Chefs at the start of their careers may have a lot of things to overcome. Families often see this choice of career as a big gamble. “There are so too many chefs, the restaurant industry is saturated. How will you make a living?” was the common opinion in my family.

I’ve found it’s often easier for men to break into an already largely-male industry. But I know that in some cultures, families feel being a professional cook is not an adult job. A talented young chef I know was estranged from his father for several years because of his career choice. His father, an Indian, had kept servants to cook for the family. His feeling was that a chef is a labourer in a chef uniform.

Then there’s the fact that the world is fine with women cooking at home. But for one reason or another, it’s harder for women to enter into the folds of executive chefs like Kylie Kwong has managed to do. You’re more likely to find women who are pastry chefs than running big restaurants.

It’s also true that the kitchen of a restaurant, big or small, is a tough place to get accustomed to. Life in the kitchen is fast-paced, lively, particularly tense at busy times, and you’re always on your feet. Floors can get greasy, there’s little room for error, customers can get antsy.

If you’re a new chef, you’re probably looking down, with some anticipation and trepidation, at your life ahead of you.

And that’s where some valuable advice I was once given as a new chef makes things simple. “Just do the work.”

Tips To Get You Through Each Day At The Kitchen

 

Ask Yourself: Can I Do The Work?

Restaurants all care about one thing: are you ready to do the job? This means turning out every plate, delicious, hot and appealing. It means turning up on time every day, no matter how sick you are, no matter the weather, or the state of the transport. A chef I knew had only taken two sick leaves, not including surgeries, in his 22-year career. That’s the kind of commitment restaurants need from you.

You’ll also need to be calmer than calm in the restaurant business. You should be prepared to go through a busy lunch hour unfazed, with your station clean and your chef uniform not in knots. You should be able to take on a busload of hungry baseball players without getting frazzled.

You should also be prepared to be on your feet all day without complaint (psst… good chef shoes will help.) And you can say goodbye to your dating life or be prepared to do a lot of explaining for working on holidays and being sleep-deprived.

What you need to do is, to show you can do the job, regardless of cuts and burns, short-staff evenings, the heat, and everything that comes with the high-tension job. Show up and do the job. Give your all. But don’t expect to get noticed for doing your job just yet. If you’re a woman, you have to navigate through a staff that could be all-male.

Don’t Expect Fat Pay-Checks

Not every chef becomes (or wants to become) a celebrity with a TV show and a million dollars in the bank. When you come out of culinary school, don’t be disappointed if you don’t find restaurant executives willing to hire you off the bat for a fat contract.

Be prepared to live frugally for the first couple of years, preparing seafood, making stock, and washing dishes. Chefs who have come before you have done it this way. They’ve slowly climbed up from one rung to the next, just showing up for work every day and doing the job. This is how you grow a reputation.

Keep Learning 

The best chefs are always learning and improving. If you have good knife skills, work on making it better. If you make brilliant pastry dough, don’t stop there. Figure out how you can make it better.

Always have a little notebook on you, where you can take notes and learn from those with greater experience than you. When you go back home, practice new techniques. Read the books you need to read. Join a professional group. Cook for yourself. If you have the time, consider advanced courses.

If you haven’t been to chef school and you’re self-taught like a lot of chefs out there, you’ll need the same advice even if you have your own way of doing things.

Remember, You’re A Team In The Kitchen

When a chef wears her uniform and enters the kitchen, she leaves her ego behind. She is now part of a team, and the team must move with perfect synchrony to get through each day with success.

As a chef, you are likely to have personal ambitions and lofty goals. But trying to achieve them at the expense of the team or independently of the kitchen’s success is not a good idea. Every member’s goal in the kitchen is to put in the work so everyone has a great night.

This means fixing problems when you see them, reporting them if you can’t fix them, or telling the person whose job it is to fix them. A chef’s role in the kitchen is not limited to their station but goes beyond. Like any corporate job, the chef in his hospitality uniform is there to make the restaurant money and please customers.

Final Thoughts

A senior chef I knew once told me how he prepared for a day at work since he started out. He made sure to stand before the mirror and put on his clean and ironed chef’s whites. This made him feel proud of his role in the kitchen.

He’d turn up early for work, and make it his job to find out where and how items were stored, how the equipment worked, how the kitchen works on a day-by-day basis.

That’s how you can tackle Week One in a professional kitchen. It also helps to be sharp, to not ask unnecessary questions. And did I mention wearing the right chef uniform and the right shoes?