Provide budding cooks with a reality check about how becoming a chef is more than just cooking well.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
As you approach the end of the school year, many of your students will be looking toward starting jobs in the culinary field. When looking for a job, they need to sell themselves and their abilities. However, they need to be cautioned not to oversell.
Let me give you two examples: I met a young person who told me she was a “chef at Taco Bell.” I asked if she worked in the corporate office doing development and perfecting of new recipes. “No,” she said, “I am a chef at the Taco Bell about a mile from here.” The second example comes from a culinary instructor friend of mine, who worked in another program. My friend asked if I could instill some reality in a student. I asked my friend’s student what he wanted to do after graduation. He said, “I’m going to get a job as a lead cook or sous chef working for a celebrity chef.” I told him how unlikely this would be right out of a culinary program. I also stated that working for a restaurant owned (or whose name was licensed by) a celebrity chef didn’t mean he would be working with that chef. He replied, “Oh, the chef will know me. I’m going to challenge the chef to a cooking competition just the chef and me. I’m going to show him I can cook better than he or she can. And since I can cook better, that means I am a better chef.” (Emphasis original.) It is not often that I am speechless, but this comment left me without anything to say for quite a few moments.
I thought about the article, Teaching Culinary Job Titles, which published in the September 2017 edition of Gold Medal Classroom where I covered the difference between a chef and a cook. I realized listening to this young man that many of us—as culinary instructors—need to go further than what I wrote then. We need to instill a sense of reality and a bit of humility in some of our graduates. In that article, I wrote:
“A chef’s or executive chef’s job goes way beyond cooking. Some of the responsibilities include, but are not limited to: staff scheduling; hiring and firing; ordering; assuring legal compliance of the health regulations and workers’ safety rules; dealing with customer complaints; planning specials and menu changes; inventory management and control; financial issues; and more.
“The true mark of an executive chef or chef is that she or he is responsible for everything that happens in the kitchen whether or not she/he is even in the kitchen. As I ask my students, ‘If I am a chef in a commercial kitchen and I am on a two-week vacation laying on the beach in Tahiti and the line cooks run out of prepared chicken, whose fault is it?’ The students almost always say, ‘It’s the fault of the line cooks as they didn’t prepare enough.’ Of course, the chef is the true answer. A good chef knows everything that is going on in his/her kitchen whether or not he/she is even there.”
However, I realized that the young cook in my example, and many of our other students, need this explained in a no-holes-barred realistic manner. I looked at the young man and said “Ok, do you want to challenge me to a cooking competition?” The other chefs at the table looked over at me and then stared at him. He jumped in with trash talk, “Sure, anytime you want. I am going to out cook you like you wouldn’t believe.” I leaned back and said, “Ok, I concede. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume I lose the competition. You still aren’t a better chef than me. You aren’t even a chef.” Before he could respond, I looked at him and started firing questions at him:
- Do you know what to do when its eight p.m. on a Friday night and the walk-in’s coils freeze up with thousands of dollars of product in it?
- How do you politely respond to a customer that you did not mess up his gluten-free plate by putting rice on it while the customer is drinking a beer?
- You call your sales rep late in the day to find out where your delivery is and he tells you that the last two checks from corporate headquarters bounced and there won’t be a delivery unless you pay COD. You are being told this while you have a full book of reservations and catering events starting in one hour.
- Are you the fastest dishwasher in the place?
- What do you say to the Health Inspector when one of your staff violates the health code right in front of her or him?
- How do you handle a customer who is unhappy with her or his dinner but didn’t say so until eating nearly all of it?
- What do you do when the hot water heater bursts and starts leaking hot water (and rust) all over the floor in the middle of service?
- What do you do when the POS goes down in the middle of a Saturday night when you are fully booked? (By the way, the young man I was talking to looked up and said, “What’s a POS?”)
- Can you figure out in your head the labor cost and food cost of every item on your menu?
- Can you read a P & L? Do you even know what is a P & L?
- Do you know how to legally hire and, more importantly, how to fire someone?
- How do you teach a young cook right out of a culinary program that he/she isn’t a chef?
The young man was dumbfounded. “I had no idea. I guess when I tell other chefs that I’m a chef they are insulted.” I was pleased he had gotten the point of the lesson. He turned to me and said, “So how do I become a chef?”
I started by telling him what chefs always say: “Get a job under a good chef and listen and learn from her. Tell that chef you would like her to mentor you. Watch what everyone in the kitchen does and how they do it. Learn all of the stations. Ask to sit in at all business meetings. Volunteer for any special assignments. And then in a year or two, move on to a new place and repeat. While doing this, get your hands on and read all the books you can about chefs in history and modern chefs. Travel and try new cuisines. Work around the country and internationally if possible.” Next, I told him what cooks always hate to hear: “Take accounting and business classes.” Young cooks don’t understand that being a chef involves being a businessperson.
While I was saying this, I thought of something else to tell him—something I had never told a budding chef. I remembered what my mentors and teaching credential instructors, Lee and Susan Clark, told me nearly 15 years ago: “Never do your best.” I told this to the young chef-to-be. He stared at me dumbfounded! I asked him if he had seen the new wireless commercials about how “Just OK” was not OK? He told me he had. I told him to take that one step further. I told him that just as he should never serve food that was “Just OK” he should never “just do his best.” He still looked confused. I told him, “Suppose you are getting on an airplane. The pilot comes on and says, ‘I will do my best to get you there safely.’ What do you think? Do you want the pilot to do his best or to actually get you there safely? Suppose a surgeon says to you just as you are going under anesthesia, ‘I will do my best.’ What will you think? You don’t want her to do her best, you want her to do it right.”
My new prodigy looked at me and said, “I get it. Doing one’s best doesn’t force yourself to a higher level. It is a cop-out, an excuse. It’s like saying ‘my bad.’ It doesn’t get the customer the best experience. It doesn’t help make the kitchen better. It doesn’t get you promoted. You can’t just do your best. You have to do it right. You have to do it right every time. And, you have to do it fast. You have to make everyone realize that you are always striving to do it better and faster. You have to show everyone—including yourself—that you are better than the best.”
I shook the young man’s hand and said, “Now you know what it takes to become a chef.”
(Take a look at a past 50 Minute Classroom article, 12 Things For Culinary Students to Know, for more information on what it takes to make it as a new culinary professional.)
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.