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« Portree Harbor, Isle of Skye. Scotland | Main | Urquhart Castle, Scotland {Loch Ness} »

17 May 2009

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Thank you for this, the most succinct, spot-on advice I've ever read about becoming a professional cook. My daughter is a pastry cook, and I wish we'd had your wisdom back when she was looking for her first job.

Fabulous post. One of the best I have read in a long time.

I am currently looking for a job and I was fairly lost as to where to start. This is pretty helpful =)!

Shuna! what can I say, your advice,wisdom is always grounded in "common sense", You learned from the school of hard knocks, not only have you paid your dues, you continue to pay them. Your blog is such a great resource, I hope the young professionals yet to be fully appreciate it. My daughter continues to sit on the fence of seeking out the dream to be a pastry chef. I hope she takes heed to the experience you so selfishlessly share. As always Thank You, you're simply the best!

I love your work ethic as it applies to every field, not just cooking. Hard work is the magic elixir that makes you successful.

This is f**in' intimidating... Sure will weed out the lazy and unsure...

Wow, great advice. I'm curious how this all works, and I'm glad I learned it here rather than the hard way.

Way to cut out the bullshit and get to the meat! Great post.

mental mis en place rings uncannily familiar ;)

yes. thanks for that, sir. use it a lot. xx shuna

Excellent post! You forgot the one question I always get in addition to those you listed - "How many months (or, for the truly over-confident, weeks/days/hours) do I have to work before I can become an executive chef at a 3 or 4 star restaurant?"

When I was a culinary student 2000 yrs ago, my Mum dragged me downtown and into a fancy restaurant asked to speak to the head cook, (she had no idea they were called chefs), and said my daughter needs a job. She can work hard and she will be on time.

I got the job... Tavern on The Green.

Lovebabz, I love this comment so much. For a lot of reasons. One of which-- that Tavern on the Green was "Downtown" for you! Thank you so much for giving this tidbit to us all at eggbeater! xxx shuna

Don't do it unless you are prepared to be hot, dirty, tired, and at the mercy of the cooks above you. You have to be extremely passionate about food, but more than that, you need to be humble and do everything asked of you. It's hard work, but gratifying in ways you can't yet imagine. I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top and I loved being in a kitchen. Now that I have "retired" I miss it every day.

What a great post. I'm now 10 years out of the kitchen, but everything you said still rings true. These are many of the same things I've said to people who have asked me for advice.

I especially appreciate you saying "learn on the job". That's how I learned, by working, and I think most people seem to think they need a culinary degree today.
I was always irritated by the kids who came in straight from Culinary school expecting to be hired as a Sous with no prior real-life experience. They seemed like they were just in it for the paycheck.

I still miss it at times, but mostly glad I no longer work 70+ hr weeks.

Great post as usual. I've been told by chefs I've worked for that a passion for cooking, while great, won't sustain you in the long run: you need to love the business. The odd hours, the heat, the burns, all of it.

Thanks for all the insight.

Very wise. And many points can be applied to any job hunt. Thanks for sharing.

This has given me a lot to think about. Currently I'm in a professional job, in an industry for which I have gone to school for 5 years, and for which I earned a bachelors and a masters degree. And $60,000 later, I have no interest in any of it anymore. I'm seriously considering a job in the culinary field, but I have no idea where to start. Thanks for all of the info - it won't make my decisions any easier, but I do feel much more informed. xoxo and lots of love - The Kitchenette

I know I should be reading the article, but I honestly couldn't stop staring at the pastry brake in the first photo.

(Drool....)

I'm not a chef, and only fantasize about working in kitchens. My true passion is music, and it took a failed piercing apprenticeship for me to realize that.

I just wanted to say that your blog is VERY helpful, regardless of which industry you're trying to get into. When I was trying to be a piercer, I did the piercing equivalent to everything you wrote above, and it really does work.

Now I'm trying to use the same process in a way to land a music job.

