In 8th grade I shadowed the Executive Chef at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He looked at me and scoffed, “So you want to be a chef, huh?” The words of wisdom that followed my timid response are forever etched in my mind. Here are those words, plus a few more that the years have taught me.
1. Get a job.
Experience is the best teacher. It’s common for a passionate and driven, yet inexperienced, aspiring chef to decide on a goal, devote incredible amounts of energy to achieving that goal and then burn out. There is a simple test to see if an aspiring chef is suited for the demands of his/her chosen field. That test is: get a job in it!
Being a chef is not easy. If you get the opportunity to work in a restaurant, café, or other food service establishment, take it. In the long run it will save you time, money, and heartache. Besides, working in a restaurant is cool, and sometimes you get free food.
2. Find a mentor.
The older you get, the less people are willing to just reach out and help you. When an experienced person takes interest in your dreams and goals, be absolutely sure to learn as much as you can from them. Don’t limit yourself only professionals in your trade. You never know what pearls of wisdom you may be given if you’re willing to listen and let someone give them to you. Ask any successful person, and they will tell you the same thing. Once you become more experienced and comfortable, mentor others. It’s amazing what one can learn by teaching. Everyone needs a cheerleader now and then, just don’t ask them to dress the part… that can get awkward.
3. Always challenge yourself.
Bottom line is, if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and try new things, you will never make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn anything. Finding out what you have done wrong is worth more than always doing the same thing right. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t too hot of an idea to serve Pumpkin and Coconut Gazpacho at your sister’s wedding. Or maybe it was brilliant! If you can learn something from it, it wasn’t really a mistake in the long run.
4. Don’t be discouraged.
Did you burn the steak while you tried to flambé your sauce? Oh, you burnt the steak and your arm? And now half the line is laughing at you while chef is yelling and telling you to go home for the night? SUCK IT UP. If you quit, NO ONE wins. Your dream goes down the drain faster than the sauce you ruined. Does anyone care? Just you, and there’s always more idealistic prodigies to replace you. If you persevere, on the other hand, not only do you win, you also have a cool scar, a great story, and experience that you just can’t get outside of a working kitchen. Every successful person has looked failure square in the burnt steak (or whatever) and made the conscious decision to keep going.
5. Respect your elders. Respect your craft.
It might be hard to exercise humility when Chef is cursing at you in a foreign language and brandishing tongs as if she means to eviscerate you with them. Remember that no one was born a master. Chefs become head chefs because they practiced, studied, and pushed themselves constantly to be better. Likewise, respect for your tools, techniques, and materials (i.e., your craft) is necessary to become a master. Next time you have 50 lbs of onions to peel and dice, remember that you are practicing your craft, so dice the hell out of them!