The Mystery Basket or How a Chef Interviews for a Job

  1. If you have ever watched a show like chopped, then you have an idea of what a mystery basket is.  It is an assortment of random ingredients that a cook or chef will have to cobble together to make a dish in a limited amount of time.  This lends itself to dramatic television.  The thing is the mystery basket is a pretty standard way to interview potential cooks and chefs in the industry.  I recently had a job interview that involved a mystery basket and it is a harrowing experience.  There are several factors that make such a test difficult. 

    The Anticipation:  Like with any other circumstance that you know is coming, but you don't know what to expect, the anticipation builds tension.  I ran a dozen scenarios through my head of what could possibly be in my mystery basket and what I could make with said ingredients in the hour after I got the interview alone.  Keep in mind that my interview was scheduled about a week in advance, so I had these types of thoughts running through my head constantly.  And because there are infinite ingredients and combinations of ingredients, there is no way I could have ever possibly guessed just what would be in my basket.

    The Unfamiliar:  The day of my interview finally arrived.  Now I had to show up at a kitchen I had never been to and prepare my dishes.  When you are working in your own kitchen, it is akin to having a tremendous home field advantage.  You are in a familiar comfortable setting where you know where everything is and how everything works.  You know that grill A is better than grill B because grill B tends to run hot. You also know not to bother using the immersion blender because it is not working right.  You know where all the utensils are so you can snatch them up without thinking about it. Being in a new kitchen is like being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and you certainly don't know the customs.  When I got to my interview the chef gave me a cursory tour of the facility, but it is difficult to remember where everything is when you know you have to make something in the next fifteen minutes.

    The Ingredients: After my guided tour of the kitchen the chef presented me with my basket.  The rules of the mystery basket are as follows: I had to use all the ingredients in the basket. I could use any other ingredients I wanted to from the kitchen as I needed.  I had to prepare four portions of an entree which included a protein, a vegetable side dish and starch side dish as well as an appetizer.  What makes mystery baskets difficult in terms of ingredients is that there are not just one or two ingredients.  They also more often than not include a curveball ingredient.  What I mean by that is there is an ingredient that just does not really fit in with the others.  My basket included: a portobello mushroom, tomatillos, butternut squash, beets, broccoli, baby bok choy, an eggplant, pears, quinoa, and chicken breast.  What would you do with that?

    The Time Limit:  My time limit to prepare my food was two hours.  The chef also gave me fifteen minutes to plan my menu.  Normally two hours to prepare four (eight if you count the app as well) plates is plenty of time.  However, that is when you know your surroundings and have a menu so you know what you are preparing ahead of time.  In this case I had no idea what I was making.  Even with fifteen minutes to plan, my plan changed at least half a dozen times.  At first I thought of making a stir-fry, but then how would I incorporate tomatillos and pears into that? Ultimately I decided on making a poblano salsa marinated chicken with Tri-colored quinoa pilaf and Southwest spiced roasted vegetables as my dish and a cold couscous and macerated fruit salad as my appetizer.   After I had come up with a solid plan it was time to execute it. 

    The Execution and Judgment:  This last part ties in with the time limit and unfamiliar surroundings.  I had two hours to prep all my food, then cook it, then plate it. I had an internal timeline of what I needed to do in what order and when to do it.  My plans was to cook my starches, cool them, then make my salsa and marinate my chicken.  Next I would work on my vegetables and fruits.  Then I would start cooking things off.  My plans included making a balsamic reduction for my app and including feta cheese. I burned the heck out of my reduction so I had to do it again and I did not remember where the dairy cooler was so I just left the feta out. I had to constantly keep asking where things were, so everything was delayed. The entire time the thought of "I'm not going to get this job because I can't finish in time" was pounding in the back of my mind. In the end I barely managed to plate all my food, just as all my "judges" were waiting on me. The judges were the chef of the kitchen, the director of food operations, as well as two other chefs.   After surviving all that, now I had to submit my food for review.  All four of my judges as well as various others in the kitchen had a taste of my presentations.  They all critiqued my creations pointing out the positives as well as what I could have improved upon. Getting critiqued is something you get used to as a chef. It helps you grow.  It is a little more nerve wracking when a job is on the line.

    In the end it all turned out well.  My food was mostly complemented upon with only a few minor points being touched upon as lacking.  I was well received for my effort as well as my skills. I even got a nod for acknowledging that one of my components (the balsamic reduction) was unusable and therefore had to be made again.  Now it is just a matter of playing the waiting game to hear back from HR.

    UPDATE:

    At the time that I wrote this piece I was still waiting to hear back from HR.  As of this update I have been hired and have been working at my new kitchen for 6 weeks.  I am a lot happier and in a better place.  I am working with a chef that I first met when I was in college and he has been a mentor to me.  I hope to work my way up in this new kitchen.

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  1. chefchester
    i have had many interveiws, many have been a mystery basket experience. it teaches the chef the skill level of the soon to be line chef. this is one test i love to prove a point, i bring my toolbox in and everyone stops and stares. it is an intimidation tactic that works, i show up with my own equipment that i feel is best suited for the job. not every kitchen is the same, when you need somthing and not have it is better off not having at all. i belive that i should have everything i need because i don't want to dissapoint, wether it be my ability or tools. somthing so simple as a blender is taken for granted, we live in an age of spoiled chefs that get the best equipment. what happens when you only have the basics? that is the defining moment of a chefs interveiw of a mystery basket.
  2. chefmannydlm
    I just updated the article.  Thanks for commenting.
  3. tomnyc
    An interesting story--well told--Manny.
     
    Did you hear back yet, and if so, what did they say?