Building a Career in Food

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

There aren’t many industries that can promise you a career track for as long as you want it.  The food business is the positive exception to the rule.  The direction you choose can be as different as restaurant work to food sales, product research and development, teaching, marketing and even writing.  Kitchen tracks are diverse as clubs, destination resorts, hotels, fine dining, quick service, family dining or even operating a mobile food truck business.  The path you set and your commitment to following a plan will determine where you wind up in the food business.  So, how do YOU go about the process of building a road map toward realizing your professional goals?

KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

The intriguing thing about the food business is there is more to learn than there is time.  Every day you spend in the kitchen provides opportunities to build on your skill set and truly learn.  A cook or chef will never master how to prepare a dish without truly understanding the heritage behind the preparation, ingredient flavor profiles and the passion with which that dish was developed.  This must be part of your education.

SEEK OUT THE INFORMATION THAT YOU NEED

No one expects you to know everything, but they do expect you to know how and where to find the information you need to be successful.  A good start is to seek out the “where” in relation to the information that will allow you to succeed.

BE INQUISITIVE

Everyone has heard the statement that there is no such a thing as a dumb question (although many would argue with that), but regardless of your assessment of that commonly referred to quote, the best career-oriented cooks are always seeking an answer to “why.”

BE HUMBLE

When in doubt, always refer back to the first point: “Know what you don’t know.”  Even when you have mastered a task, make sure that you are always open to learning the next.  Chef Andre Soltner once said, “Keep in mind that we are all cooks.”  This was Soltner’s way of knocking down the pompous approach that some take once they reach a certain position in the kitchen.  Cooks are always hungry to learn – stay that way.

BUILD YOUR SKILL STRENGTH EVERY DAY

It will be your cooking skills that get you noticed initially.  If you are good with a knife – get better.  If you are fast and efficient – get faster without losing an eye on quality.  If your flavors are spot on – learn to master new ingredients, spices and herbs.  Every day is an opportunity to improve.  Michael Jordan took 100 free throws before every game to constantly improve his eye for the basket.

VOLUNTEER

The best cooks understand that a chef may not be able to pay you to learn new skills.  Volunteer to learn what you don’t know.  Ask the chef to help with inventory, costing out menu items, working on an ice sculpture, preparation for a food competition or testing new recipes.  Those who seek to learn will win the admiration of others and set the stage for career growth.

TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD YOUR BRAND

Every time you gain a new skill, make your presence known at a special event, put in the extra effort or work extra hard to strengthen the kitchen team, you are building your personal brand while helping the operation succeed.  Your brand is what will sell you to that next step in your career.

CREATE A NETWORK OF INFLUENCE

Start today – make a list of the chefs, restaurateurs, managers and business associates you admire.  Jot down why you admire them, what skill you could learn from an association with them and who can help you make a connection with them.  Once the connection is made, work the network by staying in touch, volunteer for a stage, seek advice when making a decision or simply follow what they do and how they accomplish their goals.  You never know when one of these contacts will serve as a valuable influence in your career.

FIND A MENTOR

It is time for a professional mentor in your life.  It might be the chef you currently work for, a previous employer, an educator or simply a person with a track record of business success.  Invest in spending time with them, offer to help with their endeavors, share your questions and your progress, and by all means – LISTEN to what they have to offer.  A mentor can keep you on the right track.

STRIVE TO BE A TEAM PLAYER

Chefs and restaurateurs hire team players who have the chemistry to “fit” in an organization.  Individual skills pale in comparison with your ability to play well in the company sandbox.

BE LOYAL

You will likely move to different food operations throughout your career, but while you are at a particular operation, make sure that you are loyal to the business, the chef and the owner.  Never compromise on this EVEN AFTER YOU LEAVE A PROPERTY.  When I  interview a cook for a position in my kitchen, I always ask what they thought of their previous employer, chef or manager.  If they immediately focused on spewing negative statements about that property or person, I would write them off my list of potential hires.

TAKE ON AN INTRAPRENEURIAL SPIRIT

Treat your job in any kitchen as if it were your own business.  Watch for wasteful production, stay tuned to maintaining a sense of order, take the time to check in purchases with care and treat every food item that you touch as if your signature were included on the plate.

CHECK YOUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR COMMITMENT

Finally, make sure that every day you prepare for another shift in the kitchen you review your career goals. Focus on this checklist as a way to shine and a way to make a difference for your employer.

As a chef or operator, take the time to guide your cooks through this process of career planning and invest your own time in their success.  It will pay back tenfold.

we are chefs

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.

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