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?