Fresh out of the academy.
June 3, 2010 1:02 AM   Subscribe

So I'm in a culinary school in California. Is there anybody in the profession who could tell me what NOT to do when I apply for work or get work?

I'm three weeks into my program. I know I really want to work in a restaurant, and I have realistic expectations of the kinds of positions that I can apply for when I graduate. Only thing is, I'm in an environment where everyone loves EVERYTHING about food, plus I have or have access to a ton of very nice toys that I'm pretty sure no one will want me touching in my future place of employment.

So I'm a little wary of being that guy that's fresh out of the academy, having gotten used to working with expensive toys and kitchens run with semi-military precision.

I just remember what it was like when my bosses hired outside instead of promoting internally, "oh this dude has management training but he's never even mopped a floor." I MOP THE FLOOR! I MOP THE FLOOR!
posted by bam to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Check your mefi-mail.
posted by hindmost at 1:09 AM on June 3, 2010

Also, required reading -

So You Want to Be a Chef? by Shuna Fish Lydon and in particular this post
The Stage. A Guide.


Kitchen Confidential

Always travel with a sharpie, pen, and notebook. Take notes. Always keep your station meticulous. Never, ever, reach for a pot without a side towel. Even if someone hands it to you with their bare hands. Bring your own knives and learn how to keep them sharp. Learn how to be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to what other people are doing and how they are doing it. Practice at home more than is required of you. Keep superglue in your knife roll, it's more useful than band-aids. Hustle, but also stay out of people's way. Look for opportunities to jump in and help and demonstrate what you learned by observing. Wash your hands. Help people do the dirty work. Don't wait for them to ask. Get comfortable shoes. Be nice to _everybody_, not just the cooks. Everyone who has been there longer than you is potentially someone who will save your ass one day when you fuck up. And you will fuck up. Show up earlier than they ask you to. Always be on the lookout for new ways for you to learn about aspects of the job like market days, deliveries, orders, etc etc. Try to taste everything that you can, but ask first and never be the guy stuffing his face when everyone else is running around. Learn when the appropriate times are to ask questions, and devour all the information you can. Always, always be learning.
posted by hindmost at 1:43 AM on June 3, 2010 [11 favorites]

Whoever hires you will know about your school qualifications. The people you work with will not. You must prove to them you are capable of doing the work, so do the work. Hindmost gives some great advice up there. I'll add: try not to get caught up in the kitchen gossip. Everyone's going out for beers after the shift? Great, don't get drunk. Repeat: do not get drunk.

Mostly: pull your weight, learn as much as you can and then some, and treat everyone with respect.
posted by cooker girl at 5:39 AM on June 3, 2010

On another forum someone recommended these three things to look for when applying to restaurants for the first time:

1) Find a place at least three years old
2) Find a place that doesn't do lunch
3) Do not go salaried unless you're in a managerial position

In my very brief stint at a Real Restaurant (not a coffeehouse/cafe) I managed to break all three rules when I took the job. The result was the reason my stint was so brief.
posted by schroedinger at 7:26 AM on June 3, 2010

Hindmost speaks truth here - that is very good advice. I have an Associates in Culinary Arts, and spent over 15 years doing everything in a professional kitchen from dishwasher to executive chef.

Here is my advice to you... Eyes open, mouth shut - at least until you get your footing and some experience. This may take a year or two. Unless you're asked, no one cares how they did it at culinary school. No one really cares that you went to culinary school either, so don't bring it up every 5 minutes. I can't tell you how many times some new guy would come in and immediately introduce himself as "Chef SoAndSo, $culinary_school class of YYYY". Oh, and don't call yourself a chef unless that is actually your job title, and even then you'll still sound like a pretentious douche. When people asked me what I did for a living, I would just say that I was a cook, or that I worked in the restaurant business.

