kitchen boy?
May 23, 2005 11:43 PM   Subscribe

Building on recent questions: I am an amateur cook who is considering going pro...

Professionals: I am now a professional writer who is thinking about going pro as a cook. I understand that it's difficult to make one's way in this extremely competive field. But I recently catered a party (for fun) at which people wanted to hire me for a substantial amount. Should I try to do this? Any insight into the NYC law regarding food preparation would be appreciated.
posted by lackutrol to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You should not try to do this. Take this from someone married to a chef. Do you like holidays and weekends? Get used to working all of them. Do you like to stand for twelve hours at a stretch? Get used to it. Do you speak Spanish? Many of your co-workers will, so an understanding of the language could help. I would say lie down on the couch until the urge passes. Cook for fun, throw parties, take classes. I don't think my wife exactly regrets her career choice, but it is not the creative mecca that she thought it would be.
posted by fixedgear at 2:02 AM on May 24, 2005

My mother was a pastry chef, and let me tell you, it ain't what it looks like.

Here, go read this. From listening to my mom, and my own limited experiences observing, this is not a career I would choose.

Now that you've read Bourdain's excellent book, take it to heart. Preparing food for a few people is radically different then preparing food for several hundred. Also, as fixedgear mentioned, the long hours are killer. I once remember a long period where my mom never had a day off. About a year I think. Also 12-16 hours a day is a typical shift. Did I mention the pay won't be great?

This is as much a lifestyle choice as a profession.

If you just want to stick to catering (scumbag loser amateurs, I believe my mom and her chef friends refer to them as), it would probably help to have some street cred as a chef. Been to the CIA? No? The NECI? Johnson Wales? At least worked in a restaurant? No? See ya.

I'd think twice about this.

posted by kungfujoe at 3:58 AM on May 24, 2005

I'll second Bourdain's book. My brother was a "chef" for ten years. And by "chef" I mean he worked in some great restaurants as a glorified burger flipper.

He now works the phones at a Help Desk making a lot more money with nights, weekends, and holidays off. Something he never had in those ten years.

Chefs are artists. Like any other artform (musicians, actors, painters), 99.9999%* of the people attempting to make a living at it have to scrape by watching their dreams go up in smoke. At least the musicians and actors make tips in their food industry jobs.

The drug addiction and alcoholism Bourdain writes about is not exaggerated. Neither are the crooks and scumbags.

One of the things Bourdain stresses is that the worst chefs/restaurant owners are the dentists, lawyer's, and other folks who are good cooks and whose friends tell them they should open a restaurant. They almost always fail.

He once got food poisoning (most likely from the job) and had to take six weeks off without pay. No debate at all, no compensation, no sympathy.

His hands and arms were always scarred from burns.

It's a shitty job that is nothing like it looks from the outside. It's like being a porn star but without the fluffers.

That said, some people love it. Bourdain does. If you really think you want to give it a shot, go for it. Maybe you WILL be one of the few artists who succeed.

On preview, I see you're really asking if you should let your friend hire you to cater a party. Go for it. It might be fun. But make sure you keep track of your time to see what you 've really made in the end. It probably won't be as substantial when every minute is accounted for.

*Source of statistic: My ass.
posted by bondcliff at 6:11 AM on May 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

(it was my brother who got the food poisoning, not Bourdain)
posted by bondcliff at 6:12 AM on May 24, 2005

I'm an accomplished amateur cook. I'm also one of the "scumbag loser amateurs," in KFJ's parlance, who cooks for parties and such. I call it custom cooking, because I do not pretend to be a caterer; I don't have staff or service gear. I also specialize significantly: I do barbecue and grilled meats for up to 100 people.

I do it because I love to cook and if I can make a wad of cash too, great.

Fortunately, I know enough people in the resto biz to shrug off all the compliments and "You should open a restaurant!" comments. My friends say: You want to kill your love of cooking, go pro.
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:10 AM on May 24, 2005

If the other comments haven't dissuaded you yet, get a job in a restaurant. See how that suits you before you make the leap. You'll probably be doing prep or washing dishes, but you gotta start somewhere.

It's not difficult to make your way into the industry, nor is it difficult to get out. Staying is a bitch. Sore feet, aches, pains, lack of sleep, a constant low grade headache and a simmering hatred all of humanity will be your companions.
posted by Atom12 at 7:20 AM on May 24, 2005

My g/f is also one of those "scumbag loser amateurs", which is a better fate, IMO, than "penniless masochist".

One benefit of catering is that you can do it p/t- my girlfriend is also an actor, and her cooking partner works a retail job. The downside is that you're responsible for your own procurement (a tip: Chinatown), planning, etc. You need to practice on your own, which takes time and money- being able to plan out an execute a buffet is a much different skill set than firing a series of entrees.
posted by mkultra at 7:20 AM on May 24, 2005

I've worked in restaurants, and may yet again someday, and those who say it's a lifestyle choice as much as a career are absolutely right.

