Before I went out to find a job in a restaurant, I thought it best to educate myself on life in professional kitchens. My cousin was an enormous resource, and also gave me a list of books to read: Making of a Chef – Michael Ruhlman; Soul of a Chef – MR; Reach of a Chef – MR; Letters to a Young Chef – Daniel Boulud; Down and Out in London and Paris – George Orwell; Devil in the Kitchen – Marco Pierre White; Becoming a Chef – Andrew Dornenburg and Kate Page. There are obviously many more chef testimonials these days, but I found this list to be a great primer for how to begin. Common themes: Keep your knives sharp; Use more salt; Taste Taste Taste; Leave your ego behind; Constantly question why you are doing something; Work for the best people.
Becoming a Chef gives more practical advice on how to become a chef – cooking school, apprenticeships, finding your first job, moving up the line. Other people who I spoke to gave similar advice as this book – call restaurants, find a time to come in and speak to the chef, and tell them your story and see if they’ll give you a chance. So that is what I would do.
Last Wednesday I made a list of restaurants I would like to work at. I picked only places that were highly thought of – I would learn far more working for free as the dishwasher at the best restaurant, than working the fryolater at the local diner for minimum wage. My list was 22 long. On Thursday I sat down at 2pm (a time when the chef would be in, but not too busy with prep, and after lunch service) and began dialing numbers. I wrote out what I was going to say to the hostess and to the chef, so I wouldn’t freeze with nervousness. I’m not usually that nervous, but this is new, and I didn’t want to fuck up.
I asked for a good time to come in and speak to the chef about an apprenticeship or entry-level position in the kitchen. No 9 Park told me to come to open interviews on Fridays. Harvest told me to come in on Tuesday, Hamersley’s said to call back on Saturday. Then when I called Radius, they connected me to the ktichen, and then to the chef. I said what I was looking for. No I’m not in culinary school. No I don’t have any experience. Yeah, I’m doing a PhD in cancer biology at Harvard. No, it isn’t more important than cooking. No, I shouldn’t finish. Yes, I am crazy.
He offered a one-day stage – I could come in and watch a whole day, help out when told to. After that, we could discuss longer term options after that. This is not uncommon. Even when hiring someone, they like that person to come in for a few days to see if they work well with the rest of the brigade, if they like the chef and the style of the kitchen operation. For me, this would be good experience to see if I liked being in a professional kitchen. Other chefs would tell me to do stages in a wide-range of places, get a feel for the kind of kitchen I would want to work in. The chef at Radius asked what day I’d like to come in. I said Tuesday. He said sure. Come in at 11am, wear black pants, white tshirt, clogs, skull cap, and bring sharp knives.
I had a similar conversation with the chef at Ten Tables – he said I could work a few days a week, slower days, get a feel for the kitchen. I should send him my info and he’d find a time. The chef at Sel de la Terre gave a great intro to his kitchen – he saw it as a training kitchen, they were happy to have interns, I could come in for a day, see if it worked out, maybe come in another day, then perhaps try a 3-month unpaid internship. We set up a day for the second week in October.
I called most of the list. Most people wanted me to just email the chef. I’ve heard back from a few and we’re setting up dates. I have six places in the works. My plan is to do 6-10 stages and then go back to the ones where I worked out.
On Saturday at 2pm, I walked over to Hamersley’s, dressed like I was going to church (well, I’ve never been to church, but I was nicely dressed), and found the chef, Gordon Hamersley, at the hostess counter, reading his mail. I introduced myself and told him what I was looking for. We scooted over to the bar and discussed my options. He said much of the same as the others – “You should just finish the PhD, stick it out. I’m trying to sound like your father here.” “Please, I’ve got several Jewish mothers saying the same thing.” “Oh, well, I can’t be like that.” After I convinced him that I didn’t want to work on cancer any more, he said, “Well, if you didn’t like the PhD, and this is what you’re really passionate about, then you should go for it. Maybe that is what I would say if I were your father.” “That is, in fact, what my father said.” We set up a day for next week.
I have three confirmed dates for a stage and I’m working on others. I’ve got more calls to make, but my knives are sharp, I went to Uniforms for American in Watertown and bought chef pants and a skull cap (yes, I look like I’m from Aladdin), and bought Dansko clogs earlier today (Birks in Harvard Sq gives 10% off if you buy them for work).I’ve read the menu at Radius and studied all the foods I didn’t know (yuzu, lovage, camarinth, mousseline, gaufrette, remoulade, sriracha).
Tomorrow is my first day in a professional kitchen.