Thinking about going to Culinary School? Looking at CIA and the Arts Institutes? Looking in to financial aid and student loans? I remember being that guy, being proud to tell people that I was gonna be a chef. I remember reading “ Kitchen Confidential” w all kinds of hope and wonder about this mysterious workplace called “ the line”. Most people come to the conclusion that they’d be a great chef because their artsy, they like to cook or they romanticize about the idea of schmoozing diners asking them how is everything tasting, while wearing a white coat and drinking a glass of wine. Most people imagine a workday of leisurely cooking in an air conditioned kitchen, working w the best freshest ingredients and people who are patient w/ you while teaching new things every day. The truth of the matter is that your dreams of being in the kitchen are nothing as you imagine. Most culinary school students end up deep in debt from paying for the best school they could find. Many spend their days working for $10-$12 an hour paying back those student loans. If you consider yourself quiet, reserved, introverted, independent, rebellious, if you have a problem w authority and people telling you what to do, think real hard before you decide to go this route. I’ve had chefs throw away mountains of prep because of one bad knife cut, one mushroom sliced to thick, on pepper not julienned properly. You gotta have a thick skin for the kitchen. If you can’t stand to be berated, interrupted, made fun of, coached, yelled at, then you need to think again. I was a pretty mean kid and I had been in many strange situations growing up but the people I’ve worked in the kitchen w/ have made ME blush several times.
I group up in San Diego. My life led me to the kitchen out of necessity. I started working as a breakfast cook in Coronado. I learned after a while I was excited to go to work, the thrill of the morning rush, then busting ass, pushing out prep to get ready for the lunch rush and the next day’s breakfast all while having a board full of tickets. It was in this position I learn about being prepared and having backups of prep. If you go thru a 6th pan of onions a day you need to have 3- 6th pans prepped because when you run out you don’t want to cut veggies to order. Eventually I discovered San Diego Job Corps and took a tour. I saw their foodservice program and loved the idea of learning how to feed people on a large scale. We’d cook lunch to the staff and some of the students and we did it seated / plated banquet style. It was Chef Richard Seigel who would drive and organize us. I remembering getting the promotion to lead student cook and the pride it gave me. Plates had to go out in unison, clean rims and identical. I was lucky enough to be granted a scholarship to a Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute. I made the move from South San Diego to Colorado’s Vail valley and its was complete culture shock.
I talk to friends and family and they tell me about their relative who wants to become a chef and I always ask if the future chef as ever even set foot in a commercial kitchen. The normal response is something like, “ well no but they’re passionate “. Let me explain something, the kitchen is not for most people. I usually tell people that if you’re serious about becoming a chef, don’t go to culinary school, go straight to the kitchen. If you can survive for 1 year on the line you can make it almost anywhere. Your normal day will be spent in a 100 degree kitchen, you’ll always be short something whether it’s an ingredient, broken machinery, not enough pans / plates, or broken / no dishwasher. You always start from behind because someone on the previous shift wasn’t as prepared as you were and your prep got used up. And if you do work up the nerve to mention ( complain ) any of this to a supervisor, you’ll get a funny look and be told “ your job is to make it happen with whatever you’re given “ and that is my favorite part of the business. If you can get excited about solving these problems, improving efficiency and being the teacher while learning on your own, instead of waiting for someone to take the time to teach you something, than this might just be a good fit.
The reason I tell people to think twice about culinary school is because learning to cook is MUCH easier than you think. Us kitchen folk use words, techniques and tools most people would never use. If you want to learn you have to ASK or figure it out for yourself. You can take a class at a restaurant, at a professional teaching kitchen, or even community college classes are full of good info. I know Groupon and Living Social have special deals on cooking classes. Learning is the easy part. The hard part, of course, is to make the time to devote to learning new techniques. For all you students keep doing what you’re doing but if you want to get a step ahead and for those that are busy with life and just want to learn new cooking methods, take advantage of the information age! You got Youtube, Blogs, Food network. Hell, when my brother and I were kids we’d watch “Yan can Cook” and “The Frugal Gourmet“ on Saturday mornings. Sit down and take notes. One of my favorite shows was Alton Brown’s “ Good Eats” – the guys explains everything down to the science. Justin.tv usually has someone streaming a foodie channel. Free information is all around us, we just have to seek it out.
Working in the kitchen is hard, but it’s fun, fulfilling and educating. You form very tight bonds with the people you work with. When you take pride, ownership and accountability for your efforts you will be rewarded w/ praise, compliments and opportunity. I’ve cooked for celebrities, huge parties, private small parties and every time I finish the biggest effect is to my ego. When I’m done I can tell myself “ I DID THIS “.
So at the end of the day you get to decide how you learn how to cook, a commercial kitchen, culinary school, Youtube, TV, community college, restaurants or teaching kitchens. Taking the leap towards becoming a chef is big and intimidating. Be confident in your decision, its hard but don’t look back. The work is hard, the hours are long and the kitchen is hot…. Hence the proverb. You can go anywhere in the world and cook, literally. It’s never the prettiest job but like all the service jobs, when you’re done you feel like you accomplished something that impacted the lives of those you serve and hopefully taught someone something in the process. In the grand scale of things, the hope is, that you plated amazing looking food w/ fresh, local, humble ingredients that you made into an amazing tasting end product, you made a few people smile and that is why we do this.