My first real job at the age of 15 (unless you count being a paperboy) was washing dishes and helping out the breakfast cook at a local diner.  By the time I graduated from high school I had worked at a few restaurants and found myself holding down a line position dropping fries and fish fillets into 375-degree oil.  At this point working in a kitchen was all that I knew.  I somewhat reluctantly applied to colleges to appease my parents, but really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  I finally settled on attending school for hotel management – why not – right?  Little did I know, at that point, that working in kitchens was what I would do for the rest of my career.

Had I built a long-term plan at that point – what would I have done differently?  For years now I have preached how important it is to establish your goals and then create a roadmap to get to your eventual destination.  I had no such plan at the age of 16, so like many who will read this article I was stepping out day after day without any direction.  Even while in college there was no real desire to figure it all out – I just took life as it came my way.  Looking back I wish that someone had given me the advice that I so freely now give to others.  So, what if that “someone” had been around to point me in the right direction –what would he or she have advised me to do?  Here are my thoughts (in hindsight):


What lay beyond the dishpit and breakfast griddle?  At the age of 16 I had no idea what the possibilities might be.  Searching for a career and a life at this age was not front and center in my thinking– yet had I known then maybe, just maybe I could have developed a plan.  What is a chef, what restaurant experiences are there beyond grilled hard rolls and eggs over easy, and what does a really great meal look and taste like? 


Cooking for a living would certainly be different than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or rock and roll star, but I had no idea about any of these ways to make a living – nor did any other 16 year old.  My idea of a great meal was fried chicken at KFC.   Cooking methods were not even on my radar and thinking about plating a beautiful dish was foolish because I didn’t know that this was a “thing”.  There were no life-changing meals, no a’ ha moments, and no reason to think that food was anything more than fuel.  Maybe if I had the opportunity to “experience” something more then I would have charged my batteries earlier and built a portfolio of moments filled with: “I want to learn how to cook like that!”


Sure, Millie the short order breakfast cook took me under her wing and because of that I had a chance to flip pancakes, grill hard rolls, make a few omelets and try my hand at eggs over easy, but I never felt the need to ask her more, nor did she offer.  If I had worked with someone who pushed me harder at that age, a person who would challenge me, critique my work, and set my standards at that age – who knows where my career would have gone.


At that early age everyone is impressionable.  We establish our standards and set our sights on a level of excellence based on the environments and the people we work with.  Instead of looking for a job it would have been wise to look for the right job, a place where I could learn, a place that I would respect and a place that would help to form the cook and chef that I would become.


Fact: 16-24 – now that is a dangerous age.  Boys, in particular are not terribly discriminating about the company they keep as long as “fun” is part of the formula.  These early relationships build your character and help to determine the type of person you will become.  It is also the time when your early brand starts to develop.  Thank goodness the internet was not yet a thing back then – so there is little record of the bad decisions that I made and that all of my friends made as well.  A mentor would have helped me to be a bit pickier at times.  At that age you are whom you hang out with.


A career is built on a few core attributes that are developed in a person early on.  Individuals who work on these are destined to be successful at whatever they pursue.  I learned the importance of these a bit later on in my life and they have served me well, but I can only imagine how much more could have been if I had been guided in this direction.  These attributes are dependability, being prepared, remaining organized, completing tasks, and a commitment to excellence no matter how small or large the task.


As much as you think you know – you will never know enough.  Realizing early on that a total commitment to learning your craft is essential to success can be humbling and energizing at the same time.  Successful people are always seeking to find the answers to how, why, and when.  Your education is always in need of a boost – it will never end.  This is what keeps people reaching higher.


Try telling this to a 16 year old.  Look sharp, act like you care, treat others appropriately, use language properly, write in complete sentences, check your spelling and sentence structure, and respect the chain of command.  Yes – these things are important and they work together to build perceptions of who you are and what you might become.

[]         LISTEN

Talk less, listen more – these are great rules of thumb.  This is how we learn, this is how people learn to trust you, and this is how you set the stage to eventually lead others.


As hard as it may be to swallow – you will never become exceptional at anything unless you repeat an act or process many, many, many times.  Do you want to become an exceptional free-throw shooter in basketball?  If the answer is yes – then practice 100 free throws everyday – FOREVER!  Do you want to become noteworthy with your culinary knife skills?  If the answer is yes – then practice those skills and measure them against a standard many, many, many times – FOREVER!  Do you want to become a well-rounded chef?  If the answer is yes –then make sure that you work every possible position in the kitchen many, many, many times –and never allow yourself to stray away from those skills – FOREVER!


There will be many people who will critique your work: employers, peers, employees, and customers.  In the end, the most important critique should come from you.  Am I living up to my own set of standards?  Could I improve on this process?  Is there room for improvement?  These are the questions you need to ask every day.


Take the work that you do seriously.  Cooking is a very important profession that services the physical, emotional, and even spiritual needs of the people for whom you cook.  Don’t ever lose sight of how high everyone’s expectations are of your commitment to doing things correctly, of always striving for excellence.  While you should never take yourself too seriously – your work and its impact is another story.


During your early years in the kitchen be observant and collect those ideas, processes, and beliefs that establish who you are as a person and a food professional.  These will become your stakes in the ground – the things that you are never willing to sacrifice, never willing to put aside.  At some point in your career this is how people inside and outside your circle will identify you.  Know how you want to be identified and stick to your guns.


You have heard it many times before – treat others, as you would want them to treat you.  We are part of a fantastic industry that is filled with diversity – this is one of the most important aspects of working in the business of food.  Honor this opportunity by respecting others for who they are and what they believe.  You may not agree with them, but you can respect them for their own beliefs just like you would expect them to respect you. 

Respect the ingredients that you work with and know how hard a farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheesemaker, bread baker, or salt miner works to bring those ingredients to your table.  If possible – walk a day in their shoes to feel the passion that exists in their work.

Respect the equipment that you work with and treat it as if it were your own.  Respect the business that pays your wages and how fragile their profit margins are.  Do this by controlling waste, being frugal with energy and water, and staying efficient with the tasks that you perform.


Another tough one for a 16-year old, but if you want to chart a course for a career in food know that you are entering the service business.  This means that you should always begin your thinking with the word yes.  “I need you to step aside from your line position for a few hours and wash dishes.  We are getting backed up in that area.”  Your response:  “Yes chef”.  “The guest at table 23 says that this steak is over cooked – we need to fire a new one.”  Your response: “Yes chef”. 


As much as excellence should be your goal in everything that you do, it is just as important to never succumb to the temptation of mediocrity brought about by time, lack of assistance, or changes in environment.  Stay strong.


Don’t dismay – you will make mistakes, you should make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes.  It’s OK, just learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again.  This is where real learning takes place.


Finally, young grasshopper, remember that everything you do contributes to your positive or negative brand.  How you look, how you act, who you associate with, how you talk, what you say, how you set-up your station, how sharp your knives are, how well you follow established cooking methods, the beauty of your finished plates, how dependable you are, and your commitment to constant improvement are the components of your brand.  Your brand is what opens doors to your success.  Be the brand you want to become.


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