed students to work in Michelin star restaurants, work the vendage in prominent vineyards, and immerse in the culture of central Burgundy. I traveled to France, Monaco, Germany, Austria, England, Norway and Italy in an effort to grow my network and learn about other cultures. Such an incredible education.


In 2005 I had a falling out with the administration of a college after 26 years and decided to return to industry. It had been some time and I naturally felt a bit out of touch. Could I still get it done as a chef? I promised the owner that we would earn a fourth diamond for food within two years and we made that mark in 2 years and 4 days. Promise delivered. I felt refreshed and reconnected to the industry that I had been teaching students about for decades.


My greatest memory was being invited to represent my employer and cook at the James Beard House in New York City. Such history, such a tremendous honor.


After four years and “mission accomplished” I accepted an opportunity to return to education as the vice president of a school totally dedicated to culinary arts. Now as a senior administrator my new responsibilities included contracts, strategic planning, facilities planning, faculty assessment, curriculum revisions, and accreditation. This was a far cry from cooking, although I took as many opportunities as possible to work alongside the chefs in our kitchens.


After four years back in education I decided it was time to try a hand at entrepreneurship. In 2012 I started a company dedicated to restaurant and culinary school consulting and training. I have presently worked with nearly 40 different businesses through this firm. During this time I wrote two novels and started an industry blog that has attracted almost 1.5 million views.

[]         WHAT’S NEXT?

We all have stories, we all have a love/hate relationship with the field, we all feel a lifelong connection to something bigger than us, something that takes control of us and pulls us in directions that we could never have predicted. I started at the age of 15 as a dishwasher, I sweat on the line of many restaurants, struggled with my own inadequacies, pushed myself to become better, and never thought twice about jumping into something new. What’s your story? Take the time to talk with at least one of those young cooks who fail, at this point, to see the opportunities before them. Challenges are either roadblocks, or steppingstones – help them to see what they might be able to accomplish. You never know.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training