Something that I realized from my failed apprenticeship is that you really do have to be willing to give up everything for that job to truly say that that job is your calling. I was not a piercer, even pulling 50 hours at the shop in one week, on top of 30 hours at my day job. I got canned because I asked for a night off, so I could play a show with my band. It took me a few years to realize it, but the shop knew where my passion was, or at least they knew where it wasn't. I just wish they told me better. :)

Thanks for writing this. And thank Lifehacker for featuring it. :)

Hello Dave, Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving such thoughtful words of your own. I have embedded the Lifehacker link because today alone I got more traffic than I ever have, from this link. So Thank You as well, for letting me know how you got here. Hope to hear from you again should my words move you to comment again. ~ Shuna

You and I have very similar backgrounds regarding how we came to this profession. I often feel the urge to be back full time but my couple of broken ribs (bad fall with a loaded sheet pan) remind me it would not be a good idea.

I live by the motto, "why not?" So one day I entered a French restaurant I knew needed a pastry chef, introduced myself to the owner (she was French) and told her, "I am not a chef but I have been doing these desserts since I was a kid." She took me to the Exec. Chef and we talked.

I got hired on one month basis and I stayed there 6 years. I was lucky to be working next to an old French pro who took time before and after shifts to teach me "a trick a day".

On my days off, the kitchen became my lab and I would make lists of things and techniques to master while trying not to set the house on fire making caramel swirls and pulled sugar. I think I covered my dog in way too many things landing on the ground but I relentlessly worked at it. I still do.

It never stops, learning, sharing and teaching.

Best advice #1: never say, "it's not my job"
Best advice #2: don't do it for the money (there is none, well, most often). You may think it does not matter, but if you come from a 60K+ salary, it will...oh trust me it will. Do it because this is the only air you can breathe.

Shuna your blog will be helpful to many looking for work. Speaking for myself, cooking has saved my life many times. Although I have had several careers but cooking has been the most fulfilling.

In the LifeHacker Blog my comment, in response to yours, explains how cooking is universal. One can work anywhere in the world including London, England.

Thank you again,
danahyatt

Excellent, excellent piece!! Detailed, factual, frank, and still inspiring. Change the details and everything you write is true of music and writing, the two commercial/artistic/passionate avenues we pursue. "Polite persistence"--that's our motto! Try, try, and try again! So true about not taking rejection personally! Again, an excellent piece that we know will help many people!!!

For every artsy and interesting job in restaurant kitchens, there are hundreds of repetitive jobs that pay terribly, with yelling Simon Legree wannabees as your boss. Yes restaurant work can be rewarding, for some. For most, however, it's low paid drudgery, friends with substance abuse problems, and working when the rest of the world is off. Don't believe the romanticized hype! (10+ year veteran of the restaurant industry in the US).

Awesome article (I went through every single step you described)- I started 31 years ago in French kitchen as an apprentice. Never went to school and not even finished high school - in USA for 22 years. And they call me Executive Chef now somewhere in Florida in a resort - (I like more to be call a coach/mentor) -

Profession: very unrewarding - physical and mental scars - financial disasters - family, ouch! - long hours; of course......but I would not change a thing - My team and I have fun every single day and guess what...I do not work anymore!!!!!!!

Great post!

I started my cooking career as a college student working the counter in a coffee bar/deli attached to a restaurant, and when things were slow I'd go back to the kitchen and ask if I could help-and there was always something that could be done to help. Within six months I was the sous chef of the restaurant, within a year I was the chef, starting a series of positions where I went on to work under excellent chefs in prominent kitchens, before working as a pastry chef, chef to a prominent entertainment figure, and getting to travel as a chef on a private yacht. I even got a shot on tv one time, which was a very educational fiasco.

I always looked for things to learn, always was amenable to opportunities, and opportunities kept showing up. I realized that there are a lot of people with lots of skills looking for every position--but the one who stays on is the one who makes everyone else's job easier. Drama is only allowed to persist at the top of the food chain.

What did I really learn along the way?

Aptitude and attitude is at least as important as experience; plan on showing up early and staying late; and the most important:

If cooking is all you want to do or all you can do, do it and if not do something else!

Words of wisdom a great old-school chef asked me when he hired me for his line: "Did you go to culinary school? No?...Good, because if you're going to be making any mistakes, they'd better be mine!"

I cooked for ten years before deciding that there was something else I wanted to do more--now I'm a doctor working in an emergency room which is actually less stressful than some kitchens I've worked in.

