• Julia Helton

So you want to be a chef?

You have no experience and no one will hire you but you are eager to learn. If you can work for free lots of chefs will let you stage in their kitchens. As a stagiere you will be expected to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to your scheduled shift ready to work, not 15 minutes then you’ve got to change clothes. Some people arrive 2 hours beforehand just to get the extra work in. This may mean peeling potatoes, washing lettuce, making orange supremes, making mayonnaise, or shucking 200 oysters. This is the work you must perform to gain muscle memory and if done cleanly and quickly a modicum of respect. You will not be allowed on or near the line at all so disabuse yourself of this notion.

When you arrive someone will show you to the locker room but most likely basement to change out of your street clothes and into your chef gear. DO NOT come in your chef gear! Firstly it is a health code violation and secondly, you look like a rube. The only people wearing their indoor uniforms outdoors are students and they are silly children. Put on your chef pants, nonskid shoes and whatever coat or smock they give you. Don’t complain about the apron or towels you are given. If you don’t own kitchen shoes go to Payless or DSW and grab a pair for about $40.

Address the chef as “Chef”, listen to see how the others address each other. It may be by first name, ‘chef’, or pinche maricon. This is the place where you will get a sense of the kitchen culture. If the chef is a white man, if the kitchen is full of white people (mostly men) expect a lot of grab-ass, off-color language, straight-up sexual harassment (to both sexes, it’s about power), and a slavish devotion to the Chef. If the kitchen is run by a woman you can count on the abuse to be to a minimum. If you find yourself in a kitchen of Latinos the trash talk will never involve you in any material way and it’s mostly “head down, keep working”. Generally speaking, the more renowned kitchens are staffed with people working there are jockeying for position while the smaller kitchens are staffed with people trying to make rent. The level of talent and commitment in both kinds of kitchens can be equal.

Yelling: a lot of this happens in kitchens. It is a high-stress environment. Sometimes it is yelling out orders and table numbers to make sure the line cooks hear them; kitchens are loud. Sometimes the yelling is directed at a person who isn’t performing their job in a timely manner. Sometimes it’s to abuse the most junior member of the staff as entertainment.

It’s smart to have a knife roll. You’re going to want to work with your own tools. Most kitchens do not supply the cooks with knives but this is not across the board. You will need a chef’s knife, paring knife, honing steel, tongs, and a few large silver tasting spoons. Optional items are micro-plane grater, offset spatula, rubber spatula, whisk, serrated knife, large tweezers, fish spatula, and tomato shark.

You may be placed with a line cook to help out on that station; more than likely it’s going to be gardmanger or the cold line. Ask a ton of questions, do as much as asked then ask for more to do. Work clean, as in clean as you go. Everyone in the kitchen is keeping a glancing eye on you to see how you perform.

There may or may not be a staff meal. All chefs have a low key eating disorder. Eat before you arrive and don’t ask when lunch/dinner is because it isn’t. Do not smoke or ask to smoke. When you ask to smoke (even if the chef is a smoker) you’re telling them that you need to hang out more than you need this free education. If your linemate or chef asks if you’d like to join them for a smoke break you may in that case.

You will be on your feet for the duration of the shift. Your shift may last 10-12 hours. The only time you will be allowed to sit down is if you have to use the facilities. This is a big part of working in a kitchen. Don’t bitch about it. If you can’t take the strain of standing all day, get an office job.

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