Career advice for the lost

Joined Jul 20, 2011
    I'm hoping someone could give me some words of advice about my career, which is currently at a standstill. I've been beat down more than Id care to, to the point that I doubt I can even cook at all. I'm awake at night trying to decide if I even want to. I know deep down that I do, that I love food and the line too much to throw it all away. The kitchen is where I want to be. People talk, I need a thicker skin, but I've gotten more negative comments than anything helpful lately. It'd be a trade-off if  I were learning while getting my butt-kicked but that doesn't seem to be happening.

  Almost all of the restaurants I've been in seem to be stuck in some kind of time warp and never change their menus.There were two places I worked at that hadn't changed their menu in over four years. They're either getting out of season product that looks and tastes terrible or its all frozen. So I'm not being exposed to new and different kinds of foods, preparations or techniques, stuck cooking and prepping a handful of items. I'm armed with a pad and pencil, only for it to become a joke of the chefs and kitchen staff that I need to write everything down and ask too many questions. I've tried to help out on others' prep only to get yelled at and humiliated in front of everyone because of something done differently, instead of being shown how things are to be done. Because I graduated from culinary school I'm supposed to know it all? I've only been doing this for 3yrs and have a long way to go. I've tried to stay positive in all this but I feel like I'm putting in a lot more than I'm getting out of it.  One chef told me that I wasn't getting paid to think, and that all he wanted me to do was cook and go home. I walked out of my last place after being humiliated by a pissed off cook ranting for an hour about how I must have lied on my resume to get that job and basically how I couldn't do anything. He was upset about how I did some of his prep work and when I confronted him about it he sugar coated it and told me everything was fine. I'd had enough. Every kitchen is different and do things their own way so I'd like to be shown YOUR way of doing things. Reading books will only get me so far, I need the hands on experience too. What else can I do? I haven't found a place that actually values teaching their cooks and helping them to grow. Do they exist?? What do I say to them? Where do I go?
Joined Aug 15, 2003
You need to get out of there ASAP. If you work for a chef like that, in that type of kitchen--they make fun of you for having a book? In every kitchen I've ever worked in, a book was a NECESSITY. Sounds like the chef doesn't care, and/or is totally burnt to a crisp. They think you ask too many questions? Absurd. Especially when the answers you get aren't satisfactory in the first place. 

What types of places are these? Are these highly regarded restaurants in your area? My advice would be to seek out the best restaurant in your area and go talk to the chef. Tall him what you are looking for (someplace that changes the menu, values teaching techniques, etc) and see what is out there. Once you get one "good" place on your resume the doors can open up for you. 

When you go talk to these chefs, don't slag off your former bosses, even if you'd love to. Tell the truth, but say it in a way that makes you seem hungry and eager to learn, not someone who talks shit and whines/complains. Focus on what YOU want to learn and get out of a job and kitchen, not what the last places DIDN'T do. 

I don't know what station you currently work, but be willing to take a step down in both job and pay, if necessary. If a top place will take you, but only on garde manger, be willing to do it. If you are passionate and do your job well, you WILL move up and learn a lot. Once you are ready to move on your chef should be willing to help you get a new job with a nice recommendation or a phone call. 

Good luck
Joined May 5, 2010
Someday, you have come upon a situation that is prevalent in our industry. 

Today's culinary schools stress the importance of learning and remembering and the actual workings of a kitchen, while those already entrenched in the industry look at this as being weak and useless.

The fact of the matter is that our industry is still in the age when the heirarchy of the kitchen is more important than the love for the craft and the food that is created. 

Brinnstarr  it looks like you have found those places already.

Do not let this type of thing get you down.

It is NOT you.

Don't forget that...ever!!!

3 years out is not a long time and as the years come and go you will form more scare tissue against those that ridicule your ways.

Remember too that you will go further then they, because  you are a career person and they will always just be cooks with no future and no other place to go then where they are right now. Keep your faith for the future and don't allow yourself to second guess, because you are correct and they are the losers.  All my best.
Joined Jun 14, 2002
Eh, toughen up buttercup.

I used to be you. Something happens, I got yelled at, I got sulky, and my performance got worse. Even quit a couple jobs because I was too soft, like you did.

