By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
Lately I have read numerous comments that pertain to cooks’ disappointment and disillusionment with their work conditions, quality of life and compensation for their work. While I fully understand their situation and empathize with them, I feel that it is important to demonstrate that light exists at the end of the tunnel and to point to a strategy to use in setting a course for success.
“If you want a lot from life, you’ve got to give a lot.” – Charlie Trotter
Few would deny the level of professional success that Chef Charlie Trotter enjoyed. He was tough on his staff and even tougher on himself, and as a result his restaurant was deemed the best in the land for quite some time and enjoyed a 25-year run until he decided it was time to move on. Success (however you measure it) does not come easy–there is work to be done, but if a person sets a course, builds a strategy based on long-term goals, and sticks to that strategy, then all things are possible.
Whether a cook is starting out in a kitchen after earning a culinary arts degree or working his or her way through the school of hard knocks, there are definitive steps and clear realities that must prevail. Sacrificing long-term success for short-term benefits, needs or desires is rarely a good formula for the future. As hard as it might be, if a cook is serious about a career in the kitchen, these 11 lessons can help you achieve long-term success:
It takes time to reach your goals. Nothing takes the place of experience and kitchen experience is a requirement before you rise to the level of sous chef or chef. You must realize that even if you have a culinary degree and you follow all of these lessons religiously, it may take eight or more years before that first chef position is yours. Be realistic with your timeline and diligent with the process.
BE A SPONGE
Cooks who stick to their career timeline constantly look to learn something new. They view every task as an opportunity to build their brand and enhance their opportunities for added responsibility. Career cooks view every day as a new chance to improve and grow.
FIND THE ANSWER
“Why is it imperative that I caramelize onions for French Onion Soup?” “Is it really necessary to brown marrow bones before starting a veal stock?” “Is it really important to temper milk before adding it to a cream soup?” “Why do meats become tougher before they tenderize during the process of braising?” “Why is it important to clarify butter before using as a fat for sauté?” “Why should I bother to temper a block of ice in the cooler before attempting to carve it?” “Is there a legitimate reason for checking food temperatures throughout the process of preparation?”
When you have a question it is your responsibility to find the answer. Chefs are expected to have the answers and the only way that this is possible is if they take responsibility for learning “why” as much as “how.”
GIVE YOUR BEST – EVERY DAY
There is no excuse for anything short of excellence with every task. Dicing a carrot into a brunoise–make it perfect. Clarifying a consommé–it should be clear and free of particulates. Piping whipped potatoes on plates for 100–make sure they all face the same direction, have the same appearance and maintain their texture and temperature. Washing dishes when the dishwasher calls out–be the best dishwasher that the restaurant has ever seen even if it is not your assigned job. Always give your best.
You may be a cook today, but if your goal is to become a chef then you must be hungry for other skills beyond the range. Ask to help the chef with inventory, do research on new menu items or see if you can attend one of the restaurant’s marketing meetings. Learn how the chef costs out recipes and determines selling prices and show your interest in learning about the restaurant’s financial performance and how the indicators are built. Offer to research and develop a topic for inclusion in a kitchen staff meeting. Opportunities come to those who show a sincere interest in growing.
THE ANSWER IS YES
Chefs may occasionally grumble about requests and directives, but they know it is imperative to find a way to say yes to management and guests. Occasionally, the answer may be a guarded “no,” but only after giving due consideration to the importance of the request and the kitchen’s ability to deliver. Start saying “yes” today.
KNOW THAT YOUR JOB EXTENDS PAST YOUR SCHEDULE
Cooks get paid for the hours that they invest on the job, but those who have their eyes on the future know there are things to do when not on the clock. Reading about industry-related topics, researching regional competitions, tasting new foods at quality restaurants, studying cookbooks and becoming involved in professional organizations like the American Culinary Federation, are all important in meeting or even shortening that timeline to the position of chef.
COMPETE WITH YOURSELF
Competition in the kitchen can be healthy but in some cases it can be poisonous. The only real competition that a successful cook should take part in is competing with oneself. Raise the bar and make sure that every day you improve on the day before. Push yourself rather than wait for someone else to do the job for you.
BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC
Look at your work, every bit of your work, and ask “Is this the best that I can do?” If the answer is “no,” then find ways to get better. If the answer is “yes,” then know that you are not being truthful with yourself.
“You have to be critical of what you do every day–to analyze it and be willing to push it further.” -Charlie Trotter
BUILD YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF FOOD AND SERVICE
Find out what you believe in, then put your stakes in the ground. What is your philosophy in relation to food and cooking, management and working with your team? Build this as your brand and know what you are unwilling to give up along the way. There may be times to compromise, but there may also be beliefs that are far too important to put aside. This will help you determine where to work and who to work for. This is your reputation.
Good chefs are not full of themselves. They know how hard it is to rise to the position, they appreciate those who helped them along the way and they know that their role is to support and encourage those who now work with and for them. Their ego never gets in the way of doing a great job and doing what is right. Know that if you want the carrot of a great career then you must be strong, but humble, and anxious to give back.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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.