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Questions for professional cooks...

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Not About Food 9

Questions for professional cooks...

icanfeelthefire | May 27, 2007 10:48 PM

I need a bit of advice. Without any formal training or previous restaurant experience, I made the leap from “serious” home cook into the world of professional cooking and I’m now nearly a year into my culinary career. Of course, it’s barely paying the bills and the hours are long and hard, but I know this is what I want to do with my life. But so far I’ve worked for two respected “fine dining” restaurants in Manhattan and my experiences in each kitchen have been very different and I wonder if I’m on the right track.

The first kitchen I worked in was very regimented. Every move I made was carefully observed by the chef and any missteps on my part were met with harsh disapproval. There was a “system” in place in this kitchen, one that will perhaps be recognized by most professional cooks. I was taught to work quickly, cleanly and efficiently, and urged to be economical in my space and movements in every task I performed. I learned to be aware of my comrades in the kitchen and to announce my presence and announce dangers to others (“HOT!” “BEHIND!”, etcetera). This kitchen was also set up very well and its order was to be preserved at all times; everything had its proper place and all food was labeled, dated, covered and refrigerated properly and woe to those who failed to do so. I was taught to consolidate food into smaller containers whenever possible, to work with raw perishable foods over ice and to always cut waste into bowls for easy disposal, rather than ending up with a cutting board of say, shallot skins all over the place. Knife skills and safety were drilled into my head. I was taught to dutifully write down any instruction I was given for future reference, to “multitask”, to finish and clean up after one chore before abandoning it for another; in short, how to work “professionally”. I like to work this way. It makes sense to me. And I could endure the sometimes “bullying” outbursts of the chef when I erred, but the restaurant wasn’t doing well and as my hours and income dwindled, I decided to work elsewhere.

Now I’m working in a second kitchen that produces food of equal quality, but which isn’t nearly as disciplined, and this new chef, though much more appreciative of my dedication and reliability, doesn’t seem to mind the sometimes “unprofessional” practices of my coworkers. It’s a much more relaxed environment, but I don’t feel as if I’m being “disciplined” any longer and I worry about that, as unlearned and inexperienced as I am. I now find myself annoyed by the slow and sloppy routines of my peers, practices that would not at all be tolerated in my former kitchen . The work gets done nonetheless, and the food is still good, but I know firsthand from my former restaurant that it could all be done in a much better way for everyone. But it isn’t and the chef has a very laissez-faire attitude about it all. Nothing has changed about the way I work; no matter how tediously simple my present task might be, I can still hear in my mind the first chef rudely shouting “MOVE YOUR ASS!”, and I do. But these two kitchens are very different and I wonder if I’m in the right place to really LEARN about everything, or if I’m now just coasting through entry-level work with an easygoing chef. I can’t be sure myself since I’ve worked in only two very different kitchens and I’m not sure which one is more “typical”. I think I have high standards for my own work, but sometimes you just need to be shown that there’s a better way as well, and I wonder if I’ll be missing out on that sort of guidance now. In other words, should I wait much longer to put myself in a more challenging position or do rise as far as I can go in my current situation before looking elsewhere?

Any words of wisdom from professional cooks out there would be greatly appreciated.

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