If you're getting flack you gotta:

Figure out if the criticism is based on reality, (remembering there is more then one correct way to skin a cat).

a) If it is, then assimilate the new knowledge, improve your performance, and move on.

b) If not, then do you have to listen to this person?

1) If you do, then do it anyway. That's what you're getting paid for.

2) If not, then move on.
 One chef told me that I wasn't getting paid to think, and that all he wanted me to do was cook and go home.
There is something to this.
Almost all of the restaurants I've been in seem to be stuck in some kind of time warp and never change their menus.There were two places I worked at that hadn't changed their menu in over four years. ... So I'm not being exposed to new and different kinds of foods, preparations or techniques, stuck cooking and prepping a handful of items.
Dude, come on. Even the French Laundry still makes that oyster and tapioca dish, and it's been over 15 years. Zuni Cafe can never take the roast chicken or their Caesar salad off the menu. Professional cooking is all about repetitious stuff. Last week, I did ~250 Chinese chicken salads, and I've got to do about the same number this week too. And they all have to be the same, because Somebody had it at Someone Else's birthday party, and they want to have it for their wedding banquet.

The Chez Panisse business model only works for a very very very small segment of the food service industry. Even in other restaurants in that class must obey the Pareto principle. It's just simple customer dynamics.

No matter where you're going to work, you're still going to be responsible for only a few items out of the whole, and you're only going to be able to use a small fraction of your acquired knowledge and skills.
I walked out of my last place after being humiliated by a pissed off cook ranting for an hour about how I must have lied on my resume to get that job and basically how I couldn't do anything. He was upset about how I did some of his prep work and when I confronted him about it he sugar coated it and told me everything was fine.
You should have told him to GFYS and cook him under the table, instead of quitting. If you confronted him and he said everything was copacetic, I'm not seeing too much of a problem. Sounds like he was just blowing off steam, and it was nothing personal.
I haven't found a place that actually values teaching their cooks and helping them to grow. Do they exist?? What do I say to them? Where do I go?
Restaurants are businesses, they are not colleges for personal growth. The teaching and training that occurs is going to be informed by the business needs of the establishment.
Joined Jul 25, 2011
First of all, everyone is a bit correct here, but there is one thing you need all need to think about. You are not seeing the bigger picture.

These business are there for only one purpous: TO MAKE MONEY, 99% of restaurants, hotels and catering companies are not cooking schools.

Most head chefs are not thinking of how you are feeling today or what you are learning beyond the menu today, they're thinking about making there food cost numbers for that month, and many many other things.

You obviously have no idea how stressful it is being a head chef running a kitchen full of cooks, along with all the administrative duties that come along with the job.

I say "See the big picture"... Really, take a long look around, your kitchen workplace is not there to satisfy your career needs. It's there to turn a profit.

This may sound blunt and is no way putting you down, it's just a part of comming up in the industry. Focus more on what you can do to make your workplace more profitable, show your chef how you are going to reduce waste tonight, start being a player and stop beating yourself up about what that kitchen is or isn't giving to you.
Joined Sep 18, 2008
Paraphrasing: Your job is to dig the ditch precisely as deep and wide as the foreman (chef) directs and don't worry about where the ditch is going or what will be in it, that is someone else's job!

The ditch digger does not worry about anything but digging that ditch so s/he will get paid and not yelled at.

Until you are promoted to a management position, your job is to do your job!
Joined Aug 15, 2003
With respect, I think that's a lot of bad advice. 

The attitude of suck it up and stay in your corner is true, to a point. Kitchens can be tough places, as we all know, and the OP recognized a need to develop a thicker skin.

But if you are in a situation where you are no longer learning anything, and then, to top it all off, when attempting to learn from other cooks and chefs getting made fun of? Bullshit. I'm sorry, bullshit. Sounds like the type of place that won't show you how to do anything, then make fun of you for doing it wrong. Completely ass backwards, and IMO, one of the hallmarks of a bad kitchen and a bad situation. 

I'm assuming the OP is relatively young, (only been cooking for 3 years) and, if true, is in a critical stage of development. A lot of habits and knowledge base is being formed now, that will carry him/her through the rest of his/her career. 