For what it's worth, one of the best transferable skills I took with me was the ability to work with full focus in a room full of hustling people and not bump into anyone!

And what I still can't get over, I got way more respect as a chef than as a doctor. When I was a chef, it was like, "Oooh, You're a chef? Date my daughter!"

Hi Shuna-
What to add that you haven't already spelled out so eloquently here? Not to discourage anyone but when people ask me for advice about giving up their medical/law/financial career in order to pursue their love of baking, I look them straight in the eye and say, "If you love baking as a hobby, then keep baking as your hobby. Don't make it your work, because then it becomes work." I adore baking. I love being a pastry chef. I wake up every single day jazzed to go to work. I can't NOT bake. But I've seen, and hired, too many starry eyed pastry chef wanna-bes who come into my kitchen thinking they are going to be testing new recipes each day and talking about the relative merits of cake flour versus all-purpose in croissant making and lovingly slicing up ripe peaches for tarts.
-Instead they find themselves up to their ears in an ever-growing production list, on their hands and knees scraping out tubs of cookie dough from a mixer bigger than them, being told to be faster, cleaner, more focused, more prepared, more disciplined, more careful. (And not always in a nice tone.)
-Just because it's baking (or cooking) doesn't mean that you don't deal with domineering bosses and annoying co-workers and deadlines and reviews and traffic jams and all of the things that happpen out there in the real world. I left a business career in part because I was fed up with office politics. They don't compare to kitchen/restaurant politics!
-Say goodbye to holidays with family and being a part of weddings and taking summer vacations on the Cape (at least in the beginning.) Don't even think about trying to plan a vacation (unless it's in-between jobs) or asking for a weekend off to attend your brother's graduation (sorry Bro).
Too many people leave this industry after a year, or less, because they are not aware of how non "fun" it can be. How much like work it can be. Because it is work.
If you read all of this and say, I don't care, then maybe this is the right field for you. I hope this isn't too negative! I always end up encouraging people to go for it; but I worry all the time that they don't really know what they are getting themselves into.
As always Shuna thanks for a terrific post and your incredible teachings and generosity!

hi shuna,

great post with lots of good advice.

if you really want to follow this life there is always a way to get to where and what you want. you must believe this is the only place in the world for you and have respect for everyone in the kitchen. remember there is always someone who knows how to work better, faster and cleaner then you. never, never think you know everything.

I have letters after my name and all, but i still think of myself as just a cook with a long way to go for perfection.

this is still after 30+ years the most fun and dynamic thing i could ever do or be.

cheers

Great blog! I took the cooking school route at ICE (then Peter Kump's) and got through internship at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino with Margaret Fox, with whom I'm still in contact 22 years later.

I ended up in a different career but do have a cooking blog and enjoy cooking for family and friends.

Don't worry about Scotland. It's a beautiful country. Just stick with the fish (mussels, salmon...) and leave the burgers alone. They look and taste like hockey pucks.

Since I'm cooking for my husband and not in a restaurant I was able to spend several months in Glasgow on an assignment a couple of years ago. I loved most of the food, and the people were lovely. Cheers!

Hi Shuna,

Thanks for writing this. I love check lists and
bullet point lists! Awesome. I just mentioned your post on our blog (credits to Lifehacker and Serious Eats, that's how I heard about you). I tried to build on the aspect of self-employment because that is something which I hear a lot of folks are interested in these days (our blog's audience, particularly).

Thanks and keep up the great work!

Julian
Founder
Book of Cooks

A great read. Thank you for writing this! Probably the most important thing for me has been to make sure to work with someone you admire and respect, because then everything else fades into the background, no matter how hard the work is.

Great post, this will scare any culinary graduate but if you are going to be in the industry you need to know this. For myself I know I need to try, you never know unless you try and I can always come back to this post and think hell she told me so!

honestly do you think people who went to a culinary school have a better chance of getting a job in a good kitchen? if 2 people with no experience at all, want professional kitchen job, but one went to culinary school, and the other did not, who has the better chance?

