How to Be a Chef
One thing I get asked a lot is how to become a chef, so I figured that I'd save everyone (and me!) time by putting my advice up here for the world to see. It all boils down to one word: don't.
It never ends well.
If that doesn't discourage you, then here's my advice on what you need to do. This isn't the only way, and it's maybe not the best way, but I don't know any other way. Like most people who own restaurants, I have tunnel vision and can only imagine doing things the way I did it.
First, go into your kitchen. Put a giant pot of boiling water on the stove and stand in front of it for eight hours. Occasionally stab yourself in the hand with a sharp knife. Find a right-wing radio show, the more rabid the better, and turn it up to ear-splitting volume. Pretend that when they are yelling at the president they are actually yelling at you. Imagine that each insult is very personally directed at your stupid face. Try not to cry. When the eight hours are up, imagine that this is every day of your life and ask yourself if you still want to be a chef. Yes? Then congratulations! You are exactly the kind of masochist who is ready to cook in a professional kitchen!
The next thing you need to do is forget about becoming a chef. For years, I've interviewed, hired, and usually fired, people who wanted to be chefs. They've seen it on TV! They've read about it in books! It looks exciting! They have no idea what it means! Being a chef isn't a goal, it's something that happens to you as you cook for a living. You need to love cooking, and give yourself over to it, and along the way you'll discover what it is you're going to become. Some people are great at managing a kitchen, but bad at cooking, but good at working a line. Other people are great on the line, but terrible at managing a kitchen, and only okay at cooking. This is your skill set and it'll develop over time. That's what determines what you wind up doing, not your vague desire to be a chef.
The point is, it's the journey, not the destination.
I know this because my spirit animal told me so.
My spirit animal. He's big into rocking.It's natural to want to skip to the finish line and declare yourself a chef, but you have to put in the time. For me, it was 10 years before I was really ready to run a kitchen, and when I look at how much better I am now than I was even four years ago, I'm embarrassed that I was stupid enough to cook in public back then. To have anything worth sharing, to have any skills worthy of their name, you've got to get in the grind and that takes time. By the time people are saying, "Yes, chef," you should have forgotten why that was important to you in the first place.
Quick sidenote: One of my first jobs was working in a very famous restaurant’s pastry kitchen. The guy supervising me used to delight in running me down. He would tell me how much I sucked, take me aside and encourage me to quit, he’d go out of his way to be as abusive as possible. If he got me to cry then the rest of his day was all ice cream and cake. Did this make me tough? No. But it made me swear I would never be this kind of jerk, and that I would never hire anyone who acted like this. I’ve had a few people like that in my kitchens and I love firing them. Kitchens attract bullies because they’ve read Kitchen Confidential too many times or they think the Gordon Ramsay they see on TV is the real Gordon Ramsay. It’s a joy to weed them out. Because bullies are wimps. I've been in this business for long enough to see most of them burn out over and over and over again. A sure sign that someone can't hack it? They're a bully.
That's right. You couldn't hack it on the line, crybaby.So you're ready to take a shot? Then you need to realize: cooking and working in a professional kitchen are very, very different. Even if you love cooking at home and host dinner parties all the time, or you really know a lot about food, or you catered some events, you aren't prepared for a professional kitchen. I definitely wasn't. Everything you know about cooking, everything you learned from your mom, everything people say you do that's awesome, is useless. I know someone who cooks at pop-ups, she's got good skills, knows a lot about food, and has staged at a bunch of places, but she will never be a full-time chef. She gets bored too easily, and has a hard time with hierarchy. The idea of working in the same place, on the same station, month after month after month is something she just can't do, and to get good enough to make it in this line of work, she needs to do that. So forget every compliment you ever got for your cooking. I cooked for years before I went to cooking school and none of it helps. The only way to learn how to work in a professional kitchen is to work in a professional kitchen, not visit a professional kitchen, not stand in one and watch, not know a lot of people who work in them.
Still not deterred? Still want to try? Great! Go to cooking school, or do some internships, or whatever it is that will get you your basic skills. (There's another post coming up this week about cooking school) The basic skills you learn in cooking school - knife skills, basic cooking techniques - are going to be useless in real life, but you have to understand the vocabulary before you can speak the language. That's what your training is, learning your basic vocabulary.
Then, for the next several years, work on your technique, work on your technique, work on your technique. Find the toughest, busiest restaurant you can and get a job on their line. Stay for at least a year. Even if you're a vegetarian and it’s not a vegetarian restaurant, that’s okay. This is professional training and your personal politics need to take a back seat to getting rock solid skills. By the time your year is up you’ll either realize working in a professional kitchen isn’t for you and you’ll move on to something that makes you happier, or you’ll be on your way to having an indestructible technique that’ll make you a ninja master in the kitchens you move on to. The first few years of working in a professional kitchen are going to shape the rest of your life, so don’t slack. Don’t call in sick, don’t show up late, don’t screw off. Realize you're not there to socialize, you're there to work. The friendships will appear, you don't need to chase after them. Just get on that line every day and work, no matter what, and realize that for that year your best will never be good enough. You will have to get better every day, or you will crash and burn. But if you put in the work now, your technique will support you for the rest of your life.
After that year in a professional kitchen, it's all just life experience. Work in as many restaurants as you can, and never do less than six months in any of them. Even six months might not be enough time to learn what you want to know, and if that's the case then don't be a chicken: stay as long as it takes. Don't be scared. Try everything, even if you think you can't do it. You'll never learn your limits if you don't get pushed past them on a regular basis.
One of the most important lessons I learned was when I worked at Diner Bar in Spanish Harlem. This was a really busy, upscale diner, and while I didn’t eat meat I was cooking burgers, buffalo wings, all kinds of stuff I wasn't familiar with. They kept cutting staff until literally there was just an angry Rastafarian and myself on the line, doing between 80 and 200 covers every night. And one night, when I thought I was going to die, I realized I had a choice: either quit or work harder. No one cared if I quit except me, but I cared a lot. So I worked harder, and Diner Bar taught me that no matter how bad things got I could handle them. You can’t succeed in a kitchen until you’ve been really and sincerely over your head and survived. You can’t search out that situation, it just happens to you and you have to embrace it when it occurs.
Your life will be full of lessons like this. There are no classes that can teach them. If you want to cook in a restaurant for a living, you need to immerse yourself in this world and it will teach you everything you need to know through scars, bruises, friendships, and burns. The first year of this job is the hardest, but don't cheat, don't take shortcuts, and if you make it through you're going to be a different person.