Help me cook myself up a new job!
January 1, 2012 10:16 AM   Subscribe

A friend is opening up a new sandwich shop and wants me to come work for her. I'm a decent home cook, but I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen; how do I learn about restaurant processes and techniques?

I've told her that I'm interested in the prep cook part of the work, which would involve baking bread, making cookies and other sweets, and roasting meats for the sandwiches, but also helping to develop the menu and come up with recipes. I'm really excited about the chance to get out of my present job, but it worries me that I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen (the month I spent flipping burgers in college doesn't count) and don't know how things are done to maximize efficiency and speed and minimize waste.

What does a home cook need to know about restaurant cooking? Are there books or websites that you can point me to on this subject? It seems to me that actually getting a job as a prep cook would be the best way to prepare, but I think time is too short to do that. Thank you very much for your help!
posted by WorkingMyWayHome to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Professional Chef from the CIA. Lots and lots of techniques, tips and tricks. Timing is ging to be your most important thing, making sure everything hits at the same time.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 10:19 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Learn your local food-safety regulations. Many of them are obvious (wash your hands after you use the bathroom), but plenty are non-obvious and will get you into trouble. Your local board of health can point you in the right direction.
posted by Etrigan at 10:29 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

What are the hours are the sandwich shop and what are your hours going to be?

One of the most depressing things about working in restaurant is that you rarely get weekends off. You ok with that?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:31 AM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Adding on to what Etrigan said, it's worth it to take the course and get the certification on sanitation. The rules for restaurant food storage are different from simply "put it in the fridge", and knowing what they are and sticking to them will go a long way towards your utility in the kitchen.
posted by Runes at 10:37 AM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The easy way is take a similar job now, part time. Whichever way that goes for you, it will be much better for you and your friend if you have experience in the role. Going from only book learning into the position at the brand new store will be very troublesome every way.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:38 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yep. Sneak over to Subway and work for a couple months or so, and learn all the rules, because corporate teaches by the book.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 10:40 AM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Has your friend run a restaurant before? My husband is a chef, and he learned on the job, at very high-end, well-run places. If you've not cooked professionally before, you might have a steep, but not insurmountable, learning curve. If neither of you have done this before---I'd say it could be a nightmare.

Who's doing the ordering? Have you ever scaled up a home recipe? You'll have to get a food handler's license and take the course, as well as get all the health dept. certifications--who's going to pay for all that?

If you're baking, you'll going to start at the crack of dawn.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:03 AM on January 1, 2012

I would be more concerned about the "having a business relationship with a friend" part than the prep cook skills part, particularly considering how stressful and volatile the restaurant industry is; there are previous mefi threads on that subject worth looking for.
posted by mhoye at 11:10 AM on January 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. To answer your questions, yes, my friend has years of experience managing restaurants and has a good idea of what she's getting into. She is a realtor, has another business with her husband, and is a shrewd businesswoman who knows the area well. My job, my duties, my schedule, none of that has been established yet. It all just came up in conversation last night that she had leased a storefront and decided not to continue with the present franchise there. She knows I'm just a home cook, but she wants me to be involved and feels confident I can do it (I'm somewhat less confident!)
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 11:56 AM on January 1, 2012

The home cook will need to learn a bit about food and labour costs and inventory management, especially if you're developing the menu - this article touched on it, but even if she's a manager and a businesswoman a pretty smart and well-off cookie, it's a whole different science. I'm not an expert, but my best friend who's been a pastry/sous chef for years taught me a lot about what happens with the food waste and menu planning just by her kvetching about her work and my being fascinated (and now I put my cheese rinds in my soup stock too!); and for our school's Breakfast Club where I volunteer and help on the committee, we work with the coordinator on how to feed 30-50 kids every day at a dollar per serving (not a dollar per kid - and I never knew there was a difference until she showed me!).

My concern would be that unless she is prepared to put a lot into payroll, which most small business owners can't afford to do at first - or be pretty hands-on herself, you'll also be cleaning, serving, running the register and managing the day-to-day operations of such a shop, including supervising any other employees. Sandwiches don't have as high a profit margin as, even, say coffee. Can she afford to pay you for all you'll be doing? Do you have something to fall back on if it doesn't work out? I'd be leery of taking a job in an unproven business, since such a high percentage of them fail so quickly.
posted by peagood at 12:42 PM on January 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Baking bread/cookies and roasting meats is the godawful early job. The sandwich shop I worked at long ago, the bakers came in between 2 and 3 am to get the bake ready for the morning rush. And if you want to sell your sandwiches as being on fresh baked bread, that's the norm--because no one wants sandwiches on bread baked 'fresh yesterday'.

That being said, it can be kind of peaceful and fun to be there, surrounded by fresh bread smells, while everyone else in the world is asleep. Not something I'd ever want to do again ever, but not bad at the time.

You will have to get your food handlers card--it's super easy. But follow all the rules, even the weird wtf ones, because the health inspectors come by any time they want and will ding you for even the weirdest things.

Is there a community college with a culinary arts program in your area? They teach all the stuff you are asking--recipe scaling, plus you usually work in the kitchen while you take classes.
posted by lovecrafty at 12:45 PM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Addressing the food issues only. Restaurant cooking is much more "assembly line" oriented, and less artful, like, dishes need to be really consistent and exactly what is promised on the menu. Be prepared for the occasional person rejecting what you've just made as inedible even thought you know better. Learn the tip-sharing policy and make sure everyone agrees on it. Have well defined "breaks" and make sure everyone knows about how that works too. Clear division of labor can keep peace in a production kitchen.
posted by telstar at 12:46 PM on January 1, 2012

Never worked as a cook, but the wife was a prep cook in another life. One of the things she told me was that you need to get used to working very fast. Prep cooking is volume work, and the scale makes a huge difference. At home, dinner is ready when it's ready; you don't really have that luxury in a restaurant. On a related note, make sure your knife skills are well practiced. You don't want to lose a finger in your first week because you're in the weeds and you get sloppy.
posted by Gilbert at 1:45 PM on January 1, 2012

Being a home cook and being a restaurant cook are totally different animals. Be ready for long days, little to no social life, no weekends off, no holidays off, working when sick or injured, and in my experience being around some of the most insane and vulgar people you have ever met. That being said, it is the greatest career in the world and I would not dream of doing anything else.

As was mentioned earlier, read The Professional Chef. I'd also read Kitchen Confidential and The Waiter Rant just so that you know what to expect.

Oh, and buy some good knives. I recommend Globals purely for price/quality ratio.

Best of luck.
posted by bryanthecook at 3:07 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just realized I had never updated this. It . . . didn't work out. I quit my office job in February with a verbal commitment from her to start at the cafe as soon as I was free. She delayed my starting date by a week, then told me breezily that she had taken the job she promised me for herself and that I could work the drive-through part-time if I wanted to (a condition I had set from the beginning was no customer service). So dream job gone, "friend" gone. I was heartbroken.

I took some time to think over what I should do and decided it was most practical to keep my creative pursuits to my spare time; I am now back in school getting a degree in Accounting. It's something that I've done a bit of in my various jobs and I'm good at it. I can't say for sure yet that what happened was "all for the best," but at least I'm out of the crappy job I had last winter and working toward what I hope is a better future.

Thanks again for all the answers I got here.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:03 PM on October 14, 2012

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