I scratch my head when cooks proclaim that they are held prisoner to a job that isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes they are very explicit and state that their job sucks or that they can’t get ahead. A number, after the pandemic, chose not to return to the kitchen claiming that it was either a dead end or they were not valued. Okay, so there are certainly employers out there who probably don’t deserve good employees, and, in those situations, I can understand some level of discontent, but not to the extreme of stating that being a cook is a dead end. My question to those cooks is: “What are you investing in your career as a cook?”
That’s correct, I asked: “What are you investing in your career as a cook?” Really, there isn’t any such thing as a free lunch when it comes to building a career. You must give and invest in order to receive. The more you know, the more you are able to do, the more competent you are, and the more diverse your skill set – the greater the opportunities. Invest, push yourself, learn, grow, and take a chance – this is the formula on which great careers are built. You want greater pay and benefits – then bring more to the table. If you do and the employer still won’t pay, then go elsewhere – you are marketable if you are great at what you do. Greater pay and benefits don’t come just because you are present. The only time when pay is strictly related to the job title is when you only give back what is expected. Exceed expectations! Trust me – when this occurs, great opportunities will come your way, but not before.
Argue with me if you like, but I’m telling you the truth. Your future is in your hands. The opportunities are limitless if you take responsibility for your own upward mobility. So, let’s assume that you are at least somewhat intrigued by my theory – what should you be doing to get on this yellow brick road to success? Here are eleven to consider:
- COMMIT TO LEARNING: Read articles, food history books, professional cookbooks, stories of chefs with their words of wisdom (see list at end of this article), volunteer to work with accomplished chefs after hours, ask for additional responsibilities that provide a chance to learn something new. DON’T STAY IDLE! Commit to learning something new every day – yes, EVERY DAY! It might be something small such as how a vegetable is grown or why you caramelize a mirepoix, or the best potato for hand cut French fries – something that methodically builds on your base of knowledge.
- ASK QUESTIONS: The chef you work with or for is in the position because he or she has done something to earn it. They probably know more than you about something in the kitchen – ask them how they do it and ask them to show you how. Be eager for a change, I doubt there are many chefs who would turn you down. Be the one who obviously wants to learn – they will take notice. Maybe inventory is not part of your job, but it will be if you want to become a chef someday. Ask the chef if you can help – even if you do so on your day off without pay. This is how you build your bag of tricks and broaden your value.
- VOLUNTEER: Is there a fundraising event in your community that engages chefs in the preparation of a meal? Volunteer to help. You might just learn something, AND you will start to build something important – your network.
- NETWORK: Make your list of accomplished cooks, chefs, managers, entrepreneurs whom you would like to emulate. Make contact, introduce yourself, ask if there is a way you can talk with them, help them out, cook with them, wash dishes, whatever – connect and start adding them to your list of mentors. You never know when they might help with your career.
- JOIN: Become a member of the local chef’s chapter of the American Culinary Federation, join the Bread Bakers Guild, Slow Food, USA, or the State Restaurant Association. Commit to learning from others, finding out what’s going on in the industry, attend workshops, take on-line courses, or simply attend local meetings to network and get your name out there.
- LEARN ABOUT WINE AND BEER: This is where the profit is in restaurants and long-term, those cooks who know these products will be more balanced as a chef. Take an in-person or on-line class, participate in tastings, ask your restaurant manager or sommelier for some pointers – it is not only a good career move, but it can also be fun!
- PAY ATTENTION TO PROFIT: talk to your chef about this. This is a business of pennies so buying right, storing properly, planning correctly, following procedures and recipes, portioning, controlling waste, and designing effective menus are essential tools in leading a restaurant to profit. In demand chefs are not only masters of cooking, but they’re also smart businesspeople.
- STUDY PEOPLE: This is a people business – those who we work with and those we serve are your key to success. Learn to listen to them and seek to discover how to follow first and then how to lead.
- TRAVEL AND TAKE AN INTEREST IN CULTURE: If you want to be a great Italian, French, Mexican, Asian, German, Cajun, or Southwestern cook then study the people of those regions, their traditions, their history, their ingredients, and their passion for who they are. This is an essential ingredient of any cuisine.
- Be professional – ALWAYS! Look like a professional, wear the uniform with pride, groom like a professional, talk like a professional, learn to write properly like a professional, approach others in a professional manner and build your brand. When in a position to do so – insist that others follow suit. Promote a workspace that is the benchmark for everywhere else.
- WATCH YOUR ON-LINE PERSONA: what you post is there FOREVER! Every potential employer will look at your social media presence – what will they find? Bragging about your latest drinking spree, posting pictures of marijuana leaves, obscene gestures, or political rants, or inappropriate comments will haunt you. Clean it up – this is part of your resume now.
Do this and I guarantee that others will notice, opportunities will come your way, you will be proud of who you are, your results will speak for themselves, the money and benefits will come without asking, and you will have loads of fun. INVEST IN YOUR SELF AND STOP FEELING SORRY FOR YOUR CURRENT STATE. BE THE SOLUTION.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food
ESSENTIALS FOR YOUR CAREER LIBRARY:
- LETTERS TO A YOUNG CHEF: https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Young-Chef-Daniel-Boulud/dp/0465093426/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672426795&sr=1-3
- THE APPRENTICE: https://www.amazon.com/Apprentice-My-Life-Kitchen/dp/0544657497/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672426718&sr=1-1
- SETTING THE TABLE: https://www.amazon.com/Setting-Table-Transforming-Hospitality-Business/dp/0060742763/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672426850&sr=1-1
- WHAT TO DRINK WITH WHAT YOU EAT: https://www.amazon.com/What-Drink-You-Eat-Definitive/dp/0821257188/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3I7BRMQENU3V1&keywords=What+to+Drink+with+What+you+Eat&qid=1672426915&s=books&sprefix=what+to+drink+with+what+you+eat%2Cstripbooks%2C123&sr=1-1
- THE FLAVOR BIBLE: https://www.amazon.com/Flavor-Bible-Essential-Creativity-Imaginative/dp/0316118400/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2CVKQYMTMHAT4&keywords=The+Flavor+Bible&qid=1672426992&s=books&sprefix=the+flavor+bible%2Cstripbooks%2C112&sr=1-1
- BECOMING A CHEF: https://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Chef-Andrew-Dornenburg/dp/0471152099/ref=sr_1_1?crid=LVOGEX45YAEG&keywords=Becoming+a+Chef&qid=1672427041&s=books&sprefix=becoming+a+chef%2Cstripbooks%2C113&sr=1-1
- LA METHODE: https://www.amazon.com/Methode-Jacques-Pepin/dp/0671504959/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672427104&sr=1-1
- THE SOUL OF A CHEF: https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Chef-Journey-Toward-Perfection/dp/0141001895/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672427156&sr=1-1
- LESSONS IN EXCELLENCE: https://www.amazon.com/Lessons-Excellence-Charlie-Trotter/dp/0898159083/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZIG0MBM0MN6R&keywords=Lessons+in+Excellence&qid=1672427202&s=books&sprefix=lessons+in+excellence%2Cstripbooks%2C109&sr=1-1
- THE THIRD PLATE: https://www.amazon.com/Third-Plate-Field-Notes-Future/dp/0143127152/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1672427252&sr=1-1
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