Still one of my favorite and sobering quotes comes from the band “Little Feat” when they proclaimed: “You know – that you’re over the hill when you mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.” It would be false to claim that the aging process doesn’t take a toll. We steadily lose many of…
This is the time of the year when culinary schools pass out diplomas and send their graduates out into the world of professional cooking. These young culinarians are eager, full of energy and loaded with ambitious ideas about who they are, what they are capable of today and where will be in a short period of time. Many are ready and some are not, but with that degree in hand they step outside in pursuit of their dreams. As graduates begin the process of starting their career I always feel compelled to leave them with a checklist that will, I am sure, serve them well in the years to come. These are not my thoughts alone; they represent the collective feelings of chefs, managers, fellow cooks and restaurateurs with whom I have had the pleasure to work. So..I would encourage each graduate to read and re-read these thoughts or lessons, fold them and keep them in your wallet for reference multiple times during your career with food.
1. TREASURE TRADITIONS: The profession of cooking has a long and arduous history. Many, many chefs came before you and tirelessly worked to build a place for cooking in the halls of serious professionals. How they looked, acted, approached others, relished food and the processes that they developed over decades will always and should always have a place in your consciousness and in your actions as a serious cook. Don’t forget what came before.
2. BE PATIENT: Your career is a journey, not a destination. It will likely take you 5 years or so to get to that first sous chef position and maybe another 5-10 before reaching Executive Chef. This is an investment you must be willing to make.
3. STAY PROFESSIONAL: Yes, there are numerous examples of unprofessional kitchen environments to choose from. There are those who yell and scream, belittle and undermine, treat others with contempt, fail to thank but rather choose to always find fault; those who are careless with product and do not respect their commitment to the source, the place or the guest. Do not fall into the trap. You have been taught to take the high ground. Stay there and be the example for others.
4. RESPECT OTHERS: One of the most beautiful things about working in kitchens is that they are some of the most diverse working environments to be found anywhere. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to learn about other cultures and beliefs. Remember that at least in the kitchen everyone is equal. Respect others for who they are and they will respect you.
5. YES CHEF: As much as you think you know, there is so much more to learn. The person who holds the title of chef has invested many years to reach the position that he or she currently holds. It is his or her kitchen! The best way to learn and set a path for professional growth is to respect the chain of command and know that if the chef expects something done a certain way, your response should always be YES CHEF (unless it violates rule #3 and in that case still say Yes Chef but start looking for a new environment).
6. THE FOUNDATIONS WILL NEVER DO YOU WRONG: All those hours that you spent in your foundational classes in school were the most important parts of your education. How to hold a knife, vegetable cut dimensions, the basic cooking methods, how to caramelize, the proper way to build a stock, etc. are relevant no matter what style of cooking or type of food that you will work with.
7. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP: Each day before you start your shift make sure that your tools are in order. Use a stone and keep that chef’s steel close to your work area. A sharp knife makes the work much easier, reduces the opportunity for injury (as long as you respect the knife) and is kinder to the product you are working with. A serious chef will check your knives and know how serious you are as a cook.
8. SANITATION AND FOOD SAFETY IS YOUR OBLIGATION: Nothing is more important than proper food handling and your commitment to the safety and well being of your guest. Don’t ever forget those rules of operation that were taught in Food Sanitation.
9. RESPECT THE SOURCE: Food is not something that simply appears off the tailgate of your local or regional food vendor’s truck. A farmer, producer or manufacturer somewhere dedicated their passion to preparing those raw materials for your hands. It is the dedication of the farmer that makes a carrot delicious. Your job is to protect, nurse and define those natural flavors.
10. BE DEPENDABLE: You will quickly learn that the most important trait of a kitchen employee is being dependable. Will they show up on time, with the right attitude, prepared to work and consistent in their approach to their responsibilities? Be the example. The chef can work with any other shortcomings, but a lack of dependability has no place in a kitchen.
