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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.

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.
 
 

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After a year of devoting Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights to studying culinary technique and practice in the kitchens of the Institute of Culinary Education, my schedule has finally shifted, in some ways for the better, though in others, more challenging. I have my Sundays and weeknights back, which is an amazing change that I’ve been craving for a while now. On the other hand, I’ve surrendered my Friday nights and Saturdays for the next 10 weeks as I embark on the latest, greatest adventure in my culinary escapades: The Restaurant Kitchen Externship.

The particular restaurant team I have joined asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement before beginning to work there, which included an agreement to not blog, tweet, Facebook, or generally discuss on the Internet anything about said restaurant while I’m working there. Hence, I can’t actually mention the name of my externship site on the blog, and will be fairly cautious and self-limiting in what I discuss – so much so that the photos in this post aren’t even of the restaurant I’m working at. However, I do want to share my point of view on my experiences, what I’m learning, and how I’m growing throughout this process, since it’s a huge part and the final puzzle piece of the culinary school journey.

While last Saturday was the first official day of my externship, I’ve already worked at the restaurant twice – on Black Friday, and the following Wednesday, as a sort of try-out. From those experiences and my other trails, I already knew (as most culinary students quickly realize) that one of the biggest challenges of an externship would simply be the hours. A typical shift in a NYC restaurant can last upwards of 14 hours – and that’s 14 hours on your feet, in a hot kitchen, with little to no break, family meal being the only exception. It’s definitely something that takes a lot of brain power and Advil to get used to, and I swore off watching the clock within my first few hours.

Another thing that will definitely take some getting used to is being the low man on the totem pole, so to speak. As a business professional that has worked in my particular niche industry for three years, I’m used to a certain amount of respect and credibility in the job that I do on a daily basis. But in a restaurant kitchen, I have zero seniority. The general advice chef-instructors give their students on their externships is, “Keep your head down, and don’t speak unless spoken to. Say ‘Yes Chef!’, and that’s it.” And in general, this is the best policy to follow. I’m lucky in that the restaurant I’m working at has a wonderful friendly, upbeat vibe in the kitchen, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the most spoken word out of my mouth should be “yes.”

Finally, in the weeks leading up to the externship, I struggled a bit with the idea of having to perform. In my mind, I was seeing this externship as a job, and when you take a job, they way you are perceived and treated by your coworkers is largely evidence of how well you perform or prove your skills. And having zero restaurant experience and amateur skills, wondering how I well I would perform and how I would be perceived became, quite frankly, stressful.

But then, the monday before my externship began, at my graduation, a speaker said something that made my perspective completely shift. They said, “You’re almost there, with your internship the last part of your culinary education.” And then I realized – remembered – that really, this experience is all about learning. And if I approach each and every one of my 14 hours shifts as a marathon opportunity to learn and grow, it takes a load of expectations off of my own shoulders. Funnily enough, Saturday afternoon, a line cook showed me the fastest way to peel the apples I’d been struggling with; when I commented on how easy he made it look, he said, “Don’t worry – that’s why you’re here. To learn.

So what have I learned so far?

Well, I’ve learned that it will take me approximately 2 hours to dice ten apples into quarter-inch cubes that are exactly the same size – and that I need to work on that time. I’ve learned that the nearest Gristedes doesn’t always carry Yukon gold potatoes on Saturdays, but the gourmet grocer a few blocks further is a great back up (thanks, iPhone). I’ve learned the value of hearty meal after hours of standing labor, and that for the next ten weeks, family meal will be my saving grace. And I’ve learned that being the low man on the totem pole isn’t always so bad, because it makes life a lot simpler.

After all, what is simpler than knowing your answer will always be yes?

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Last night I officially finished the classroom portion of my education at the Institute of Culinary Education. In other words, I graduated!!!

And while my culinary education won’t be entirely complete until I finish my restaurant externship (which starts this saturday?!?!), it felt oh-so-good to celebrate all our hard work and everything we’ve learned with not just our classmates, but our family and friends who have been supporting us through it all.

Going to culinary school was just a dream for me for so long, but it was in large part due to the support and encouragement of my friends and loved ones that I took the step to make this dream a reality. And while the future is a mystery, the past year that I spent at the Institute of Culinary Education was the greatest adventure I’ve embarked on yet. I was challenged, often pushed to my physical and mental limits, and in turn felt more rewarded than I’ve ever felt before.

Oh, and my classmates. While I expected, coming in to culinary school, to learn great things about cooking, I never expected to make some of the best friends I could ask for. Last night, as I looked around the celebration at our Grand Buffet that we spent 13 hours working together on, surrounding me were people from all walks of life, backgrounds, nationalities, and situations. We all have different stories, and different goals for this degree. But we were brought together with a common purpose, and through that journey we created great bonds of friendship, despite any differences among us. And that, I believe, is the greatest gift of all.

