How to get into cooking professionally with little to no experience

Before I started grad school, I worked as a cook in a fancy French restaurant. After working there full time (and then some) a year, I had to decide if I wanted to go seriously into cooking (and get a second job, to gain experience) or go to grad school. I chose grad school, but I think I could’ve been equally happy (in different ways) doing either one.

When I got hired, my only food service experience was working as the sandwich person in a shit cafe for five months. That job was hell, and I wanted to get more into cooking seriously, so I applied to about 7 different restaurants that were hiring kitchen staff. I got interviews at 4 places, and was offered a job at every place I interviewed.

I had a few things going for me that definitely helped in getting offered jobs without much experience. One: I am white. Kitchens are hella racist, like everywhere. Two: I am a woman. There aren’t many female cooks because kitchens are super misogynistic and sexist, but there is this perception that women work harder, are less violent & angry, and generally improve the kitchen atmosphere, so I think chefs like to hire women. Three: I am (visibly) gay. Lots of TV female chefs are lesbians. There’s this stereotype that lesbians (and straight guys) make the best cooks, and that lesbians are tougher than straight women. Four: I had lived in France (and Japan) so the bosses had this idea that I “knew” food from having lived there. And I guess it’s kinda true. I think the same benefit would extend to anyone with a strong cultural heritage that was associated with good food. So, like, there was an Italian-American guy who people also thought “knew” food because his family was Italian. If you have anything like these going for you, you should try to subtly play it up.

In the kitchen where I worked, no one had been to culinary school. The owners had even worked their way up the line of various restaurants. By getting kitchen jobs, and choosing those jobs wisely, you’ll get the same experience as culinary school, but you’ll be making money instead of accruing debt. We did hire one guy from culinary school, but he acted like he should’ve been hired as a sous chef straight out of school, and was unwilling to listen to anyone. He quit after a couple of months to go work at some hippie cracker factory. Culinary school is good for some experience and contacts, but it’s not the only way, even if you’re new to the industry.

How to apply:

I looked around for “Kitchen staff wanted” signs in windows, and I looked through the classifieds section of the paper. Craigslist also has listings. Avoid chains because you won’t learn much and it won’t look good to future employers, also avoid little places since they’d typically have just one cook working at a time, and they’ll need someone experienced. Go for a bigger, locally-owned restaurant, and look for as fancy as you can. You’ll learn more and it’ll help your career out. Stay away from anything that’s looking to hire a particular position, like a sous chef, or a short-order cook. They’ll definitely want experience. If they just want “kitchen staff”, they’re probably looking to hire a couple of people, and they’ll make room for anyone they think has the right attitude. If you see any restaurants that are just opening, definitely apply to them. They’ll be really desperate for staff and more likely to take a chance on someone without experience, and since everyone will be new and they’ll be working details and menus out, it’ll be easier to get good training. (The restaurant where I worked was just opening up.) The downside of this is that the place might fail pretty quickly, but then you’ll still have something on your resume, and some recommendations and contacts to get another job with.

If you submit a resume online or in person, add a cover letter that talks (briefly! — 1/2 page max) about why you’re applying for a kitchen job with no experience. Just talk about how you want to get into cooking professionally, and be really humble about the fact that you don’t know anything. Don’t bullshit. Cooks hate that shit and see right through it.

If you don’t have much experience though, your resume isn’t going to impress anyone, so you should try to just show up at the restaurant at a non-peak time to talk to someone. If the place serves lunch, non-peak will be around 3pm. If they’re dinner-only, you can show up around 1-2pm and the sous chef or kitchen manager should be around to talk to you. If you come in just before dinner service starts, or at the end of the night, they will not consider you. Ever.

And again, be up-front about your lack of experience, but say you want to get into cooking. Say you cook a lot at home, but make it clear you know home cooking is *totally* different from professional cooking, and let them know that you want to learn, are serious and hard-working, and that you’re willing to start from the bottom as a prep cook or dishwasher. (At my restaurant, they only hired Mexican dishwashers, so I wasn’t even considered for this option, but I think it impressed them that I was willing to do it, and we did have a couple of dishwashers who moved up to working the line while I was there.)