11. LEARNING NEVER STOPS: The diploma in your hand is not an end game. Walking across that stage was just the beginning of your formal education. Every day in the kitchen provides a new opportunity to learn something that was not part of your repertoire before or improve on something that you are familiar with. Grab on to every opportunity to learn and know that SOMETIMES THAT MIGHT MEAN “OFF THE CLOCK”!
12. LOOK CHALLENGES SQUARELY IN THE EYE: “I can’t”, just doesn’t fly. When a person says, “I can’t” what they really mean is: “I won’t”. If you don’t know how then ask or research the answer. You will never further your career unless you understand that the only answer is YES, I WILL.
13. STAY HEALTHY: You will be of little use to a chef if you are not in good health. Eat a balanced diet, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, see a doctor yearly, drink in moderation, get enough sleep and maintain those important relationships with friends and significant others. It is the WHOLE person who will become that successful chef in the future.
14. TAKE CARE OF YOUR FEET: You may think that this is a redundant statement after #13, but your feet are SO IMPORTANT to your well being as a cook. Buy the right shoes, change them during long shifts, wear white socks when working, soak them after those twelve -hour days and never take them for granted.
15. RESPECT THE EQUIPMENT IN THE KITCHEN: You will quickly learn that equipment will not hurt a person; it is the person who does not respect the equipment who will hurt him or herself. Meat slicers (if I see another person cleaning a slicer while it is still plugged in I will go ballistic) are only dangerous in the wrong hands, pressure and convective steamers will only burn those people who don’t use common sense, wet towels and hot pans do not work well together, liquids and hot oil in a pan are not friends, 10 gallon stock pots full of liquid that is not properly lifted and carried will be unforgiving to your back, and that great tool: the mandoline will do the same things to your fingers that it does to a zucchini (use protective gloves or a guard when slicing). Then there is the cost of all that equipment that must be shown respect. The blade from the Robot Coupe does not belong in the pot sink (you use it – you clean it), the dicing blade for that same machine falls under the same rules. Each piece of that equipment will cost the operation hundreds of dollars to replace because of your carelessness.
16. WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS IN GOD’S EYES: An idle moment in the kitchen is a chance to jump in and help someone else. That dishwasher has an awful job, but one that is absolutely crucial to the restaurant. Help him or her out! Ten minutes jumping in on the dish machine or washing some of your own pots will show that person that you care and be reflective of point #4.
17. BECOME A SERVICE PIONEER: We work so that others may play. The guest is the guest and your task is to allow them to have an exceptional experience in the restaurant. Don’t fight their requests, learn to adapt and WOW them with your desire to go the extra mile.
18. READ, TRAVEL AND INVEST IN BUILDING THE RIGHT FRIENDS: Great chefs are worldly individuals who understand other cultures either through hands-on experiences or at least by reading as much as they can about them. Broaden your horizons, associate with other cooks who are equally interested in this endeavor and make the investment in this important part of your life.
19. BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE AND STAY CONNECTED: Join professional organizations like the American Culinary Federation, Retail Bakers Association, National Restaurant Association, Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food, USA, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, etc. and make a list of those individuals and groups that would be beneficial to your career. Seek them out, introduce yourself and stay connected. Most importantly – find a mentor who is willing to take you under his or her wing and offer you honest and sincere advice along the way. All of these connections may be integral to your future.
20. INVEST IN BUILDING YOUR BRAND: How do you want people to view you? When individuals call your references how would you like those people to portray you? What words would accurately describe the type of person and cook you are? Spend the time and invest the effort in clearly defining and maintaining this image. It is your brand that will be important in the future. Remember it is hard work to build a positive brand, but only takes a single mistake to ruin it. Be aware of this, even with the little things like: the message on your voicemail, the posts of you on Facebook, what you say on Twitter, how you dress and groom yourself, the language that you use and so many other things that will set the tone for your brand. Do what you want, but be aware of how you may be perceived.
