What's the protocol for starting a culinary stage?
August 26, 2007 5:28 PM   Subscribe

The first of many food career related questions I'll be asking: What's the protocol for a young, unproven would-be to find himself a stage?

Bear with me, AskMefi! I want to work with food. This is certain. I do not want to be a pro-chef, this is also certain. The nightmare tales of long hours, bad pay and stifling work have spooked me enough. But I do want to pay my dues and get a little experience, so I'm going to find myself a stage and bust my butt for a while. Get a feel for the kitchen and the misery (and glory) therein and then move on. Whether I end up in management or food writing or what have you (Oh, that question is coming up, just wait!), I think it's really important to understand every aspect of a business.

So!: Is there any particular protocol for finding a kitchen to bust your butt in? Is it uncouth to just show up and ask? Is it better to call ahead? I realize I probably won't get near a stove for months and months, but I'd like to start off on the right foot.
posted by GilloD to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Something that I did a few years ago that resulted in one of the greatest experiences of my life: while visiting a bunch of small local bars/nightclubs, I found one that (a) I really liked and (b) seemed to de-emphasize its kitchen. I buddied up with the owner, and a few weeks later said "Hey, why don't you let me take responsibility for the kitchen - making a few nightly specials, planning the menu, all of that?"

He was delighted to turn the whole thing over - for some nightclubs food is a focus, but for others it's a necessary evil. For the next year I ran that kitchen to my heart's content, set the hours I wanted to be open, made a little bit of money, and learned invaluable lessons about how restaurant kitchens work.

I'm not in foodservice right now, but I know I will be again some day, because it was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done.
posted by jbickers at 5:52 PM on August 26, 2007

I'd love to end up in a situation like that. I'm actually a little more interested in the academic end of food and food journalism (And there'll be plenty on that in my next Q), but I think it's just important to have been a waiter and been a kitchen lackey and gotten experience.

I learned more about pottery in 15 minutes with my master-mentor than I did dawdling around for 6 months on my own, for instance. I'm sort of looking to replicate that experience with my cooking.

I looked very seriously into culinary school, but I was spooked by the cost (40k!), doubly so because I'll be shipping off for Peace Corps service this time next year and then I'd have 40k in loans accruing interest for 2 years. Yuck.
posted by GilloD at 5:58 PM on August 26, 2007

GilloD, for what it's worth, you can defer loans (and not acrue interest on them, barring Stafford Loans, Federal Consolidation Loans that include unsubsidized loans, and Federal Direct Loans) while abroad with the Corps.

The DOE does not charge you any (!) interest during the period of deferment for Perkins Loans and subsidized Federal Direct Loans, which is what I suspect you would be getting.

One question you might ask is how relevant your food staging experience will be with at least a 2-year gap between it and whenever you next do something related? You may be better served with an education now, and experience down the line.
posted by ellF at 6:16 PM on August 26, 2007

ellF- The other concern is that I may put 40k down for something I truly and verily hate. I think getting experience is just a good way to toe the water. Like I said, I'm slightly more interested in the academics of food and food journalism, so while culinary school would be great fun, it might be expensive great fun.

The two year gap is something I'm concerned about, but that's also why I'm eyeballing something less, well. You can always re-enter a kitchen, but to get a degree and not use it for two years looks bad anyway you cut it.
posted by GilloD at 6:56 PM on August 26, 2007

It may not be terribly glamorous, but my oldest son got a job as a dishwasher in an upscale restaurant when he was 18. He's worked his way up to sous chef in the same restaurant with total on the job training, but it's taken him almost 3 years. It's been gradual but he's learned quite a bit and has been offered jobs at other nicer restaurants. He's never worked front of house, but seems to know a lot about how it works up there-he's happy just cooking.
posted by hollygoheavy at 8:26 PM on August 26, 2007

the club of food service is not exclusive. the entry requirements are the ability to work long hours for low pay. Speaking Spanish is a plus.

-pick 5 restaurants you'd like to work for. Try to ascertain who does the hiring, and call 'em. Offer to work a few shifts as a prep helper (or 'shadow' an employee) for free. most restaurants do 'working interviews' where they throw you some menial tasks and see if you can hang. offering to do that off the bat will help.

-come to think of it, you may find the best options with catering companies--the work is more scarce, but it might work out better for a dabbler.

-If there is one golden substance in Food Service, it is FREE LABOR. That's how culinary school graduates get their foot in the door--they have to intern before graduating.

-One thing I would def. not ever do is mention your fleeting interest in working in kitchens. Chefs/managers, like anyone else hiring, don't want to waste the time training someone who doesn't plan to stay. express your desire to be the next Ruth Reichl/Tony Bourdain/Rachel Ray and you'll get a hang up, after a snide comment.

-In any place worth a damn, the manager is the hardest working employee.

