A friend of mine asked me a little while ago for my thoughts and advice on entering the cooking world. Here is what I told her:
The first thing I would ask anyone seeking to make a career change to the food sector is WHY do you want to do so? There is no right or wrong answer, but depending on what your answer is, you might find that this is not the path for you.
If you think cooking is a fast-track to fame and fortune, you dream of being the next great television chef , then there is a great chance you will be sorely disappointed. I’ve met a few television chefs, and it seems the common denominator for many is having an larger-than-life personality and the ability to be outrageous. Yup, I’ve given up my dreams of fortune and glory.
Cooking, at least for me, is about feeding people. This is a realization I have come to after almost 18 years in the biz. It is a humble craft, and very temporal. Think about it. What someone eats today becomes compost tomorrow.
Cooking is NOT an art. Oh yes, there are aesthetics involved. But we are artisans, not artists. Our job is to produce the same consistent results day in/day out. The gnocchi is the biggest seller on the menu, and I have regulars who come in just for that. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, how I’m feeling, what’s going on around me. The gnocchi has to be at the same standard every time. This is the hardest thing for me to convey to young cooks.
What is your end goal? Do you hope to have your own place someday? And if you do, then learn basic accounting now. Learn to use social media, start making contacts in the food community. Decide what’s important to you in business. Is it pure profit? Is it a venue for personal expression? Do you want to be a part of a community? What are you standards for running your business, the people from whom you buy, the people with whom you work? Figure out your business ethics DNA now, and work to stay true to it.
If you do end up with your own restaurant, understand that cooking will be the last thing you will worry about at the end of the day. You should open a restaurant when you can cook on auto-pilot, not because you don’t care, but because there are so many other things that will need your attention:
making sure the restaurant is clean
updating the website
doing the books
scheduling equipment maintenance, repair
taking out the trash, doing dishes to save on labor costs, or when you can’t find a dishwasher
stressing about paying rent/bills/payroll
AND SO MUCH MORE.
At some point, cooking will become a relief, because here is the ONE thing you can do instinctively and well.
If you stay in the cooking world as an employee, know that this profession seems to attract people with “issues”—- drugs, alcohol and things I’ve never even considered. Some of them just show up and do the job, because that is all they can do. Are you able to see people through their faults, and value their attributes? At what point do you say enough is enough and jettison someone who is weighing your operation down? Like attracts like, and those who think like you will be attracted to working for you. Keep your standards high, and eventually you will find yourself surrounded by people with the same mindset.
What will set you ahead? Stay clean, stay sober, show up and give 110% every day. Understand that on the other side of the plate is a real live person who is going to EAT THE FOOD YOU JUST MADE. Don’t phone it in. Get discouraged (you’re human) but don’t let it show on the plate.
As Escoffier once said, a cook can be tired, but the guest must never know he is tired.
In other words, be professional.
You won’t get rich at this, at least not for the first few years. And it seems there is a trade off—- stay in the corporate world where the higher up the ladder you go, the less you will cook. You will make a comfortable living in return. Or stay in small establishments where you most likely will not have benefits, but because of the very nature of the beast, you will be cooking. And trust me, there are many days when I crave the security of working for a big hotel or company.
Would I do it again. Hells yes. Would I do things differently? I’m not sure. I think every thing I’ve done has made me a better cook, chef, person, and the last one is the most important one.
One last piece of advice: don’t spend big bucks on a long program. I chose a school with a short intensive curriculum. The school I went to taught me the nuts and bolts of good French cooking techniques, in a year, with vast amounts of hands-on classroom experience and real-life on the job training.
I’m not trying to discourage you. I just want you to have a realistic idea of what is involved in this crazy addictive restaurant world. Still going to take the plunge? Then come on in, the water is fine.