21. GIVE BACK: You are fortunate to have a degree or the experience to hold down a significant job. Others have helped you along the way. You are able to work at a job that gives you immense satisfaction. Your career, if you set the stage properly, will have very few limitations. Knowing this should occasionally give you pause. Take that minute to do something for others. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, teach a class, help a farmer, donate to a worthy cause, work on a fund raising dinner, take the time to thank your teachers and give back to the college or school of hard knocks that brought you to this place. Food people are very generous – be one of them.
You have chosen a fantastic career. Foodservice will provide you with a great deal of satisfaction, some trials and tribulations, opportunities to grow and experience other parts of the country or world, meet interesting and passionate people, serve others and bring sunshine to their day and create beautiful food with your own hands. It is a truly special career track and you should feel fortunate to be part of it. Best of luck –make your success – it is in your hands.
I would recommend two essential books for your early library. Rush out (I am serious) today to purchase them. This is your first “post graduate” investment in your future.
Letters to a Young Chef by: Chef Daniel Boulud
Tasting Success by: Chef Charles Carroll
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com
Progress isn’t always for the better. I have taught for many years that America is now a service-based economy and that this transition is a natural progression that we must learn to adapt to. The problem is that we are forgetting how to make things. We are terrific users of goods and outstanding providers of the services that drive our economy, yet is this really progress?
What was most telling to me was an interview a while back with Tim Cook from Apple when he was asked why so many of their products were outsourced overseas (that is beginning to change by the way) and his response was unexpected. I am paraphrasing, but in essence he said it was less to do with the cost of manufacturing in the United States as it was the difficult time they had finding people with the right skills to do the work. Wow! Ironically, I get a similar response from chefs and restaurateurs when asked why they don’t hire more students from culinary schools.
If you look back, not too far back, you can see how quickly things have changed. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, every student who attended elementary school and sometimes into high school was enrolled in either “shop” (wood or metal) or “home economics” where they built some foundational building or cooking skills. In both cases students were learning how to make things with their hands. There is something incredibly gratifying about building anything that takes form. It is a life skill that allows people to see, touch and experience the power of learning.
As a teacher, I have always found that the tactile experience that students have with making things benefits them in more ways than simply the thrill of creation. Making things requires students to use, really use those core academic skills that will allow them to carrying on with a successful career in the future. To build requires math, communication, physics, sometimes chemistry, problem solving, teamwork, physical conditioning, analysis and in many cases an understanding of history and other social sciences. To build and create is to become a well-rounded individual with opportunities to be successful in a career and in life.
Some students may use this skill of building as a stepping stone for a career in the trades while others utilize the planning and problem solving applications associated with making things in other careers that may not require them to build or fix, but rather lead others in the accomplishment of those tasks.
Physiologically, the human body is designed to build things whether it is a house, computer, automobile or plate of restaurant quality food. Our hands are two of the best tools ever designed with the ability to sense, feel, manipulate and mold a product into something that is wonderful to see, use, experience or even taste. Your body, with its intricate muscle and bone structure is calibrated to move to the needs of instruments of design and construction, lift, carry, turn and deliver. Everything about the body is built to be creative and to make things that work and satisfy. We were not designed simply to hold a keyboard. To not properly use the body in this fashion is depriving that human form of its rightful use. To not allow a student to actively use the body in this fashion, to not demonstrate and teach them how to unleash the potential of this human creative machine is to deprive them of their birthright and an enormous sense of satisfaction.
Teachers are always looking for ways to allow the “light bulb to turn on” in the classroom; I can tell you from experience that it happens easily and often when the student is allowed to apply knowledge to the creation of a tangible product.
I have wondered why there is such a surge of interest in pursuing careers in culinary arts and the more I investigate the more I come to the same conclusion: people love to create, they have a real desire to make things for themselves and for others, to realize that sense of purpose when something that they invest their time in takes physical form.
America grew as a country based on our ability to make things better, faster and more efficiently than anyone else. Edwards Deming pushed American industry to constantly look at the creation of value based on the highest level of consistent quality, at the most appropriate price. What he never would have imagined was that we would fail at teaching new generations how to visualize and have the skills necessary to actually make things to manage in this fashion.