The Interview:

I interviewed at a soup restaurant that was run by a CIA graduate, two Irish pub restaurants, and a not-yet-open French bistro that was owned by the owners of a popular breakfast/lunch place in town. The interviews were basically all the same. They wanted to make sure I would be committed to restaurant work (and wouldn’t just leave once they spent the time to train me), that I could take the pressure, that I knew how to hold a knife, and that I knew a few basics about food.

The major difference between pro cooking and home cooking is the pressure. They want to know you’ll be able to keep your head when you’re in the weeds, and that you know how to get out. I used examples from my sandwich job for this — I told them about being overwhelmed during lunch rushes sometimes, and what I did to get back on track. If you don’t have this kind of experience, you could probably talk about staying calm under other serious pressure. Like, if you’ve worked in an office and had to deal with loads of phone calls and multiple people telling you to do different things all at the same time, they might respect that example. But there’s nothing really like it, and they’ll probably respect it if you say you’re generally good under pressure and you’re willing to learn. If you get hired as a prep cook, they can watch you under pressure before they decide to move you to the line.

If you’re applying for entry level shit, they’ll want to know you can hold a knife right and they might ask you to chop something (probably an onion — look up how to do it “right”) to show. They won’t ever ask you to cook anything unless you’re applying to be a sous chef or maybe a short-order cook, since entry-level cooking jobs don’t require any culinary creativity. They just want to know you can follow directions and do shit reasonably well and quickly. Know some basic vocab, like mince, dice, rough cut, julienne, french cut. They might ask you about this.

I was also asked a couple of questions to see if I knew the basics of the kind of food I’d be making. The French place asked me if I knew how to make mayonnaise and vinaigrette, the soup place asked me about stock and if I knew what went into some classic soups. I got all their questions right, but they were very fond of reminding me that I knew nothing, which I quickly agreed with.

Kitchen hierarchy is really rigid, and they want someone who won’t talk back to their superiors no matter what, so if I had tried to say that knowing how to make mayonnaise meant something, I doubt they would’ve bothered with me.

Where to accept a job:

With any luck, you’ll also get a couple of offers. When I applied, it took me over a week to hear back from anyone, but then I got a bunch of interviews and offers all in a few days. I definitely made the right choice for me, since I had an amazing experience working at this French restaurant.

I’m probably biased, but I think starting out in a French place is good. It’s basically what you’d learn in culinary school. The techniques you’ll learn are used in moooost other cuisines, and you’ll have amazing knife skills. It’s easy to relax your knife skills and attention to detail if you end up working somewhere more casual later, but my co-workers who had started out doing pub food and then tried to move into doing French food really struggled to chop shit evenly and quickly.

If I had accepted the soup restaurant, I might have even better knife skills, since the owner was CIA-trained. I’d probably be amazing at making soups. But, working in this French restaurant, I learned to make soup, and salad, and sauces, and to grill meat, so it was more helpful overall. Either of the pubs would’ve been an okay stepping stone to better restaurants.

But it’s important to keep in mind what your eventual goals are. If you really want to work in a sushi restaurant, you should try to start out there and not be ‘tainted’ by other practices. (This is the other benefit of applying as someone without experience — and chefs know this. They can mold you to their techniques and don’t have to make you unlearn much, so someone without experience is desirable in this way.)

Also, don’t be at all ashamed to start from the bottom. In most restaurants, the prep cooks do more of the actual cooking than the line cooks do, just with less of the glory. When I worked the fish fry/grill station (considered the hardest station in the kitchen to work), all I did was show up at 4pm, make a couple of sauces and set up my line, and then grill fish for 6 hours. As a prep cook, I learned to braise pork, to confit duck, chop shit correctly, make stocks, roast tomatoes, make croutons, make liver pâte, and so on.

