Years ago, when I was starting out in restaurant kitchens, a well known chef said to me, “I can tell how good a cook someone is by watching them work for five minutes.” At the time, this mystified me. What did he see so quickly? Was he judging everyone too quickly? Didn’t he want to taste their food? Didn’t he want to see how many derivative sauces they could name?
Now after years in the kitchen, I know what he meant: it’s not just about the cooking. Of course mastering cooking techniques is essential, but being successful in a restaurant kitchen means more than knowing how to cook a few classic recipes. It’s also about having the right attitude and work habits. How you cook is just as important as how well you cook. A couple of tips I often share with my students: know how to organize your mise en place, work in a clean setting and with a sense of urgency, never standing around if others are busy and integrate a sense of teamwork into the kitchen. These are ingrained in every successful chef. Along with all the cooking, we work on these skills in class from lesson one. Sometimes these may seem like quirky details to the students, but they are important parts of their education.
My current class is in Mod 3, the time in the culinary program when students begin to look for externships. This means trailing which is working a shift in a restaurant kitchen to see if it’s a good fit. For many students, this is their first time in a professional kitchen. Understandably many don’t know what to expect. Worried they’ll be asked to cook something we haven’t covered (or worse yet, that they’ve forgotten), I get asked a lot of questions.
My advice is always the same: arrive early and be willing to stay late, ask questions if you have them, don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know something (you’re students – you’re learning), jump in with both feet and act like you want to be there. If you have basic cooking and knife skills, chefs will show you how they want each dish prepared. Setting up a kitchen station correctly, cleaning and working professionally are skills you should have when you walk through any kitchen door.
None of this should come as surprise to my students because we practice it every day and have been talking about this from lesson one: a good attitude will take you far.