Typically, it starts off that way – old enough to work, they’re hiring, no experience required – it’s a job. Maybe it’s a local diner as a dishwasher or assistant to a short order cook; maybe it’s a fast food operation as a “sandwich artist” or grill person for that hamburger chain; or maybe it’s a summer snack bar where you learn to walk through all of the steps. At some level, it is great to have a paycheck, but any real connection to food or cooking is something that rarely crosses your mind. What is important is that at the end of the week there is some cash in your pocket, albeit – not very much. There is never enough to be independent, and certainly no vision of a future in the food business, but for now – it serves a purpose.
For a few, at some point that changes. It might be a “moment” of inspiration, while to others it might be a slow and steady process of acclimation, but in time your thought process changes. It could be that incredible home cooked meal from a grand parent or a family dinner at a friends house; it might be that special occasion dinner at the “nice restaurant” in town when a perfectly prepared steak, chop, or seafood dish arrives at your table; or it might be that first “dare to eat” showdown with a friend when you allow that first fresh oyster to slide down your throat and savor that ocean brininess that is hard to describe – but, there is an a-ha moment when you suddenly realize that what you had been doing is not cooking – real cooking is an art, a passion, a life calling. It could be that transition from the lack of any taste 6 x 6 box of tomatoes that are out of season, to your first heirloom tomato, and then eventually picking a tomato off the vine that was sun sweetened in the month of July – taking a bite and realizing what a gift a tomato can be – but, again, there is a moment.
I say: “If you don’t know how to cook, I’m sure you have at least one friend who knows how to cook. Well, call that friend and say, ‘Can I come next time and can I bring some food and can I come an hour or two hours ahead and watch you and help you?”
– Jacques Pepin
When enlightenment happens, a person who thought he or she was a cook knows that there is so much more to the craft. That – “I wanna be a cook” individual takes a deep breath and makes the commitment to seek knowledge, to experience the lifestyle, to build the skills that are necessary to truly carry the title. There may or may not be a desire to become a chef at this point -today it is all about the craft.
Those entry-level positions offer a multitude of advantages and truly serve a need. They provide work for new entrants into the job market, they offer an immediacy that opens the door to everyone, they fulfill a definitive need in the marketplace, and they can provide an important step in building work ethic and a resume. On the other hand, these jobs rarely include the skills and knowledge necessary to be a cook in any way except title. It is that a-ha moment that sets the stage for cooking to move past being a job.
So how do you know that you have moved past the paycheck and into the realm of a professional cook? Here are some indicators:
YOU KNOW YOU HAVE MOVED BEYOND A PAYCHECK WHEN:
- You are proud of the uniform that you wear.
- When you get excited about that new restaurant cookbook that is being released next month and pre-order it through amazon.
- When asked what your most prized possession might be, and you answer: “my chef’s knife”.
- When almost all of your friends are also cooks.
- When you try to convince your family and friends to tighten up their mise en place.
- When you are walking down the street and constantly shout out “behind!”
- When you wake up in the middle of the night and break out in a cold sweat thinking about your prep for the day.
- When you call in, or stop in to work on your day off to make sure everything is in order.
- When your preferred gift list is a link to Extreme Culinary Outfitters. https://extremeculinaryoutfitters.com/
- When you get excited about visiting a farm, cattle ranch, commercial fishing boat, or flourmill.
- When you own more than three fishing tackle boxes filled with personal culinary tools.
- When you know all of the emergency room technicians at your local Urgi-Care because of the number of stitches that you wear with unusual pride.
- When you start complaining about people who work normal hours as “part-timers”.
- When asked – you can recite the names of the chefs who head the ship of the best restaurants in town.
- When you start building that “bucket list” of restaurants around the world where you must dine before you die.
- When you appreciate and crave a crusty slice of warm, artisan bread fresh from the oven with a smear of salted butter more than just about anything else.
- When you accept that great technique requires discipline and practice.
- When you know that dependability above all else, is the trait that is important in the kitchen.
- When even when you didn’t agree with the chef you know that: “Yes Chef” is important.
- When pride is directly connected to clean plates returning from the dining room.
- When you feel that every plate presented in the pass carries your signature.
- When letting down your fellow cooks would be the most egregious sin.
- When the title of cook, or later on – chef, becomes part of your persona. When your friends introduce you as a cook at such and such restaurant or refer to you as chef, rather than use your name.
When cooks move beyond a paycheck it is due to a shift in attitude, a commitment to self-improvement, a desire to build that palate, a need to truly understand why foods taste a certain way, and how a selected cooking method can elevate that taste and flavor. Many will never make this transition – they may simply use that job as a means to an end and then move on with a different career track – that’s fine. For those who catch the fever – they will never view what they do in the same manner.
There will be many challenges along the way, and ample opportunity to revert back to the “job” mentality: sub-standard wages, lack of benefits, excessive hours, isolating schedules, physical and mental stress, and occasionally a challenging work environment are all there to move the bar in the wrong direction. But, even the most frustrated cook will still admit that this is what he or she loves, this is what he or she was meant to do, and in many cases – “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” This is when becoming a cook moves well beyond a job.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC