Weekend work continued through the Fall and Winter when I turned 16. I already made plans to work full time at the diner during the summer months. Millie was beginning to involve me in some of her breakfast prep when things were slow. I peeled and diced potatoes for home fries, cracked eggs for scrambled and omelets, and learned how to use the slicer to cut bacon from slabs (this was before layout bacon was a thing). Occasionally, she would call me to help push out a big order by flipping pancakes and French toast on the griddle. I was having a blast and learning a few skills along the way.
Summer came, more college waitresses arrived, and Millie had a chef coat available for me. I moved from washing dishes to her lead prep person and assistant during the breakfast rush. Suddenly, I was on my way to becoming a short-order cook. All through the summer I picked up some basic knife skills, organization, and speed to the point where one morning a week (a slower day) I ran the breakfast and lunch grill by myself. I was in a groove and actually looked forward to going to work every morning.
Throughout this and the following summer I worked alongside Millie. She was a great teacher and fun to be around. She was serious about cooking, even though it was a diner, and made sure that I knew that there was no room for mediocrity. At the beginning of my second summer (just after my senior year in high school) she sat me down for a serious conversation: “Paul, what are your plans for the future?” I looked at her without a smile and said: “I don’t have any plans.” Millie shook her head like she always did and said:
“OK, this is what I see. You are a natural in the kitchen. You pick things up quickly, your knife skills are pretty good, you are fast and efficient, and your plates of food are as good as mine. I just fell into a life in the kitchen after my husband passed away. He was a chef in a nice restaurant downtown and I had been busy raising a family. When he died, I needed to make some money, so I took this job and taught myself how to become a cook. I didn’t have the natural skills or passion that you do, but I made it work. You’re different and I think that you could grow to be good at this craft. There are plenty of opportunities and ways that you might approach this. You could go to culinary school, there are many around, or you could enroll in an apprenticeship, or you could simply start working in a more serious restaurant. I think that this is a calling for you. Whatever you decide, I want you to have this.”
She passed me a large box that I opened cautiously. There were four well-used books and a roll bag with three beautiful knives and a sharpening steel. I looked at her with eyes of appreciation.
“These were my husband’s knives and his most used cookbooks. I want you to have them and use them knowing that he and I will always be by your side as you become a professional cook and maybe a chef someday.”
I can’t remember ever feeling so much emotion and gratitude. All I could muster up was: “Thanks Millie, I will take care of them.”
“Paul, think about what I said, talk it over with your parents, and if you have questions or need help moving forward, please feel free to ask. Now, back to work!”
That day was a turning point for me; a moment of decision that I had not contemplated before. What am I going to do with my life? I like the kitchen and the restaurant world that I have been part of, I am feeling confident here, the people are fun, and my mentor thinks that I could be good at this.
Fast forward a few years. I decided to go with Millie’s recommendation, my parents were happy that I had some direction, I applied to college and packed my knives for a future in the kitchen.
There were bumps along the way, but I never looked back. From breakfast cook I moved to a more formal kitchen during summers while attending school. It didn’t take long before I discovered how little I really knew about food and cooking. The first full-service restaurant chef I worked for was tough. He took no prisoners and had very little patience for incompetence. The one thing I had going for me was that I knew to show up early, always said “Yes chef” to whatever he asked me to do, and I was fast (all thanks to Millie). He took me under his wing and gave me loads of opportunities working banquets, helping on the line as a commis, and getting a taste of real kitchen life.
When I finished college, I moved on to a hotel property that was busier than any place I had ever seen. The chef was the pinnacle of professionalism. He had starched whites with his name and position embroidered over the pocket, and a tall chef toque. He had spent time at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada and was moved to the property where I was working in an effort to add some polish. The kitchen was huge and set-up by department with a lead person in charge of each: garde manger, saucier/potager, pâtissier, boucher, and grillade. I signed up for their apprenticeship program that would give me a chance to rotate through all of these departments.
For two years I worked with serious people who were good at their craft. I didn’t become truly proficient in any one area, but I was exposed and able to hold my own. I worked banquets from 50 to 1,500 people, sometimes engaged in multiple events on a given day. I learned how to trim and tie rib roasts, bone chickens, cut steaks, make a variety of soups and stocks, cook steaks and chops to various degrees of doneness, open clams, and chop and dice with decent speed and accuracy. I was becoming a real cook and learning something new every day. I experienced what it was like to work in a classical kitchen, how the organization worked, and saw, firsthand, how complicated the job of chef really was. Whatever I learned in college paled in comparison to what I was picking up on-the-job. What would be next?
You never know what lies ahead, so when the sous chef told me he was moving to Atlanta as a property chef and asked me to come with him as a sous chef, I was excited. I flew down, toured the property, met the staff, and got a quick feel for the city. I wound up turning it down but moved into a food manager position at a local college. Three years there gave me a taste of managing a department, scheduling, ordering, evaluating, inventory, and being responsible for the financial success of the business. Being away from the kitchen was not where I wanted to be, but the management experience was important and would serve me well as other opportunities might come my way. I returned to the kitchen with a quest of becoming a chef.
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