First, the hours are odd: 3am-noon for pastry chefs, 8am-5pm for the lunch shift, 5pm-late for the dinner shift (which is where the money is).

You *will* work weekends and holidays, these are the most profitable times for restaurants, and the busiest. You will also be standing for hours and hours, but this isn't so bad if you're young and strong. Get good shoes.

As a cook in a decent restaurant, working behind the line during a rush is like taking the entire SAT in 20 minutes. You have a hundred things to do, in order, and your target is a specfic moment in time, not "when it's done." And it doesn't stop for hours.

So, it's challenging.

That having been said, I love it. If you're not a family man, if you feel you can hack the hours and the low pay (if you're starting at the bottom), it's worth a shot. I'd find a restaurant you know, one that isn't uber-popular but does good food. If you know the staff/manager, all the better.

In my experience, it's not impossible to work your way up without the formal education. Lots of people (like my sister right now) have set themselves an informal education of working as many different jobs as they can for 6 months to a year (each), to learn everything about it.

The thing about the alternative lystyle aspect is that it comes with a built-in social circle. Staff dinners are not unusual at good restaurants (between lunch and dinner, when the dining room is closed -- usually leftovers from the day before), and when you're off at 2am, so is everyone else.

This stage in your career you should think about becoming slightly nomadic, if possible. There's nothing like working in France to ground you in the basics, or in Napa for American wines, or Tokyo for Japanese food. Obvious, but daunting, but not impossible.

I could go on, but just remember: The life is different, and hard, but people do it because they *love* it. Maybe you will too.
posted by o2b at 9:56 AM on May 24, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great replies...let me clarify that this is not something I'm thinking of doing tomorrow, but into the semi-far-flung future. I am very familiar with the crappy lifestyle aspect, and have read Bourdain's book. I worked in food service years ago, but not as a cook. sacre_bleu, your situation is intriguing--maybe I'll try the occasional scumbag loser amateur gig at some point.
posted by lackutrol at 11:10 AM on May 24, 2005

Best answer: maybe I'll try the occasional scumbag loser amateur gig at some point

On the plus side, you can call it a SLAG for short.

I think doing the occasional catering gig is a great option for you. It's the sort of thing that can develop slowly and organically, and if it gets to be too much, you just do fewer of them. And you don't say what sort of writing you do, but it could give you some good insight into food writing, so you could combine two things you love.

I used to do the (very) occasional SLAG, and it was fun, fun, fun but exhausting. There are much easier ways to make more money.
posted by anapestic at 11:24 AM on May 24, 2005

My sister is a chef at a very highly regarded NY restaurant. She makes ass money, works 12 hour days (at least), has one day off a week because the restaurant's closed ... Catering is a better bet; she made more money doing that and had more time off. Also, she had no professional experience when she went into catering, so it's possible.
posted by kenko at 12:56 PM on May 24, 2005

Another option is a personal chef. My wife did this for a while before we opened our bakery and she enjoyed it.

There's quite a bit of variety in the menus and you'll often have ingredients left over (herbs, cheeses, etc) for your own use, so you'll save on your home grocery bill. Word of mouth spread quickly and she was turning down business after just two months.

She liked the fact that she could basically work at her own pace as long as the food was ready to be delivered on the agreed-upon day and time, and if she went to the grocery store and they were having a sale on pork loins or if the swiss chard/blood oranges/etc looked good, she had something to incorporate into that week's meals.

It's also possible that your clients would request you for catering gigs and dinner parties as well.
posted by Atom12 at 2:10 PM on May 24, 2005

Regarding legal requirements: you most certainly must prepare food for catering events in a certified, licensed location (typically, a commercial kitchen). I suggest you call 311 and ask to be connected to the department that regulates the preparation of food for catering events.

On a different tack - have done extensive google searches for where I live (Seattle), there seems to be a real dearth of people who are willing to come to customer's homes and give individualized cooking lessons. Virtually all the home-cooking-teachers (and there aren't that many) seem to only want to do groups. Of course, an instructor can charge a lot more for a group (say, $20 per hour, times 6 people, or much more if food is included, which it typically is). I suspect that a lot of people would buy cooking gift lessons for their talented spouses (say, at $50 per hour, food not included). Of course, to do this, you'd have to like to teach as well as cook.

Or, on a slightly different tack - there is also a market for coming to someone's house and preparing a special meal (anniversary, birthday) for a small number of people (two to eight). (Personal chef, mentioned above.)

Of course, both approaches require working evenings and/or weekends, but both have the advantage (I believe) that you could avoid all the regulations around food preparation.
posted by WestCoaster at 8:08 PM on May 25, 2005

Response by poster: Special! Anyone who's already posted in this thread gets a free invite to a huge Christmas bash with a lot of food. It's an amateur non-paying gig but a ton of fun, and you don't have to bring anything. FYI: my writing gigs have picked up, so I don't really have time for SLAGs, but they're still being considered for the future.

Anyway, if any of you New Yorkers see this in the next 20 hours or so, email me.
posted by lackutrol at 6:58 PM on December 16, 2005

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