Monday, March 16, 2009

Chefs are a Different Breed

The business of restaurants is tough. It's filled with people of many different personalities and skill sets. Among them - financial guru's, die hard operators, alcoholics and drug addicts, and those that live for food. Yes, Chefs are a different breed.

So you like to cook. You harbor dreams of owning your own restaurant some day. Something small, rustic, “neighborhoody.”

Your friends tell you how great your food is. Their compliments are nice, but in the back of your mind is the nagging voice that keeps telling you that hard work lies ahead if you want to accomplish your dream. You've got a lot to learn...and almost zero money for school.

The first thing you need to do is mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. Things are going to be hard. You're going to push your mental and physical limits, usually far past your breaking point. You will have almost no cash; so whether this endeavor means saving your pennies, or getting some financial help from family, just know that whatever you spend will be far less than what going to school will cost you. Get used to being broke.

Second, business is business, and a restaurant is a business. Being a great chef does not mean the restaurant will succeed. You need basic business skills that only a mentor can provide. Also - the sincerity and the way you speak to people will directly effect the influence you have with them. Don’t ever forget that. You need to run a business, and that requires employees and guests. You need to learn how to communicate to them.

Mainly though, you need to submit to many things at once; those that will teach you, your desire to have some “me” time, and the urge to talk back when you don't like the way things are going for you. – discipline. Self driven discipline.

Culinary School. Culinary school is all about learning the vocabulary of the kitchen. It is about having a knife in your hand every day. It has nothing to do with becoming a chef, or making up recipes, or discovering your own personal style. Mimicking this experience is fairly simple:

1. Buy either the Cordon Bleu or CIA textbook. Read THE WHOLE THING. As you go through the book, practice the cuts, recipes, and techniques. Buy bags of potatoes and carrots and onions and dice and julienne and brunoise. When you've completed your reading and are starting to feel comfortable with the knife, you're ready for the next step.
2. Gather your tools. You need an 8" chefs knife. Nothing fancy--stick with Wusthof. You'll also need a bread knife, a paring knife, a peeler, and a microplane. You do not need a santoku, despite what the guy at Sur La Table is pushing on you. Pick up Becoming a Chef by Andrew Doreneburg and Karen Page. It's a little dated, but the overall idea of the book is good.
3. Pick a restaurant you like, and go to the back door. Ask the chef if he/she will let you hang out for a night. Let them know that you will do anything: peel garlic, wash lettuce, sweep the floors. If they let you hang out, and you like it, make it your sole purpose in life to become a stagiere or prep cook in that restaurant. Offer to work for free.
4. Once your stage has started, don't give in to your urge to just work the 8 hours then go home. You need to put in extra work. Stay during service. Watch the cooks on the line. Offer to help anywhere you can. Around this time you need to pick up On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This book is not for reading cover to cover, but more as a reference. If you're making vinaigrettes, read his chapter on emulsions. If you're making stock, read his chapter on gelatin. There is a section in that book that corresponds to every facet of the kitchen. Your understanding of the science in cooking is important. It's not magic.
5. If you've put in a couple of months, sit down with the chef and ask them for a review. What do you do well? Where are you weak? When does the chef think you'll be ready to give the line a shot? Don't let yourself get stuck in one place. Chances are that if you're doing a good job, they'll want to hire you on anyways.
6. Read The Making of a Chef and the Soul of a Chef. Kitchen Confidential is great and all, but it is not required reading.
7. Take everything that you've learned at work and start cooking at home. Go to markets. Cook for your friends and family. Read local restaurant reviews. Don't be tempted to watch Food Network--by this point it's time to cut that tether.
8. Self evaluate every day. Go back and re-visit all the books you read in the beginning. If you're not astonished by your progress, you need to get back to basics. Learn every day, and never settle. Don't get caught up in the lifestyle of a cook...learning is your only purpose now. Stop drinking so much.
9. Around the 6 month mark, branch out on your days off and stage in other kitchens. Take that money that you have already borrowed from your relatives and save it for a trip to New York, or San Francisco, or France, or Spain. This will not be a vacation--it's strictly business. Arrange a stage, or a series of stages. Again, don't get caught up. This is not a vacation.

Coming up as a cook is hard, but if you can dedicate yourself and focus, the way up will be rewarding. You'll look back on these early days with a smile. Just realize that the learning never stops. Things never really get easy. There are always more books to read, new techniques to absorb, new flavors to taste. With this guide though, you have a 12 month jump on the kids in culinary school.

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