Maria, Your point is well taken and thoughtfully asked. I agree that the person who went to culinary school has a better chance, but I do not agree this is the only way. Since the cost of culinary schools is mostly outrageously high, {especially considering said student will only make minimum wage when they graduate and start working professionally}, I want to remind everyone that there's more than just one, very expensive, way. ~ Shuna

Thank you for this poignant and frank post. I have grown up with an intense love for food and cooking, and have recently wondered how to enter the business of cooking without the culinary degree. It makes complete sense to take your advice! That's what "internships" are in any other industry.

My one concern is, do you think it's still possible to begin working in a kitchen if your hours are limited to Fri evenings and Saturdays and Sundays? I have a 9-5 currently in advertising, which pays the bills, but is my limited expendable time enough for a chef/restaurant to take me serious?

Thank you again!!

Hello Beckyoinla, These hours don't sound like one's in which you could fit in an intense internship unless sleep isn't very important to you. But the real truth is this: You Will Never Know Until You Try & Exhaust All Your Possibilities! Best of luck & fortitude, Shuna

Read all reviews in your chosen community for the past 5 years.

Request names of CIA, NECI, FCI, alumnus in your chosen community.
Learn what NECI and FCI are about.

Figure out your top five choices. Cross reference the list from the culinary schools, and make contact asking about the alums career path, advice for staging/volunteering, their local sources for cookbooks and knives, their point of view about schools and the importance of getting real experience before enrolling.

Meet the chef, but don't ask dumb questions. Do your homework. Talk to them about their path. Express interest in volunteering. If there's no room, ask their advice and act upon it. Check back after a few month's to let them know how it's going and re-express interest. Work for someone who has ascended into a chef position from a stint in the "uber chef's" kitchen. Volunteer for them. Be willing to do anything you're asked. Do it with a sense of urgency - speed will come in time. Ask questions, and listen carefully. Transcribe notes from your pocket notepad for a few years. Don't spend your meager income on tattoos and marijuana - spend it on cookbooks, knives, and educating your palate. If you smoke, quit. Learn how to sharpen your own knives. Get good exercise and sleep, so your 'A' game is standard behavior.

Can I send this to the local culinary school in my area. I own a small bakery and we get a request every week- lately the people applying for an internship know nothing about my company, they don't even look up our website. In addition they send me criptic email like- I want 2 do an internship @ y4 bakery. Then I have to say go to this blog and read the real way to get a job. Keep writing and educating.

Nice topic.Stay humble. People who have been cooking for decades and decades will die knowing less than most people think they know in their first few years cooking/baking.

Amazing post. I wish I had read this when I was 18. I wanted to cook, but took the more conservative route (college and software development job). I love what I do, but I regret not being a cook every day. Now at nearly 50, I'm trying to get back into a culinary career. You inspire me. Thank you.

Thank you for this eye-opener into the profession. I've been looking for blogs like yours to help me decide before signing my money away. I stumbled onto your site after enrolling in culinary arts, although I did do as much research as I could.

With your permission, I'd like to link to this in my "Today's Specials" news roundup and add you to my blogroll.

Luto-lutuan, Yes, of course you may link to this post. I do ask that you hyperlink with my full name and/or the name of the blog and /or the full name of the post. I'm so happy these words meant something for you. These words weren't here for me when I started, so I am glad to be able to share them now. Thanks for reading, Shuna

I love this!

This is really good article. A lot of good career foundation building in this post.

What great advice, so many youngsters seem to think because they want a job, it should be given to them. Reality tv hopefuls illustrate the point.

Thank you for posting this. I'm not yet out of high school and have been toying with the idea of becoming a pastry chef, but I haven't really decided. I've heard a hundrend "insights" into the business, but this is the first information to come my way that really drives home its point. Your advice is wonderful, inspiring, heartbreaking, and has given me plenty of food for thought. (pun completely intended)

this really cheered me up. almost poetic really...cheers!

how do you feel about hotel restaraunts vs free standing restaraunts as far as working.

i must say, I've been in a kitchen for the past few months and the owner although has his good times tends to take his dress out on me and make me feel like my work, as well as myself just isn't good enough. I've been battling it over in my heas, stay, leave stay, leave. But after reading this I feel like I can tough it out a while longer. Thanks for posting your words of wisdom.

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