Be ready to take orders and direction from people that you would normally cross the street to avoid, and don't be surprised to find out that once you start to pay attention, you'll learn more about how to "be a cook" from those guys and girls than you ever learned from school. Be adaptable to new ways of doing things - it seems that just about every kitchen I worked in did the same things in different ways than the last kitchen. Pull your weight, and always be ready to pitch in, even if it means jumping in on the dish line. Keep a good attitude, be friendly and positive to everyone, and try to pick up some Spanish as you go along. And lastly, learn to Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome.
posted by ralan at 3:12 PM on June 3, 2010

Oh yes ralan, I was thinking all day at work that I needed to post when I got home about how important it is to learn kitchen Spanish.

The one exception I to the mouth shut statement is to ask questions about how they want things done exactly because they do the same things in different ways in every kitchen. People constantly forget that what is "common knowledge" or simple reflex to them was something they had to learn and may need prompting. So if you get handed some veggies to blanch, "Salt water to sea level salinity, cook till just tender, shock in ice water bath?" If you get asked to dice something to "medium dice" or "brunoise", double check what that size means in that particular kitchen before you finish the batch. You won't get in trouble for asking "can you show me how you do ____ in this kitchen" to get it done right and done quickly the first time.
posted by hindmost at 12:43 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and quickly before I forget for the third time...

Side towel management is an art that you will have to pick up. Always having clean, dry side towels and still having a clean station is something akin to a dark art. We get fresh towels handed out right before service and I still had clean ones from the morning. I almost swooned at the bounty.

Unless you already have a very well developed knife callus, take the time to round out the spine of your knife where it rubs against the base of your index finger. In 99% of knives this is a hard square edge but for most people casual use won't be enough to cause damage. The first time you spend any length of time chopping, it's gonna blister, and then the square edge is going to cut into the blister and then the tender skin underneath and that sucker will cause you no end of grief. Sandpaper or a coarse sharpening stone or a dremel tool will all work to just stop it from being a sharp edge. You'll probably still get a blister, and you will eventually get that callus, but it won't be quite as agonizing.

Drink a lot of water, kitchens are hot and you get dehydrated very quickly. I don't know if this is how all kitchens work or just the one I'm in, but pretty much everyone uses the ubiquitous deli cups as drinking glasses. When you get one to use, sniff it first before you put water in it. Drinking water that smells like onions is nasty.
posted by hindmost at 1:55 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wow - more good advice from hindmost. Those are your best answers.

The side towel comment is good knowledge - you don't realize how important a dry side towel is until you pull that pan out of the oven with a towel that is just wet enough to give you a nice steam burn.

Another thing I will suggest is to learn how to be the "go to guy". In every kitchen, there are one or two people that the front of the house staff go to when there is a problem, because they know those people will solve the problem with a minimum of fuss or drama. You want to be that person. It won't come easy - you have to earn that level of respect. But what you can do is watch how those people behave, watch how they handle problems, watch how they come up with solutions. These things will vary from kitchen to kitchen, but what you'll notice is a focus on fixing the problem and serving the customer and a sense of urgency - not on screaming and yelling and throwing a tantrum.

The water comment is also good - I tracked my water consumption one night, and it was close to two gallons by the end of my shift. Granted, this was in Georgia in the summer, but kitchens were just as hot in Mass and RI and Oklahoma. Water is your friend, sodas and alcohol are not.
posted by ralan at 8:06 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hindmost did give some very good advice, it's already written down, but your response answered my question. I tried to make a point of it with the "NOT".

(as far as the towels go, I've been picking up towels left behind by other students for the last three weeks. I've even been nice about it, asking if these belong to anybody, but no responses. I now have 7 towels, not including the 25 issued to me by the school. el oh el.)
posted by bam at 3:32 PM on June 4, 2010

Learn to multitask. It's not necessarily something that is taught in all culinary schools. If you have three things to do, and one of them involves twenty minutes of prep followed by an hour of leaving it alone--do that first.

Maxim from one of my chefs at school: if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:43 AM on June 7, 2010

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