Earning your stripes in a professional kitchen setting may not be a walk in the park for an aspiring chef. This depends heavily on the head chef you work with and the particular kitchen culture of the establishment you work in. If you're an aspiring chef who's trying to earn respect in the kitchen, here are some tips from industry veterans who work in a variety of restaurants and food service businesses. There's a lot of consistency, so hopefully their two cents can help make your ride a little less bumpy.
Manage Your Time Well
All the industry veterans gave a variation of a single piece of advice on time management: They said you should aim to show up early, leave late, and work really hard. This sounds straightforward enough, but unfortunately, it's often not. Michael Blackie, owner, chef, and founder of Stittsville, Ontario's NeXT, is a 25-year industry pro who has worked around the world, including in Bali, Hong Kong, Mexico, and beyond.
When Blackie started out in the industry at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel, he remembers struggling to find the right work-life balance. "I was on the breakfast shift and failing miserably," he recalls. "Then one morning it clicked. I'd get in earlier, see what I needed to achieve, and stay late to set up for the evening at the cafe." Within three weeks, he was being asked to do more and was given more responsibility. "Suddenly, I lifted myself out of the struggle," he says.
Vanessa Yeung, owner of the catering outfit and cooking school Aphrodite Cooks says, "When I stayed later or took on an extra shift, it showed the chef that I was dedicated to learning and growing my skill level." She started her career at Scaramouche in Toronto where she remembers staying later when asked and the chef appreciating her commitment to being part of the team.
Work Every Station
Many chefs also recommend that aspiring chefs work every station in the kitchen as required, especially the "lowly" but necessary ones, like washing dishes and post-service clean up. Once you've done the grunt work yourself, you're less likely to be a tyrant to those who start after you. Knowing how hard it is to do the "dirty work" everyone else avoids will not only gain you respect in the kitchen, but it will also teach you to appreciate your dish pit crew.
Remember Common Sense
A lot of aspiring chefs forget or ignore common sense, which can be the difference between making it in the industry and having to move on. These include being dependable and not skipping shifts because a good party, hangover, or any other distraction got in the way. Be on time for your shift, be prepared and organized, and keep a clean work station.
Rossy Earle, chef and owner of SupiCucu, has worked in various kitchens across Ontario. She says that young chefs should always be ready to offer help to others if possible and be respectful of the food, equipment, coworkers, and the work space. Earle, like many others, also says you should leave your ego parked securely at home. "You're not the star—no matter how good you are. You're a team member, so act like one," she says.
Do It Because You Love It
Blackie knows he can't make anyone work any harder than they want to, but he says, "If you got into it for the money, you should have become a doctor or a psychiatrist—especially when you're just starting out." You can't make $120,000 a year in the beginning, he says, adding that this is an industry with a lot of risk and high failure rates. The upside is that Blackie lives a life he calls immensely rewarding. "I've lived in Mexico, Bali, and Hong Kong. I've been on trips for companies, cooking all over the world. My family and I have a rich life and have gotten so much out of it."