Again, I would tell the OP to try and seek out the best restaurants in the area, try to get into there, and work his/her way up. No guarantee it will be EASY, but at least the hardwork and the beatdown will come with the reward of being taught valuable skills in the kitchen and in life. 

Getting made fun of for asking too many questions is not a good start on the path of a culinary journey. Asking questions and growing as a chef/cook is how we get from point A to B, not sitting in a corner being bullied. 

Listen, you will get made fun of, people will laugh both with you and at you. But, chefs and cooks in GOOD kitchens will also work with you, be (aside from a "locker room" atmosphere present in most kitchens) generally respectful, and willing to teach you--if not outright teaching, then at least teaching by showing you how they want things done and giving you bigger and more tasks to do once you master the basics. If you are in a position where you aren't learning, and getting nothing back from the cook/chefs then it's time to move on. Period. 

Again, this life will not be easy. But it should be rewarding. Remember that. 
Joined Jul 9, 2011
If you feel the kitchen isn't for you, take a moment and try to see things from the perspective of the chefs and managers. Like many others have mentioned, they are concerned with profits and not with the new hire. In fact, you are probably at the bottom of their concerns. Hopefully, this explains your situation: you are treated like dirt because no one there cares about you. And again, many chefs might not enjoy the burden of a new hire because it's a stressful job. When pressure mounts and tensions rise, somebody's going to pop. Now if it's a constant thing (ongoing for weeks), then you might have a problem.

Now what you might need is a new job. Check out other kitchens. You probably need to find a place that is going to give you a little bit more attention (although that doesn't mean they won't yell at you when necessary). But I'd say it is entirely possible to find a better workplace. It might take some time and you might even find another terrible place before you do, but there is a kitchen for everyone.
Joined Jun 7, 2011
I'll pitch in here too....For the most part, most kitchens I've worked in remind me of the "old boy network", which is especially noticeable when you're not a part of it.  Every kitchen has its own lingo, cliques, customs etc etc.  Like anywhere else, be it McDonalds or Home depot, the new guy always takes guff....Psychologically speaking, its a need for the "Team" to kind of put you through a see if you're "tough enough" to work with them.  As previously posted, the biggest worry for most chefs is the bottom line, especially in this economy, not your feelings, however wrong this system may or may not be, it's real and it exists.


Ask yourself if you're truly "gaining" anything (or at least what you want) out of it.  Is it worth it to be screamed at and humiliated at?  If the answer is "no", I would go find a smaller, less stressful situation...maybe a catering company where the pace isn't so fast (relatively) or a smaller restaurant that specializes in a certain cuisine, and take it from there.  but you DO have to develop a thicker skin, and yes, sometimes "GFYS" is the best, most appropriate answer in those situations.

I took my own advice many years ago, and was much happier for it.  Don't let these embittered, burnt out clowns with their own overblown egos discourage you.  They love nothing better than to make other people feel like s**t because thats how they feel about themselves.

Joined Jul 7, 2011
I read your original post yesterday and wanted time to think about it.  You are young and want to learn, you seem to have a strong work ethic and deisre to put out good product.  All are a plus.  

What makes a restaurant good?  The fact that the a person can come back and have it the exact same way.  That is what the customers want.  It needs to look the same, taste the same and be the same as last time.  That is why there are different places serving different things.  People want to pick what they want to eat.  Look at the yellow pages of any city and the restaurant section is thick.  You restaurant isn't trying anything new because they are making money off what works for them and what the customer wants.

I don't put up with crap talk in the kitchen, that is just me.  I just block all bad energy and refuse to even waste my time or energy playing any stupid games.  I am there to do a job.  I am there to do what chef says.  My only answer is yes chef!  But I am treated with respect and it has come from putting in my time and hard work.  