-food writers are uniformly despised by Back of House. keep your aspirations close to the heart until you really have a taste of the biz, then wait another 2 years after that.

-you've gotta work for more than one place. You'll learn everything from one house, then realize it's all different somewhere else. Cooking is subjective chemistry--everyone does things differently.

-Proper french kitchens are run like military units. It's not always that harsh, but recognize that this is not a 'creative' job. do what you're told, how you're told to do it, no ifs, ands or buts. this is blue collar work--consistency and speed are the two qualities that will get you rewarded. it may be years before someone asks for your opinion.

I don't want to sound harsh, but this isn't an easy job. those who do it either do it out of necessity, addiction, or passion. often two of those three. This is a business of millimeters, nickels and nagging injuries. You may work with the mentally deficient, illegal immigrants who will consistantly out-perform you, sycophantic bosses, addicts, ex-cons, all in horrible working conditions. Basically, it's like any other crappy job except with the constant threat of injury and death. seriously.

good luck!
posted by markovitch at 8:59 PM on August 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Markovitch has some great points. Honestly, I've never been in a kitchen that would turn down (competent) free labor. Pick a few restaurants where you respect the food, and stop by when it's not rush hour (mid-afternoon?). Show up, figure out who hires, tell them you're thinking of culinary school (don't give the whole spiel about Peace Corps and food writing and yadda yadda) and that you want kitchen experience first. You'll probably end up doing lots of prep grunt work, especially at first. Here are my golden kichen rules:

Do what you're told, don't try to get too cute or creative. Recognize that you are the low man on the totem pole.
Work CLEAN, work FAST
Show up on time, and don't call in sick. You are never too sick to work.

It can be fun, it can be grueling, you'll work with people you love and people you want to stab. If you are humorously inclined-- take notes, because crazy stuff goes on in kitchens.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:52 PM on August 26, 2007

Seconding what markovitch and Bella Sebastian said. I went to culinary school but would never do it again. Take the time that school would take and divide it among two or three restaurants that you really love. If you stay attentive, you'll learn how to cook the way they do and have an impressive looking resume by the time your done.

As for protocol, just drop by the place, resume in hand, and ask for a minute of the chef/kitchen managers time. Try earlier in the day as opposed to during service, and follow up with a call back a day or two later to let them know you are interested and motivated. Be truthful about your past experience because it will show immediately if hired. Be selective in revealing your future plans.

Good luck
posted by hangingbyathread at 11:27 PM on August 26, 2007

I forgot to add: BRING YOUR OWN KNIVES!!!!!!!! no matter how crappy, bring your own gear.

I also forgot to give some useful advice :)

Egullet culinary institute will fill in many gaps you might have in your culinary knowledge and most importantly, has info on knives. Read copiously for techniques and vocabulary, but again, don't ever take what you know as better advice than what you're told to do--always do what you're told, until you've got the experience and relationships to question/suggest without being threatening.

that's a big thing--i know this is true every where, but so many of the people you meet in the food world have scratched and clawed for everything they have; egos can be very fragils. be careful and sensitive with any and all advice, suggestions and criticism.
posted by markovitch at 11:30 PM on August 26, 2007

I was never ever hired as a waiter. It's a commitment and you need to be hired and thought of as an actual employee. I'm pretty sure I never got a restaurant job because I was too much of a flight risk -- I already had another job and was just planning on doing this weekends. I looked too good on paper AND was old AND didn't have prior restaurant experience.

So, I got jobs doing catering. You still get a decent amount of food related experience and in general servers are also going to be expected to do things like food prep on location. So you might get a more varied experience than if you just go to a restaurant and end up a waiter. Then, once you have some catering under your belt, it should be easier to get your foot in the door of a more quality restaurant where focus is on the food.

I'm not sure of this, but I'm guessing chains are a bad choice since the food is pretty cookie cutter. The best would be a place where the menu changed frequently, especially if it was based on seasonally available food, as that would give you the best exposure to cooking with good ingredients.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:38 AM on August 27, 2007

I actually just got hired at a catering gig doing a little bit of everything: Cooking, serving, delivery, bar tending and even a little bit of number crunching. So it should work out great. But prepping in one place, shlepping it in a van somewhere else and wearing a grin for awhile is a little different than living and dying in a kitchen, no?

Anyhow, thanks for the advice, guys. I'll be sure to update in a few months when I know how things turned out.
posted by GilloD at 5:18 PM on August 27, 2007

You're a long way from slinging food on a Line--even at a normal restaurant you'd be doing prep work for a long time before you'd be invited into the line. Catering is great experience, and you'll learn quickly. one advantage is that the menu is rarely the same, so you'll make a variety of food from day to day. It's all the same grind, really--just different tactics.

best of luck!
posted by markovitch at 7:07 PM on August 27, 2007

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