Educo is the Latin root word for Education. The literal translation of this word means to draw forth. When education works it is because teachers succeed in building those tangible skills in their students allowing them to participate in their own enlightenment, their own education. As a society we must consider spending more time training as part of the educational process and then allow our young people the freedom to create and build. In his recent book: “Shop Class at Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work”, Matthew Crawford wrote:
“For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing. On both economic and psychological grounds, Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a “knowledge worker,” based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing, the work of the hand from that of the mind.”
This same principle can be applied to those classes in culinary arts or home economics, art and music that build an environment when students can take their acquired knowledge, build things that have substance and demonstrate the innate abilities that everyone is born with.
There is a national debate taking place around “core curriculum” and defining what is important and critical in America’s education model. I would suggest that any core curriculum involve hands on application through courses that show and allow students to participate in the process of making things. Whether our young people take these core skills to a career in the kitchen, the wood shop, the engineering firm, or the computer company is not the issue, the issue is providing them with the skills to chose to move in those directions if they want and to have the ability to do so.
Not everyone can become a chef, but everyone can learn to cook and feel the satisfaction derived from creating a dish. Not everyone can become a woodworker, architect, electrical engineer, computer designer or graphic artist, yet everyone can benefit from the skills that are the foundation of all of these trades. In the process they will learn how applicable all of the “core concepts” are to life. Math, communication, social science, physics and chemistry are essential in any and every tactile profession. Let’s train and teach at the same time, it is what education should be about.
Support the trade and tactile skill classes in your local school – it is important!
PLAN BETTER- TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
A few years back I read of an interview with a prominent chef who was asked: “what is the difference between a chef and the millions of cooks throughout America.” The response, to me, was a perfect definition: “Most reasonably intelligent people can follow a recipe with mixed results, a chef can be given a basket of ingredients and is able to create something wonderful.” Although this is an over-simplification, there is a real element of truth to this statement. A chef is certainly a manager and a leader, a cost accountant and a marketer, a social scientist and an organizational guru; but above all, a chef is a passionate and accomplished cook.
The ability to “create something wonderful”, stems from a persons ability to draw from his/her flavor memory. A serious cook must be a person who has experienced a full array of flavors, taste combinations, foods at their peak of maturity, seasonings, and texture combinations. Without this “data bank” it would be nearly impossible to create magic with food. To go even further, chefs have life experiences that are filled with an understanding of history and various cultures. It would be difficult to cook wonderful Spanish foods without understanding the culture of Spain, it would be challenging to understand classical French food without studying Ferdinand Point, Larousse, Escoffier, Careme, Bocuse, Robuchon and Verge. To cook French you must feel like you are French, to cook Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, or Thai, you must understand the culture of those countries and most importantly have cooked with those who were born into those cultures.
“A recipe has no soul…..” was a quote from Thomas Keller, truly one of America’s great chef’s of the past few decades. This should not be viewed as an endorsement for kitchens without structure; just the contrary. I am sure that Keller has his own version of the standardized recipe, however what he and most accomplished chefs know is that a recipe does not create a cook. The recipe is a reference, but the cook must draw from his/her flavor memory and understanding of culture to build the recipe into a great dish. There are just far too many variables that come into play (seasonality, maturity, size, terroir, brand, shipping, storage, etc.) to rely on a recipe as the consummate guide in cooking. Some of the best cookbooks that I have used such as: “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine”, only list the ingredients in a dish without procedure or amounts. The ingredient list is a reminder for the chef who knows, though experience, what a dish should look and taste like, and the method of cooking that is appropriate for the outcome of that dish.
Those who have a desire to become great cooks and chefs must live the following: taste everything, experience as many different cooks work as possible, travel and experience cultures, read about the history of food, learn from the best, taste again and record your experiences. Keep recipes as a guide but cook with your soul.
Kudos to Thomas Keller for getting it right.
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