Friday, December 7, 2007

Notes: Becoming a Chef

This book has been an indispensable source of advice. It's a hodgepodge of interviews, tips, culinary history, anecdotes, and inside information from leading chefs in America. Many of the chefs we admire today had humble beginnings (dish washing, like cook), and paid their dues for a few years. Almost all of them recommend working in a real kitchen prior to committing to culinary school. They say to shoot for the stars, so this is what gave me the courage to walk into Masa and Per Se in my initial effort to find kitchen work. I'll look back on that and have a good laugh about it one day.

Here, some valuable advice from the chapter on apprenticing:

Passion and humility play integral roles in staring a kitchen as an apprentice. You must have the passion to convince a chef to take you on, and that you—as an untrained cook (he-hem, that would be me)—will be worth the chef's and staff's time and effort to teach you.

You can demonstrate humility by showing respect for the food (especially the poor pig in the walk-in) and the entire staff.

According to Mario Batali (love him! gush gush...), "I dropped out of culinary school, and I don't believe that it's a prerequisite for a cooking career...If two people came to me and one had worked for a great restaurant in Europe for two years (o.k., if I absolutely must, I'll do it, Mario) and the other had gone to cooking school, I would rather hire the person with real experience because I know that they really learned how to cook."

While chefs certainly like the idea of free labor, recognize that it represents a significant commitment of time and energy to teach you.

Do your best to demonstrate that you learn quickly, handle criticism constructively (will this industry finally help me develop a thick skin???), and know enough to ask good questions (yes, but how much is too many questions?).

Working your way up means you also must be much more aggressive and structured about your education outside the kitchen. You must seek out on your own the hows and whys of what you're doing. According to the author, "I learned the techniques, but I didn't learn the theory behind them until I went home and did some reading on my own." (Aw shucks, I guess that means I have to read more books on food!)

Leading chefs see these developmental experiences as central to the process of learning to cook (great advice to keep in mind - to get the most of my time at RestoX, I need to understand every task in the context of the bigger picture).

Develop in depth and breadth, seeking out opportunities to work with the unfamiliar i.e. baking, pastry, and, for me, working closely with meats (oh yes, the pig).

"Becoming a chef is a very, very long process. There's not a day that passes, even today, that I don't learn something." A humble quote from Madeleine Kamman.

And so much more, but for now I will meditate on these as prep for tomorrow, the Big Day in the Kitchen part deux.
Becoming a Chef, by Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page