It is May and all across the country students from the more than 1,000 culinary schools will be graduating and starting their careers in the business of food. You have accomplished a great deal, assimilated more information than you thought would be possible, and built a suitcase full of skills that will serve you well…
It’s that time of year again when thousands of students will walk the stage and graduate from culinary school. This, of course, is an exciting time for them, a time when they view the world as their oyster with limitless opportunities. This may be true, but with the caveat that requires the student, now graduate,…
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
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This is an article that I posted two years ago regarding the expectations that young graduates of culinary education oftentimes have when first entering a professional kitchen. I felt that it fit well with the series of recent posts that I made regarding line cooks, bakers and the path that they take en route to…