Monday, August 24, 2009

An Open Letter to Culinary Students

The following is a reprint of a post that Facebook friend and chef Mark Mendez posted on his site. Upon reading this, I shot off an e-mail to Mark and asked his permission to reprint it on my blog. Obviously, he said yes. His post says all the things we, as chefs, have thought at least once in our career. We've all had experiences with kids who think that they're destined for FoodTV without putting in any time or they want to know how to work with an immersion circulator before they know how to steel a knife without their damn tongue sticking out and almost cutting off their hands. I actually had a wannabe cook who was our dishwasher ask for a prep list like the cooks so he could write 'clean the walls of the dish pit'. WHAT???? Hey, buddy. You're not a cook. You can't even run the dish pit, much less a station in the restaurant. You haven't put in your time. This is where the line between art and craft gets confusing for folks. You've got to know the ins and outs of your 'craft' before you can be an 'artist'. If you aren't willing to learn how to wash dishes efficiently, you'll never learn how to cook efficiently and you'll never be a top notch chef. You just won't. Hey, I've got news for all you punk kids. I can do EVERY job in the kitchen twice as fast as you as a fat, 35 year old man. Yes, including washing dishes. Yes, including turning vegetables. Yes, including even taking out the trash. If you wanna get where we've gotten, you gotta learn it from the bottom up and be your best at every level. You can't just flip a switch and start to care. Either you're hungry or you're not. Nobody with any type of longevity starts at the top in this business. Nobody. Please enjoy Mark's letter. I know I did.

An Open Letter to Culinary Students
by Chef Mark Mendez

I am angry, so forgive me if I rant. You gave notice after only two weeks on the job and then didn’t show up the next day and really screwed me. I know why you quit; it was hard work, harder than you thought it was going to be. The funny thing is, you worked an easy station and never even worked on a busy night, funny right? The sad thing is you don’t even know how hard it really is, or what it truly means to be a line cook. It’s not all your fault; they didn’t really prepare you for this in cooking school did they? They didn’t warn you that being a great chef requires first being a great cook. They didn’t tell you about the sacrifices you have to make, the hard work, the hours, the dedication, the commitment, the lack of sleep, the constant abuse of the sous chef, they didn’t warn you. You thought you would graduate from school and be like Thomas Keller in a couple years, that’s all it should take right? I know, I know, learning how to use you knife, make a great stock, or learning how to properly blanch vegetables is boring, it’s cooler to work sauté station or grill. I’m too old school anyway, no immersion circulators, no foams, no cutesy plates, no pacojet, boring really. Who wants to learn how to properly sharpen a knife or butcher a fish, so boring and tedious. Well I need to tell you a few things. One day, just maybe, you will be a chef somewhere. You will need to train and motivate the people who work for you, guide them, lead them, teach them, and inspire them. One day you will spend more time looking at a profit and loss statement than you do your station. You will miss prepping your station, making a sauce, butchering a piece of meat, even sharpening your knife. You will spend time in marketing meetings, staff meetings, partners meetings, vendor meetings, all kinds of meetings. You will spend more time in the front of house than you really want to; spend time outside of the kitchen promoting your restaurant, give interviews, agonize over food and labor costs, kiss your wife goodbye while she sleeps because you have to be at the restaurant early for some insane reason, and somewhere in there make sure you are serving tasty food. You will miss weddings, birthday parties, graduations, all kinds of things. You will alienate your friends and family because you don’t write or call enough. There are no sick days, personal days, breaks, this is not like a 9 to 5 job, get over it. Get ready for years of sacrifice, hard work, and stress. Learn as much as you can, read everything, ask questions, write things down, save your money and eat at other restaurants, show up to work early and offer to stay late, come to work on your day off just to learn how to make pastry or hone butcher skills. Taste everything you can, over and over, and ask the chef so many questions he gets annoyed.

Take care of yourself and sleep as much as you can and skip after work drug/liquor binging, so you wake up ready and on time. Travel and experience another culture eat their food and learn to speak their language. Learn to appreciate the time you have right now, enjoy the ride, the process, don’t be in a hurry to be a sous chef or make a lot of money, it’s not about that and it never will unless you are extremely talented and lucky. There is only one Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller, or Grant Achatz, and they all have worked extremely hard to get where they are and continue to do so. Enjoy all the bullshit that comes with this life, embrace it, learn to thrive on it. One day, when you are an executive chef or chef/owner, there will be an epiphany so powerful you will have to sit down. You will understand everything every chef or sous chef yelled at you, you will understand why we work why we do, you will understand why our profession is so wonderful, so unique, and it will hit you hard. I can’t tell when or where this will happen but I promise you it will if you work hard and keep your head down and do what your chef tells you. So keep this in mind when I give you a hard time and push you, criticize you and refuse that day off request. Maybe the next job you have you will suck it up instead of leaving them short a line cook on a busy night.


Paul M said...

This commentary applies to every job out there and speaks to the lack of an apprentice program - which assumed you started at the bottom in order to learn every step of the job or skill. It's the only way...there are no shortcuts in the trail.

This means the boss could always do the menial jobs better than the new kid because he's done them for years - and apparently in the case of Andrew's kitchen - still does as Rich's blog post indicates. No ego. No job too small even for the head guy. From the plating station all the way back to the dishes...gotta learn it and there's only one way to make that happen and that's to DO IT! And the boat is only as good as the captain steering...he sets the example.

Kids - and some adults - these days want to start higher than their skills allow or don't want to work hard enough to acquire that very skillset; it's beneath them for whatever warped reason they may have.

Kudo's for the reminder that we all have to bust our tails striving for skill before the "art" can be achieved. Sometimes that means doing the dishes.

lainie said...

Can I print this and send it to prospective cooks?

I cannot even begin to explain how many people come into my kitchen and balk when I tell them they have to make five dishes that I think are foundational items. "I have to take a test?" HELL yes you do! And wash all the dishes you make when making these items. If the things I asked you to make are done properly AND the dishes are washed thoroughly, you MIGHT get to actually make food for the paying public. Period. End of story.

Cuts the wheat from the chaff really quickly.

Thanks for sharing this!