What you’ll need:

I got offered a job to start the next day (so I opened at my old cafe job, so as not to fuck my co-worker over, and quit and walked out as soon as the manager arrived, since I did want to fuck him over. I told the new place that I’d be working both jobs full-time for the first two weeks, which is standard in restaurants, but uhh the old place wasn’t worth it.)

So, I had to buy some shit quickly. At good restaurants, you’ll be using your own knives. The kitchen might have a few knives for prep cooks to use, but these will be shit, and having your own knife will show you’re serious. Professional kitchen supply stores will have most of these things — whoever hires you can probably tell you where the local one is.

Knives:

There are stereotypes about what kind of knife you use, and people will judge. But go to a kitchen store (e.g. Williams-Sonoma is irritating as fuck, but has a good selection) and ask to hold various knives to find out what kind of grip and weight you like. (But you can generally buy them online cheaper.) You should have a 8” chef knife, and a paring knife. Anything else will depend on what your job is (like if you need a bread knife or a cleaver or whatever.)

Wusthof is what most men/people with large hands prefer. They’re kind of heavy, and a lot of men say they like the weight. Wusthof makes a bunch of different lines, and you can get away with using a cheaper one, while still looking like you know your shit and are manly. (I think it’s “classic” that’s considered the best though.)

Global is what most women/people with small hands prefer. They’re suuuuper sharp, lightweight, really accurate and good all-around knives. If you have a Global chef knife, you can get away with not having a paring knife, because Globals are so versatile. (I use this.)

Messermeister and Henckels are cheaper. No one is too impressed by them, but they get the job done.

Shun, MAC, and basically any other Japanese knife, or knife with Damascus steel is seen as a little too fancy, like you’re trying too hard. But everyone kind of envies them anyway. (And Shun is good for lefties.)

If you’re gonna bring in any not name-brand knife, you might as well just use what the restaurant provides. (Maybe not-French restaurants are less snobby about this.) But it is a good idea to have one super cheap knife too for tasks that would fuck up the edge of your nice knife. Also, get someone to teach you to sharpen your knives on a stone if you don’t know how.

You’ll also need a way to carry your knife. I’ve seen people just wrap them in a towel and tie it with string, but most people have a knife roll. Messermeister ones are standard and usually only $10 or so. Plus there’s room for other kitchen supplies — it’s a good idea to have your own peeler if you do a lot of potatoes, or a zester, reamer, thermometer, sharpies, or whatever comes in handy. The kitchen tools will likely be shit, and will get broken/stolen/lost. Keep an eye on your own ones. But lend them out — you can generate a lot of goodwill this way.

Pants:

You’ll need chef pants! My place provided short-sleeved prep shirts and aprons for us to wear, which got washed professionally, but we had to bring our own chef pants. Chefwear is the “best” brand, and most kitchens will do an order together to get the discount price, since they’re like $30/pair or more. You can get cheaper brands for as little as $5/pair, but everyone can tell you’re not wearing Chefwear, and kitchens are like high school. Kitchen supply stores carry cheap chef pants. “Serious” kitchens will usually have a rule like you can only wear houndstooth, or stripes or solids, but some places allow the crazy ones with chili peppers or fish or camo or whatever. Get at least 2 pairs, because you will sweat buckets and you’ll want to be able to wash them every few shifts. Plus they make great pajamas if you quit cooking.

Shoes:

You’ll need some non-slip (seriously!) kitchen shoes. They should be closed-toe, but not steel-toe. Once, one of the owners dropped a mandoline slicer on his foot while wearing birkenstock sandals and there was blood everywhere and it was really gross. Don’t be that guy. A lot of people like Crocs. They have a kitchen line, even. Dansko clogs are the “best”, but you can get cheap knock-offs which work just as well. Typically you leave these in a locker/cubby and don’t wear them out of the restaurant. They’ll start to reek of foot and rotting food pretty quick. It’s awesome. The benefit of Crocs is you can hose them off.