I also suggest searching out the best restaurant in your area and get a job there.  Learn as much as you can and stay with it.  Cooking is a gift we give to others.  
Joined Jul 20, 2011
Thanks for the advice guys...I will take it to heart and see that I get what I'm after. Yes, most of the restaurants have been highly regarded in whichever area I was in at the time, I've moved around quite a bit. I apologize for being vague, just never know who's out there. I myself and not that young, but yes, new to the field. I'm a career changer and it's been a hell of a transition. Most cooks are well past my level of experience by 29, since many have done it all their lives. I agree that this is a critical point in my development and this why it has been so frustrating. I've taken too passive of a stance during interviews, excited that a place with a seemingly good menu and excellent following wants me to start on their hotline. I need to take a finer tooth comb to the places I apply to and speak with the chefs about what I'm looking for. I understand that restaurants are business and not schools, overall it's been more trial and error than actual training by the establishment.  I get not taking signature items off a menu, but not changing anything on it over several years...that's not the kind of repetition I want. I personally can't take the ditch digger attitude, only because while I'm doing things to the specifications I've been told, I will be concerned about the end product and what it will be used for.. While it isn't my job I feel it's something I'd need to be conscious of. There's more in it for me than just cranking out plates..maybe I over-romanticize. I'll chalk it up to a set of crappy places with chefs/cooks that should quit instead of me. I have a hard time remembering that it isn't me and I do need to toughen up while I'm at it. All I usually need is a nudge in the right direction followed by a swift kick in the ass, which you all have so kindly provided. =)
Joined Aug 15, 2003
Digging ditches is all well and good, but digging a ditch in a circle, just getting deeper and deeper down gets you nowhere. You may have to "dig a ditch" for a few years, but you should have faith and confidence that the ditch is going to lead you somewhere. 

Listen, the "truth" is probably somewhere in the middle. There is something to the advice of "suck it up," and hey, you may need to toughen up a bit. Based on the fact that you are a career changer, you might be used to a more politic and "professional" working environment. It can be a hard adjustment. But the other side of the coin is, yes it will be hard, yes you will do the same thing over and over (thats how you get really good at something), but you should never be in a situation like what you described in your OP. 

So take a little of both perspectives, forge on, and you will find your niche. You will know pretty quick when you find a "good" kitchen because things will click in a way they haven't before. Good luck.
Joined Aug 11, 2010
as a chef / owner, honestly to say  -those cooks that are just starting out / entering a new  enviroment really need to embrace where they are and rise to the challange - we have a policy here, that is "never start a new staff on the weekend"... almost always, they see how crazy it is and quit...

One thing for sure is you need to fit into where you are, not he other way around, but if it does not work for you, then don't stay,  its just not worth the misery

Remember - the world is your oyster, get out and about
Joined May 29, 2011
OK, here is my $.02...

You are a career changer... that is strike 1... you are a culinary grad... strike 2... It is up to you if you will swing at the next pitch.

As a career changer myself I can say that the only thing that saved me was youth experience. This is not a field that you can rapidly move up in unless you are a MAJOR rock star. Down play yourself a bit... start off lower than the hot line... I realize it is a big ego boost to be offered that job, however if you moved from another career to do this you will be expected to be pretty good already or you would not have done it and started off as a line cook... If you talk about culinary school at all... well, just don't do that. That is something for your toolbox... you do not share your best tools right???

If you love what you are doing but are not learning, you need to find your culinary point of view [POV] in cooking. You need to focus on that in your off time. Use the job to learn about how to work efficiently and cleanly. Stop offering to help others if it bites you in the ass. Don't worry about what others are doing. You focus on making your shit the best it can be. Your job is for practicing your basic skills, your off time is for learning. Get awesome ingredients and work them. Work on your techniques at home man. 

As far as the thick skin goes... If you dont give them anything to bitch about... well. If they are clowning you for the book, screw 'em... if they are bitchin because you are doin it wrong... then stop doin it wrong. Does not matter if you think they are doing it wrong... your're in their house. If they are the ones that have to work with the stuff that was preped.. do it the way they want it done, or dont do it at all. If you have extra time then go help the dishwasher... that will get you mad points, not doing shit they dont like.
Joined May 29, 2011
Also, this might sound counter productive but leave your ego at home. If you can't make gnocchi like Mario Batali's mom... do not tell them you can make it. Set the bar lower and wow them with your awesomeness. If you sell yourself as knowing as much as you do... this is not an industry you can fake it in. That whole fake til you can make it... not to be applied here.

My favorite saying is to listen more than you talk. Steven Covey says "seek first to understand, then to be undedstood" this is Sage advise man.

Have you ever given the idea of being a personal chef any thought? This might be something to look into if you would rather do your own thing rather than what other want you to do.
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