I get a lot of email from cooks, chefs, soon-to-be cooks, culinary students, parents, spouses of BOH peeps, etc. They are looking for advice from someone in the field that no for-profit culinary school, or glossy magazine will tell them about the whys and the hows that one needs to navigate this mine-field of a not-so-straightforward-road of a career "path."
But my viewpoint, my story, if you will, is only mine. Please write your own comments below to add to this list. Every kitchen, every city, every chef, every cook, every walk-in is a snowflake. Meaning: what my kitchen requires might be loathsome to you. Or what one feels every stagiaire should know, times a thousand, creates the real list.
A female culinary student has written to me for advice on staging. I replied thus:
- bring with you: a notebook that fits in your back pocket, 1 fine & 1 regular sharpie: both black. have these with you for the rest of your career. Claire Fontaine is the very best notebook I have ever used.
- buy a waterbottle/put your name on it. EAT A SOLID MEAL BEFORE EVERY SHIFT you work. do not expect the job to feed you.
- eat foods that give you real energy. if you start to survive on caffeine/sugar/drugs etc. you will not have the real stamina you need to last in this industry for more than a few years.
- if you plan a career in pastry, keep a baby offset spatula in your pocket. there are one million uses for this tool and if it's sleeping in your knife kit, you can't use it on the fly. also a hard bowl scraper in your other back pocket. I can't tell you how many savory cooks have borrowed this from me-- it's amazing for passing difficult solids through fine meshed sieves/tamis etc.
- look and learn. try not to chat or ask a lot of questions. see if your answer is in front of you before asking it.
- be safe. stay out of the way. a stage is always in the way, but try to find a place to be and keep it clean and organized.
- show up early & stay late. this shows commitment.
- SAFETY FIRST. because you are an unpaid worker, the establishment is taking a risk with you being there. if you are injured in their kitchen you will be covered by workers comp, but the money basically covers band-aids. if you cannot lift more than ______# don't do it to be macho. I know people who have had serious injuries because they were too afraid to appear weak in front of their peers.
- the answer to every question is either "Yes, Chef" or "No, Chef" it's always better to start out more polite than you need to be.
- all your tools should be clean and sharp. if you don't need your gigantic tool-kit, don't bring it. bring only the tools your chef tells you you need. but this does not apply to your baby offset spatula. you should never be without this.
- wear a uniform that fits you. you should look neat and clean at all times, and professional. do not wear your school chefs coat.
- be on guard. sometimes the friendliest cooks do not have your best interest in mind. do not shut off your instincts! if someone feels creepy, in ANY way, they probably are creepy. give said person the least amount of energy you can but do not act rude.
- it's possible you will be older than everyone in the kitchen. these days a lot of executive chefs are 30 or under. if the whole kitchen is very young, age-wise, they might try to make you feel out-of-place. stand your ground - you are there to learn, not be their mommy or guidance counselor. anyone can go to college, at any age! a stage is like auditing a class, not marriage. no matter what a cook's age; if he/she is serious, respectful, polite, humble, clean, organized, and has a sense of urgency, he/she belongs in said kitchen and can grow to be part of the team.
- immediately after every day of staging, write down EVERYTHING you saw, did, heard. even if this isn't legible to anyone else but you; even if grammar can't find it's way into your sentences, write it down. at least 30m before you go into that kitchen, read through your notes twice. at the end of every week, create a list of the most important things you saw, heard, smelled, ate, tasted, felt etc.
- KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF. if you hate the food, or think the chef is disorganized, or think you know better, or see someone not FIFO'ing, or see a busser/server/host drinking the last of the wine glass dregs, or suspect _________ is having an affair with __________, or want to season something more/less, or think BOH should get to eat family meal, or any variation therof, stow said opinions away in your "what I learned during my stage" notebook. DO NOT SHOW this notebook TO ANYONE but your cat.
- if someone asks for your opinion, be vague and diplomatic if you feel negatively. the premise of a stage is that you are a person who knows almost nothing. if you know more than nothing, keep it to yourself, unless YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE the person you are dealing with is an ALLY. even someone you are sleeping with might not be your ally. all is fair in love, war, and kitchens.
- hierarchy is a real thing. it matters. a lot. pay VERY CLOSE ATTENTION to who likes who more, who teases who more, who is quiet, who is boistrous etc. it's just like grade-school -- you don't want to be beat up every day at school, but there are factions, and if you are seen as a traitor to the team you're on, it can be hard going. straight up people pleasing gets most people in trouble.
- when you have questions, make sure they're informed. meaning: do your homework. research the chef, the restaurant, the pastry chef, the cuisine, the owners etc. if I think the question asker is lazy I don't give that person a lot of attention. I'm more fond of the curious person than the know-it-all.
- my favorite cooks are the ones who care, are intensely clean & organized, and are problem-solvers. anyone, skilled or not, can point to a problem and announce it. sometimes the only difference between a cook and a chef is how she/he handles the SNAFU incomings.
- keep your eye on YOUR PRIZE. constantly re-define success. if you're learning anything, no matter how minor it appears in the scheme of things, that kitchen is a good place to be. but YOUR PRIZE is yours: it's personal. we all think we can suss a person out, merely by look at them, watching them, and asking a few surface questions. not so. you have no idea why that gal on garde manger, that man expediting, or that woman on saute is doing what she's doing or where she's come from or what she's seen or how long she''ll cook for. keep your focus on you and keep your side of the street clean. accountability is your best friend, not your lover. accountability is looking deep within yourself and coming clean to your chef and your team when you've made a mistake. remember: you only go to sleep with you every night. your integrity is all you've got.
I look forward to hearing your experiences too!
Remember, we keep what we have by giving it away.