This weekend will be the tenth and final weekend of my culinary school externship. If you had asked me six months ago if I planned to spend my winter in the hot kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant, I would have laughed and told you that it just wasn’t my plan. But as life constantly teaches us, plans change, and sometimes the things you experience when you’re where you least expected to be can teach you things that you needed to know. Even if you didn’t know it.
10 things I Learned Working in a Restaurant Kitchen
March 16, 2012 by epicureanbliss
I’ve been pretty quiet about my externship on the blog the past several weeks. I won’t lie; a big part of that is the non-disclosure agreement I signed, which means I can’t mention where I worked by name. But I also have enjoyed having this experience without constant, active, written reflection. My tasks, my abilities, my thoughts and reactions toward what I’ve done and learned over the past ten weeks have been constantly changing, and now, with this experience coming to a close, my take-away from it is much more lucid than it would have been after, say, week 4.
With that, here are the top ten things I learned in the ten weeks I’ve spent as a culinary extern.
10. The sharper your knives, the less you cry. This isn’t just a great book, and it isn’t just true of chopping onions (though that’s one of the clearest benefits of sharp knives). It may seem tedious, but regularly sharpening your knives will save your butt every single day in the kitchen. I may have learned this the hard way; let’s just say that generally, dull knives = frustrating, forced work = sloppy results. Sloppy results make you look sloppy. So really, if your knives are sharp, you look sharp. It’s as simple as that.
9. Be early. This is true of most jobs, but especially true in the restaurant world. If you show up on time, you’re actually late. Being fifteen minutes early, even if it means taking a cab instead of the F train, can set the tone for your whole day. And when you’re working a 14 hour shift, that’s a long time to have a bad tone. Being early gives you the time to have foresight, and this value is totally within your control, so use it to your advantage.
8. Everyone in the kitchen has their own way of doing things. And when you’re an intern, they’re all your boss. So get used to being flexible. Just because things are one way today, doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same way tomorrow. Though this may be confusing at first, it’s not only okay, it’s actually great. This environment will make you more adaptable and resilient, and it’s most likely the source of many great ideas that come out of the restaurant you’re working at. Embrace this ever-changing environment, and you’ll be a lot better off for it.
7. Proving the people who don’t trust you wrong is the greatest reward. Here’s something I never experienced in the (count ‘em) five business internships I’ve had in my life. Some people flat-out just don’t trust interns. They expect you to mess up in irreconcilable ways, often, and even your smallest misstep seems to prove them right. During my culinary internship, I realized how the pressure this puts on interns is actually a crucial presence in the kitchen. It gets interns to the next level, it forces you to be better, to prove any nay-sayers wrong. And if you can change their minds about you, about interns, it’s the best feeling in the world.
6. Advil is a miracle worker. Nuff said.
5. Eggs are your new best friend. There’s one thing, and one thing only, that is going to keep you full and energized for the extremely active 7 hours between breakfast and family meal, and that is eggs. I’ve never loved eggs more than I have in the past few weeks, and honestly I’ve astounded myself with my ability to consume huge quantities of them. But a four-egg omelet with some whole grain toast and an orange consumed at 10 will keep the hunger rumbles at bay until at least 4 pm, at which point, you’re in the clear. When in doubt, a pocket full of dried fruit and nuts will also be a lifesaver.
4. Stay hydrated. This one might seem super obvious (it was to me), but I was shocked to see how many cooks around the kitchen didn’t keep a bottle of water on hand through out the day, some waiting all the way til right before service (six hours into their shift!) to hydrate. The average restaurant kitchen clocks in at around 75 degrees during prep (higher during service), and on top of your flannel pants, heavy chef’s coat, hat and all the manual labor you’re doing, dehydration happens quicker than you think. When in doubt, take a water break. It really does matter.
3. Your “limit” is about 50% past than you think it is. Before starting this externship, I frankly had no clue how I was going to handle working 22 hours in two days – on top of a 40 hour work week, no less. This schedule seemed impossibly daunting (especially for a girl who likes a Saturday afternoon nap), but I kept telling myself, as Nike says, “Just do it.” And where I thought ten hours, maybe twelve, of work was all I could handle, I found I was able to make it happen for 16 hours on Friday and 14 on Saturday. And now, I’m fairly certain we’re all capable of more than we think we are. Mind over matter – push yourself, and you might be surprised what you find!
2. Never make the same mistake twice. A friend gave me this advice early on in my internship experience, and while it made sense then, it’s only now at the end of this journey that I realize how important this message was. We all make mistakes; that’s an inevitable part of life. But learning from them – and learning how to avoid making them in the future – that shows growth. I’ll never forget a moment early on in my internship; the kitchen was swamped, and I was working on tickets for two big VIPs. Though the chef had told me in advance, I completely mixed up which VIP’s wife was allergic to nuts – and sent an hor d’eurve with nuts to her table. It never got out the door, but I was completely embarrassed at letting something so serious slip by. And from that point on, no matter how busy I was, every ticket I worked was triple checked. And it didn’t happen again.
1. Have a plan, or become part of somebody else’s. Another piece of important and true advice from a friend that has stayed with me as I’ve contemplated my next steps post-externing. In the culinary world, like many other industries, most people have a plan, an agenda, an ultimate goal they’re working for. This is especially true in New York City, perhaps the most opportunistic place on Earth. If you’ve become part of someone’s journey toward their ultimate goal, and they see that you can offer some value in reaching it, you better believe they’re going to try and make you a part of that plan!
And hey, if your plan matches their plan, more power to you. Sometimes the stars align like that (I think they call it synergy). But regardless of everyone else’s plans and how convincing they might sound, have your own plan. Stick with it. Find a goal that’s important to you, and work towards it. If you’re lucky, the people in your life who have the power to help will see your value and want to help you out. It can be easy to get wrapped up in things bigger than yourself, but if you only get one life, you deserve to make it your own in the way that makes you happiest.
That, at the very least, is my plan.