A hair situation:

Unless you’re bald, you need to do something with your hair. From what I’ve heard, kitchens are either bandana-culture or skull-cap-culture. Wearing the wrong one will get you made fun of. I wore bandanas, but I bought a skull-cap too because they look cool and I wanted one.

Sharpies:

The permanent markers. You have to label fucking everything you do, so carry a sharpie with you all the time. They also get lost and stolen all the time, so carry 2. If you can lend someone a sharpie when they need one, you’ll make friends.

It’s also good to carry a pocket knife for opening boxes, especially when you work prep.

How to survive:

Starting out is really, really hard. I thought seriously about quitting every day for the first… couple of months? I don’t know, but I had no other job options and I needed the money, so I stuck it out.

Part of why it was hell was because I started two weeks before the restaurant opened, so we didn’t know the menu yet, and everyone was really stressed out all the time. We all worked from noon to midnight six days a week. (The overtime pay was amaaazing.)

They started me out as a prep cook, so everyone bossed me around, and they were dicks about it. I have rarely been called worse names than I was at that time. I also decided that I would just ignore any sexist or homophobic comments, since it seemed easier to join them than beat them. I just overlooked everything and concentrated on my work. I specifically concentrated on doing everything better and faster than the guy I was working with. I peeled pounds and pounds of potatoes for fries; I chopped loads of garlic, shallots, and carrots; and I cleaned years of caked-on goo off of the second-hand kitchen equipment they bought. (Be good at cleaning and mopping.)

The only time I ever talked to anyone was to ask something like “could I have done this better?” and “what do you need?” Cooks generally hate talkers, so that worked out well. When I asked if I could’ve done something better, I often got good tips and demonstrations. And since cooks usually have a mental list of what they need to do, asking what they needed instead of what they wanted me to do, was a less annoying way of getting direction. I basically never stopped moving all 12 hours of the work day. And there are no meal breaks in kitchen work. In the early days, I didn’t even sneak food for myself, but once I was more established, I would.

The other cooks would go out for pizza and beer after work, but I didn’t join in until they invited me, which took a while since I was an outsider. Because we worked such long hours doing hard, physical work, and only eating one meal a day, everyone lost about 20 pounds in a month. It was really stressful.

But I lived through all that, and because I concentrated on being better and faster than the other guy, I got promoted over him, and I moved up to the line within a few days after opening. Once I was promoted to the lowest station on the line (cold station — salads, desserts, oysters) I made sure I could do *everything* at that station, even the station-head’s tasks, and then I started watching the guy closest to me. So, one night when he was on a smoke break and an order came in, they needed someone who knew how to make the mussels and I could do it because I’d watched him. You have to be able to do your own job well enough that you can help out others too.

I think one important key is to respect the hierarchy of the restaurant. It’s typically something like owners -> sous chef -> line cooks (ranked by job) -> prep cooks/dishwashers. Prep cooks and dishwashers both think they’re above the other, so there’s a lot of animosity there, but dishwashers can fuck you over by “forgetting” to clean shit you need. They might actually rank much higher… If someone above you in that list gives you shit, you just have to take it. If it’s someone equal, you can give them shit back, and if they’re below you, you can treat them however you want (but obviously, you’ll get farther by treating people well).

So most of the shit is like… people releasing steam from being stressed out themselves and they just take it out on whoever, and then there’s sexist/racist/homophobic comments. It worked to just ignore the former, and to respond with a better insult to the latter. As a gay woman, it was pretty easy to turn any sexist or homophobic comment into a “your mom” joke, which earned me a lot of respect. Clever banter is definitely appreciated, but you have to keep your cool, especially when you’re at the bottom.