And now, it seems, it is time for the next adventure…

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Ever since mid September, when I began the ever-stressful, all-consuming process of discovering where I would complete my culinary externship in early 2012, I’ve been setting internal deadlines in my mind; finish lines to ensure I could maintain some quality of life around the moments in the year that were most important to me. At the beginning of December, I convinced myself all would be resolved by November 1st, so Thanksgiving festivities wouldn’t be muddied by my externship search. And when November 1st arrived and no externship was to be found, I reluctantly pushed the deadline back to Thanksgiving, so that at least the Christmas season would remain in tact.

I managed to still be scrambling to find an externship right up until December 1st, including an intense 14 hour trail on Black Friday that lasted until 1 am, and another stage on Wednesday, November 30th that took me within minutes of December, relinquishing me just in time for the holiday season to set in. Now that I’ve found my externship at a fine-dining, very of-the-moment farm-to-table restaurant, everything seems to be buttoning up nicely in life, for the time being at least.

We kissed our last culinary school practical goodbye last Sunday night, and have just five nights of class standing between us and Christmas vacation. Having only my full-time, Monday to Friday job to worry about for the first time in months feels like a vacation in itself, albiet a mental one. It’s allowing for some much-needed reflection on this period of my life that was spent so outside the norm: doing before thinking, plowing through days waiting for the stars to align and everything to come together, hoping beyond hope that everything would work out just as it should. So has it?

It’s as much of a surprise to me as it must have been to those who know me well that my culinary externship will be in a restaurant kitchen. Being a chef has never been my dream. Rather, I embarked on this culinary school adventure so I could obtain some sort of “qualification” to do what I love: research food, prepare amazing dishes, document (both visually and written) everything I’ve created, and share it with others. “Food Media” is the industry term for individuals who hold similar job descriptions, and while I wasn’t certain whether this meant becoming a full-time food blogger, freelancing, or working in a test kitchen, I was firm in staying my course.

Until I visited a food magazine.

Before I even had my first interview for an externship at this renowned publication, it became crystal clear that my lack of restaurant experience was working against me. And while I wasn’t sure exactly why this was (I’m motivated, intelligent, and well-trained…aren’t I?), and certainly hadn’t seen it coming (how had nobody at school mentioned this might be a slight issue?), it was immediately apparent that if this was an issue now, in merely searching for an unpaid internship, that this crucial gaping hole in my experience would be standing in my way for the rest of my career. I felt as though I had been thrown a curve ball and  left no choice; my hands were tied in doing what I had never expected to do, never really actually wanted.

And so I visited some restaurant kitchens. I worked, standing for hours without a break, doing things that other people – lots of people, in fact, who aren’t nearly given the credit they deserve – do every day; trying to be fast, be precise, be observant, be better. On more that one level, I was trying to disguise the fact that I was completely a fish out of water, in this environment I’d never stepped foot in before, feeling like an alien in a foreign world. Time and time again, I heard the phrase, “Have you ever worked in a restaurant before?” and each time I considered the extent to which I should tell the truth, bend the truth, or admit to a history of restaurant experience that I just didn’t have. In the end, though, I’m certain it didn’t matter, as the answer was written all over my ever-transparent facial expression. “No, I haven’t.”

What was perhaps hardest for me to grasp was this idea of being a good “fit” with the restaurant you extern at, something that extended beyond having skills, motivation, dedication and energy; beyond being a good student or wanting it bad enough. It was more about you choosing a restaurant and them choosing you back – not an apathetic choice, perhaps the chef seeing something in your technique and personality that fits with what he is trying to accomplish, and understanding the mutually beneficial relationship that could arise from your working there. It was hard to grasp that my best might just not be good enough, until I found it.

And then it became clear that a restaurant kitchen didn’t have to be the overwhelming, terrifying place I’d built it up in my mind to be. Instead, it could be a welcoming, synergistic, hard-working place where beautiful things are made and the deserved praise is received, both within the kitchen and from guests. A place with infinite things to learn, and infinite room to grow.

So here I am, once more bobbing placidly in the calm before the storm, waiting for what new adventure graduation and the new year will surely bring. Commencement. Aren’t we always beginning again? I suppose that’s human nature; to constantly reinvent ourselves, evolve into something better, lest we stay the same and risk that awful word: stagnation. But is reinventing yourself in a direction you hadn’t planned for, hadn’t expected still growth? Or is it a set back, a detour, just added months or years between you, as you stand, and your ultimate goal?

That, it seems, is all a matter of perspective.

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