Throughout the year, culinary school curriculums come to a close, and a seemingly endless crop of eager young cooklings are unleashed onto the world. Hopefully some of you reading this now fall into that category in which case 1. congrats on graduating! and 2. listen up. There’s a scary new land before you, and you’ll have to navigate it with some determination, a bit of luck and maybe a word or two of wisdom >ahem<.
I’ve run most of the spectrum in the pastry business. Pretty traditionally, I started out as a student. I became an intern at my school after graduating, then went off and became a cook, then a higher-level cook. You know how most of the rest goes: sous chef, pastry chef, executive pastry chef. I even spent some time teaching at my alma mater, really driving home the circle of life to all my students. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from those years that I can try and give back to those starting out. I like to think of it as my Bill and Ted moment; what my future self would tell me to better navigate the waters ahead.
- You don’t know sh*t.
Sorry to break it to you, but it’s the truth. I know, I know, that’s the last thing you want to hear after you’ve just sold your soul in student loans and spent however many months and years working for a shiny degree to put on the fridge. But I don’t care where you graduated from, or who you learned from, or how high in your class you were, or where you staged. You. Don’t. Know. Sh*t. Now that doesn’t mean your time at school was wasted or that you’ve just made a terrible (and expensive) mistake, far from it. In my opinion going to school is never a bad idea, and there are many merits to attending culinary school. Hell, I did it myself and don’t regret it at all. But understand that what you’ve just accomplished is the creation of a foundation to take out into the real world so you can actually start learning. You’ve basically just learned how to learn, because at the end of the day there is no substitute for the real thing.
So don’t be surprised when you start your first job and feel like a fish out of water. Like things are moving way too fast, and there’s too much to remember and that your hands and brain have suddenly parted ways and that you actually aren’t cut out for the kitchen at all and maybe shouldn’t have switched careers or that you should’ve been a lawyer like your parents wanted in the first place. This is called freaking the f*ck out, and it’s normal. You’re just acclimating to the real world, having left the safety of your tiny little schoolyard bubble. It may take a month or six or more, but eventually, if you put your all into it, you’ll get the hang of things and realize that you can do this. And if you’re smart, you’ll…
- Shut up, put your head down, and work.
When trying to make a good impression during a stage or just starting out on the job, one of the worst things you can do is prattle on about how you did things when you were at school and start name dropping what chefs you learned from or staged with and how amazing it all was. I’m going to repeat myself: this is one of the worst things you can do, only surpassed by accidentally cutting off your dominant hand or something similar.
Sadly, this is a pretty common scenario, and it drives me absolutely nuts. I mean I get it, you just want to fit in, impress your coworkers/Chef, prove your worth. But that’s not what happens. Instead everyone thinks you’re a brat that cares more about where you’ve been then where you are. So unless you’re asked, no one cares that your school had a rotovap or that you spent three weeks at Pierre Hermes’ shop in Paris.
All that anyone will care about is that you can do your job, day in and day out, without complaint. Which is why the absolute best thing you can do when you start your first job or land a great stage is shut up, listen hard to everything everyone tells you, write down everything everyone tells you, keep your eyes open, open your mouth only to ask questions when you have them and then when you’re given a task, put your head down and do it with complete focus. Even if and when you screw things up, as long as you do so with an “all business” demeanor, you’ll be gravy. This sounds simple, and yet it is such a rarity that should you actually follow this advice, you will take on the visage of a tiny little nugget of gold to your Chef.
Shut up. Pay attention. Work hard. The harder you work the better off you’ll be in the end, because…
- No one owes you a damn thing.
Like it or not, right or wrong, other than a pay check in exchange for labor, there is precious little that is actually owed to you. You are not entitled to anything, and if you’re looking for some direct industry feedback from myself and countless other chefs: An attitude of entitlement is far and away the most detrimental attribute any cook can have. Working at one job for six months does not mean you are owed a raise, or a new title or even the option to perform a new task. Working in the industry for a few years does not mean you deserve to be a sous chef. And if there’s some goal you have your sights set on, believe me there’s no fairy to tuck it under your pillow while you’re sleeping. You and only you will be your own greatest advocate. If you want something, you are going to have to work hard to make it happen.
An example: I get asked all the time how I learned decorative sugar work, and what type of job someone should look for if they want to learn too. It’s a bold assumption that there’s a job that hands you the time and tools to develop those rare skills. The truth isn’t so pretty. I learned by begging my chef daily for weeks to show me even the smallest of techniques. He wouldn’t, and so I resorted to learning step by step from an outdated book in my hot, cramped, tiny apartment kitchen using a lamp I pieced together. I spent hours and hours of my free time practicing and failing and trying again. Hours of sweating, burning myself, maybe even shedding some tears in absolute frustration and doubt. But slowly I learned. I created opportunities for myself at every job I worked. More begging, this time to my bosses, scheming to put showpiece up on the front counter or in the lobby, and coming in on my weekends and off hours to carve a place for my sugar work. I grinded. Late nights, missed birthdays and holidays and nights out partying with friends. Rinse and repeat throughout your entire career, over and over again.
Let’s be clear; I am not bragging about how great my work ethic is, or giving you the old “when I was your age” speech. I’m trying to illustrate that the only way to achieve what you want is through real sacrifice and determination, because that’s the only way there is, and if you aren’t going to work that hard for what you want someone else definitely will. But even with the will to succeed, it isn’t going to happen at all unless you…
- Be. Patient.
I am going to give you a very real scenario that I see all the time. A talented young cook has spent a brief amount of time in the industry and has shown great potential from the start. Maybe some of that gets into their head a little bit, maybe they’re starting to forget rule #3 and think they’re owed something by the pastry universe. Anyway, along comes an opportunity to move up quickly. A sous position at a restaurant with some hype. A “pastry chef” position to open a new project or to hastily fill a recent vacancy. More often than not, that cook (myself included) just can’t resist the temptation and takes the job. Chances are with a little “fake it ’till you make it” they can achieve some success too, but they’re building a house of cards.
Skipping the time it takes to truly master the fundamentals – an absolutely crucial step in any craft – is really just setting a time bomb. Sooner or later that lack of fundamental skill and experience that only time can provide will catch up with you. And the farther along your resume reads, the harder it is to take a step back and fill the gaps in your game. Worse yet, you may find yourself trying to catch up in front of a staff you’re supposed to be leading and teaching yourself.
It’s hard to be patient. It’s hard to see colleagues surge ahead in their careers and not want to do the same. But I’m telling you from personal experience that moving too quickly will only slow you down in the end. Put in the time and always walk before you run.
So far this is all well and good. With any luck some of you still reading this will take my advice instead of looking for ways to disagree. But every word I’ve written so far is for nothing if you don’t…
Wait, what? Seriously? After all of that, how am I supposed to relax?! It’s a tall order, I know – a demand for constant dedication, sacrifice and intense focus, all while keeping cool and having fun. What can I say, if it was easy than everyone would do it. Just remember to always keep things in perspective (at the end of the day you’re making cookies, this isn’t The Hurt Locker). You don’t have to have it all figured out right now. In fact, you shouldn’t have any of it figured out. There will be time for that, because your career will be a marathon, not a sprint.
In the end, the rules to thrive by are simple:
- Hard work.
It’s up to you to honor this craft and live those rules every time you step into the kitchen. Enjoy the journey.
Cheers – Chef Scott