In three years working there, I only once got angry. I yelled at this asshole for a good five minutes and was really harsh, and then after service, he just says “I want to let you know how much I respect you and enjoy working with you” and then we went out drinking. And that’s how it always goes — people blow up, but it blows over, and there are seriously no hard feelings.

But it was still hard to take all of it, and being treated like I was absolutely worthless for the first few months. I had to go cry in a walk-in freezer at least once.

Is it worth it?:

Once I had worked there for about a year, I was really well-respected and could’ve got a job at any restaurant in town, no problem. It felt really, really good. Ours was one of the best restaurants in town, so the other cooks respected us, and there’s this kind of… solidarity between kitchen people that I still enjoy. Because of our shared experiences, we have an instant rapport that’s really nice. It gets me free shit if I chat up cooks or bartenders. Like, I went to this super fancy restaurant in NYC last month, and my bartender gave me two (expensive!) free drinks because he knew I was kitchen people. (I also love that now I know how to feel comfortable in super expensive restaurants — it’s definitely not something I learned growing up.)

I also love having this cooking experience. I thought I was a great cook before I started working, since I was a pretty serious home cook and I tried fancy shit, but it was nothing compared to what I can do now. Because I’ve done the exact same thing thousands of times, I can do a lot of stuff second nature. (I have literally opened thousands of oysters, and poached thousands of eggs.)

My friends from work are also some of the best I will ever have. When I first met the sous chef, he looked at the owners like “what the fuck are you doing, hiring her?” but now he’s like family to me. If I ever get arrested, I would call him. If I needed to bury a body, I would call him. And likewise, if he ever needed anything, I would do it, no questions. So that is incredibly valuable to me.

I ultimately decided to go to grad school instead of cooking because cooking is incredibly boring. It only feels exciting because of the stress. But you’re just making the same ten dishes, fifty times a night. And then you do that again and again. You can learn a new station or work at a different restaurant, but until you become sous chef, you’ll have basically no creative input in anything. In three years, once they asked me for my opinion on the layout of the charcuterie plate, and they took my suggestion. And sometimes the pastry chef would ask which of two dessert specials I thought was a better idea for that night, and she’d usually go with what I said. (Like, ice cream on a hot day, or something less fussy on a busy night.) But one of our cooks left to cook at some weird hippie place because she couldn’t stand not having a say in the food. So, you can’t do it if you think of cooking as art. It’s a craft. You have to do the same thing, the same way, every time, perfectly and quickly. And that takes a certain mindset and skill that’s different from home cooking or TV cooking.

I originally thought I could cook in the day and use my time off to do translating and whatever, but cooking was way too exhausting to allow any hobbies, so I found the experience kind of intellectually unfulfilling. Grad school is the opposite — too much writing and too little tangible work, so I frequently miss my restaurant days.

The other problem with cooking as a career is that you’ll basically never get health insurance or paid breaks or days off or vacations. In three years, I asked for one Saturday off, but other than that, I worked every Friday & Saturday night and holiday. It’s a sacrifice. You also can’t get sick leave — you just have to take a shit ton of medicine and work though it. (Because it’s not just about paid sick leave — you also can’t take a day off because no one will be able to cover for you and you can’t fuck your co-workers over like that.) If you cut or burn yourself mid-shift, you make sure you’re not getting blood in the food, and you keep working. The only time someone ever left the line for an injury was because he had cut the tip of his finger *off* and had to get it reattached. It’s tough. It’ll fuck up your knees and back from standing and lifting things. So, basically, if you don’t open your own successful restaurant that you can get someone else to run by the time you’re mid-30’s, you’re kinda fucked.

I’d recommend reading Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” since it’s basically exactly what restaurant life is like. I’d also definitely suggest giving cooking a try if you’re at all inclined to do so. It’s a great experience, and a great story, even if you end up not liking it. And you don’t want to wonder ‘what if’. It’s also a really valuable skill, since cooks can get a decent paying job anywhere pretty easily. And it’s less of a commitment than culinary school is, and you’ll meet cooler people.

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