Are You a Culinary Student? Here's What 6 Chefs Think You Should Know.
Besides “don’t forget your Sharpie.”
September 7, 2017 ● 3 min read
By Chef Kerstin Bellah | Image Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
I’m what you could call a risk-averse risk-taker. I like the idea of the blind leap of faith, but I also like to see where I’m going.
While contemplating sending my resume to some fancy culinary school in Paris that I knew was way out of my league, a mentor told me, “The worst they could do is use your resume as toilet paper.” That's always stuck with me, even if I still find myself obsessively weighing possible outcomes.
Being a cook will teach you more than you ever thought you needed to know. It will teach you how to work under a kind of pressure most people never encounter in their lifetime, how to stay on your feet for (what feels like) days on end, how little food you can survive on (tip: always eat family meal), how to take constructive criticism, and how to bandage wounds.
There’s no shortage of pieces like these, extolling you to go for the gold, to work your tail off for this life—and since I too chose this path, I’d advise the same. You should be the first one to show up, and the last one to leave. You should take initiative, even when you doubt yourself. You should make anything and everything.
And yes, you will mess things up. You will forget an ingredient and feel like you’re going to die; that’s another one of the lessons. If you always stay where you’re comfortable, you’ll never make it past the starting gate. And if you’re lucky enough to make it to a position higher than you started, remember that no job is beneath you.
As chefs, we spend our entire careers learning what to do and what not to do. There is an unspoken language in the kitchen that newcomers would rather not learn the hard way, and for every kitchen, there’s a new language: for some, there is no banter, no music, and absolutely no mistakes. Others sling burgers, blast music, and tell dirty jokes. Different strokes for different folks.
Here’s what a few friends wish they knew when they walked in the back door, fresh chef coat itching their necks, and nerves making their guts churn.
Kendall Melton [Chicon/Contigo, Austin]: “How little you’ll be paid, how to take responsibility and accountability, and how to work quietly with others without the need to fill space. I guess I just wish I would’ve known how stupid I was.”
Rob Drennan [R&D Maaemo, Olso, Norway]: “Be ready to fail, but use it as a tool to learn and grow. Listen, observe, and take notes.”
Richie Nakano [IDK Concepts, SF]: “You’ll need to be comfortable and even motivated to leave a long trail of personal and professional relationships in your wake to advance in your career.”
Philip Speer [Bonhomie, Austin]: “I wish young culinary graduates had a greater understanding of how food arrives at our doorstep. The fact that an animal or vegetable is raised or grown, cared for, slaughtered, broken down, packaged, delivered, possibly stored and delivered again...not only was a life given but the amount of hands and effort that goes into the food before it gets to the restaurant. I wish they understood the time, energy and money it takes to train and employ a cook. If they had a greater understanding of this, maybe the turnover rate these days would lessen. Maybe not?”
Page Pressley [Emmer & Rye, Austin]: “Apprenticeship is an equal—if not superior—form of culinary education that will give you a realistic understanding of the industry early on. Understand your ‘why.’ Why are you cooking? Why are you committing to this life?”
There are sacrifices you’ll never be prepared for, no matter how much research you do. But culinary school diploma or not, if you can hack it in this industry, you will. It’s that simple. Culinary school can teach you how to chop an onion, to sharpen your knife, and read a recipe – sure. But the overwhelming feeling of love, passion, accomplishment, teamwork, and family that comes from a professional kitchen just isn’t something you can get from a classroom.
When you get a taste of it, and can’t seem to get enough no matter how broke or tired you are, that’s when you know you’re hooked. That’s when you’ll know you made the right call. And, your parents will get it eventually.