Do you long for a career in the food service industry? Do you spend hours watching The Food Network dreaming that some day you, too, will grace the stage of Kitchen Stadium, standing toe-to-toe with Bobby Flay? Take this handy quiz and find out if you're living the dream or just dreaming: are you cut out for the professional kitchen?
When the man in your life is a chef, and they fall short-handed in the kitchen, it's only a matter of time before you find yourself at the business end of a knife. Sure enough, last week I was drafted as things heated up in the kitchen at Tulips & Maple, where our Chef B (Benoit Gelinotte) is currently cooking as the Executive Sous Chef. It's a busy time of the year for catering companies, and Ottawa's Tulips & Maple is no exception. Summer holidays are over and the entertainment season has begun. Cuisine students return to class and kitchens scramble for help. Somehow four shifts 'just to get us through' has morphed into a nice little part-time job for this Gypsy, who was thrown feet first, into the fire.
This is my first time working in a professional kitchen outside a scholastic environment, complete with big, shiny stock pots and multi-tray ovens, multiple walk-in coolers, freezers and staging areas. As kitchens go, Tulips & Maple's is enormous, and very well-equipped. You don't rise to the top of a competitive industry without taking your business seriously and delivering quality product, and Tulips & Maple takes great pride in delivering great product. Even stocks, sauces and condiments are made with care, from scratch. It's a solid learning experience, a way for me to build skills, broaden my cuisine knowledge and glean some great ideas (which I'm sure to share with you).
While I'm grateful for positive cash flow, this is not my dream job. I am a writer and communicator of food, beverage & culinary travel—for a reason. I am under no misconceptions about kitchen life because I've lived it (all be it on a smaller scale) as the solo owner/operator of a small country inn, and the man in my life has been a kitchen professional for twenty-five years. It's not glamorous, it can take years to make a decent living, the hours can make family life a difficult task, and it's far from easy. I'm happy to be a part of a good organization, but last week has served as a reminder that kitchen life is not for everyone.
If you're considering a career in the industry, take this handy quiz and see if you have what it takes. Read the following ten statements, and if you have an aversion to four or more of the statements below, and find yourself shaking your head and saying "no freakin' way"... kitchen life might not be for you.
Are you cut out for the kitchen?
- I love the heat. Even better, I love steam and hot oil! Being sweaty, covered in a light film of oil, on hot summer day is the best. Bring it on.
- Standing for ten to sixteen hours a day is how I like to spend my time.
- You know what I love? Smelling like food! (Preferably soup, but in a pinch fish or onions or a combination of many foods mixed together will do.) If I could come home each night, smelling like food, with my shoes sticky with sugar, raw chicken, or soup; my life would be complete. Dogs will LOVE me.
- I am very fond of chopping. I find chopping, slicing, dicing and repetitive tasks soothing. Just give me one job, all day long; like cutting and peeling stuff, preferably in cold water. Oh boy, can't wait.
- I thrive in a noisy environment and adore the sound of hood fans, timers going off and chopping. This is my Zen.
- I respond well to authority figures and have respect for a chain-of-command environment. I listen and take direction well. I know that I am not always right and love to learn. I am a sponge. (PS: I can handle being yelled at.)
- Ratios? LOVE THEM, HEL-LO! Please, oh please, ask me to do math in my head.
- Nothing makes my day quite like the thrill of making a couple hundred portions of rice pilaf. Unless it's tying 180 bundles of asparagus with blanched leeks into adorable little bundles. *Cue chorus of angels singing; I am in heaven over here!*
- Could I start early and finish late please? I require very little sleep.
- Being around super sharp things, items that have just been removed from a 400-degree oven, and scalding hot liquids perched at precarious angles makes life more interesting. I enjoy coming home at the end of the day knowing that I have navigated my job safely and still have all my body parts intact. I live for this shit.
This is the reality of kitchen life. There are no camera crews and no one cares about your "need to create." You will be asked to lift and carry, and peel and chop. You will be told exactly how to do things and you will be expected to do them, accurately and expediently. You may, or may not, be yelled at. Some chefs have a reputation of yelling and profanity, while others are civil and supportive, but one thing's for sure, they're in charge. Listen and learn or find yourself looking for another job.
No matter who you are, you will start at the bottom and earn your way up, or you will quickly be churned out. There are plenty behind you who are hungry for success and recognition, and they will do whatever it takes to get there.
You might be thinking to yourself "I'll only have to do all the crap jobs at the beginning! Once people call ME chef, I won't be peeling vegetables and doing dishes!" That's where you're wrong. You will do it if it needs to be done. Your dishwasher might go on a bender and not be seen for a week, your prep cook can have a bad day and walk off the job, the gal who works the cold line could call in sick. Those tasks don't stop just because there's no one to do them, so you roll up your sleeves and hit the dish pit if that's what's necessary.
Yes, there's math. Your chef may turn to you and say, "I need three liters of lemonade, it's a six-to-one ration, sweeten to taste." How many lemons do you need? You will never escape the math.
Cooking for a living is taxing work. I won't go so far as to say "hard" work (digging ditches, now that's "hard" work). But standing on concrete all day, cutting, cooking, solving problems as you go, is hard on the body and the brain. Particularly once you leave the cozy confines of the kitchen for a tent atop a parking lot or a garage in the country, and you are still expected to deliver quality and perfection—now that is the "art" of catering. After a series of long days and a marathon of an on-site event I felt muscles I didn't even know I had, and I shall be going back for more.
My best advice to those entering the kitchen for the first time:
Listen. Write things down. Ask questions (it's better than making mistakes). Watch what the person next to you is doing—chances are you'll be doing it soon. Add a calculator to your knife kit, along with your favorite burn treatment (here's a link to mine) and get yourself the best non-slip, safety shoes money can buy.
I am fortunate to be working with a marvelous group of people, in an environment of respect and courtesy. I live for perfection and presentation so it's a good fit. We laugh a lot, and at the end of the day, while my body aches, my mind reels from taking in so much information. I dig that, the only thing better is making a couple hundred spring rolls. Perfectly. Every single time... and smelling like soup.
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