By Liz Castner
One of the most important aspects of both the culinary and pastry programs takes place outside the classroom—trailing. Indeed, I learned a tremendous amount about technique and working in professional kitchens through my trailing experience. However, if you had asked me several months ago what “trailing” was, I would have assumed we were talking about hiking. In fact, a friend recently told me that she thought I had been misspelling “trials” when posting about my trailing experience on Facebook. While my spelling was accurate, my friend was not far off in her interpretation of the word.
A trail is a combination of a job interview and a trial work shift. Basically, it’s an interview that can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. This is how every person cooking in a kitchen gets a job, and how ICE Culinary Arts or Pastry & Baking Arts students get their externships. For an externship, you only have to go on one trail, but as you progress in your career and are applying for more competitive jobs—for example, Sous Chef or Executive Chef—you will likely go on more than one trail at the same restaurant.
At the time of this posting, I have gone on 5 trails and have happily secured my externship at Colicchio & Sons, a restaurant in Tom Colicchio’s Craft Restaurant Group. Despite having found an externship, I also intend on doing an additional trail in a cake studio, purely because I want to see the magic of cake decorating on a professional level! While trails are primarily places to apply for positions, they can also serve as a window into what it’s like behind-the-scenes for those who are interested. In this sense, trailing is not simply useful for building your resume, but also figuring out the kind of job and working environment you ultimately want.
When I first started culinary school, I was 110% sure I’d be pursuing an externship in a bakery when the time came. Bake shop items are tasty and a lot of fun to make. Some shops specialize in wedding and occasion cakes, which are always exciting to craft. Further, they offer a work atmosphere that is often both calming and fun–a great combination in my book! Fortunately, I was able to trail at two truly excellent bakeries: Astor Bake Shop and One Girl Cookies.
Astor Bake Shop was a revelation—the small kitchen was not totally closed off from the seating area, so while mixing up pumpkin cheesecake batter, I got to listen to some smooth jazz and totally relax. It was a small kitchen, but a great work environment with some amazing seasonal desserts. Right off the bat, I was tempted to take this externship. I knew it would be comfortable and fun, and that I would learn so much from the wonderful and inspiring Chef, George McKirdy (who, I might add, is so cool that I would gladly hangout with him both on and off the job!).
Similarly, the experience at One Girl Cookies was fabulous. ICE alum Dave Crofton and his team were incredibly friendly and welcoming. And the cookies—oh the cookies! They are truly some of the best I’ve ever had. To top it off, I even got to whip up a batch of the newest cookie recipe they have yet to release. I wish I could tell you what’s in it, but I’m keeping it a secret until Chef Dave announces it himself. For now, all I’ll say is that this new cookie is not merely delicious, but also entirely innovative. I love that kind of creativity–bringing together flavors in different ways than the norm, particularly in desserts.
So, based on my above descriptions, it would seem that I had two incredible bakeries to choose between for my externship. Yet, while I fully intend to work in a bakery someday, I couldn’t help but think—if I move back to California and look for a job there, what would be the best externship to have on my resume to show that I took advantage of my time here? In New York, there are so many opportunities, and so many chefs that are known not just nationally, but internationally. Thus, while I truly loved my trailing experiences at both Astor Bake Shop and One Girl Cookies, I decided I needed to explore other options. I wanted to explore other avenues, hunt down any chance I could, and pick the absolute best one for me, not just for my resume’s sake, but in order to combine elements of everything I want going forward: a great atmosphere, beautiful, seasonal, and delicious desserts, patient chefs, friendly co-workers, and most importantly, lots to do!
I trailed at Oceana, Spice Market, and Colicchio & Sons. Either a chef or a representative from these three restaurants was present at the ICE Career Fair here in September, which is how I lined up several trailing opportunities. My experience at each restaurant taught me something new. My first revelation–which took place at Oceana–was that it is much harder to make a batch of 600 cookies than it is to make a batch of 60. Also it is REALLY HEAVY. Oceana’s kitchen is huge, and there was so much to do. The chef I worked with, Chef Joseph Gabriel, was intimidating at first, but ended up being incredibly patient and nice. It was my very first trail (the bakeries came a little later). To say the least, I felt a little overwhelmed.
My next trail was at Spice Market, where I worked with the impressive and incredibly creative Chef Christina Kaelberer. This experience made me realize that I haven’t developed some skills that are crucial in a restaurant setting—namely, being able to quenelle and to be consistent in my output (i.e. make things the same shape and size). I left convinced that I must learn to do these things, STAT.
At Colicchio & Sons, I watched and helped a well-oiled machine churn out exceptional work. Furthermore, I spent time being taught by nearly every member of the culinary team—each of whom was kind, informative, and excited to have me there. The team also really loves the executive pastry chef, Stephen Collucci, a talented man with an inspiring and friendly demeanor. Everyone was excited about his work, and it was contagious. As at Spice Market, they had me taste most of the desserts, which were beyond words in terms of their deliciousness. There was a lot to do, a lot to see, and a lot to create, but it wasn’t overwhelming—it was beautiful. At the end of the trail, I knew that this was where I wanted to do my externship. Fortunately, they wanted me too; I start in December, and I am completely pumped!
Before I go, I’d like to leave you with some tips that I took away from these experiences. I have no doubt that you will learn your own lessons, but if you’ve taken the time to read this far, why not pick up a couple of pointers to take with you?
Number 1: Come in with a really positive attitude. You want to display the following to your potential employer: I am eager to learn, and I am ready to work long and hard. Chef Dave complimented me on both of these things and even told me that these qualities are even more important to chefs than actual skill level, which will naturally increase with practice.
Number 2: Leave your ego at the door. No matter where they went to school, everyone who already works in the bakery or the restaurant in question knows way more than you do. You will learn these skills, but in the meantime, no task is too small.
Number 3: Your chef instructors are good sources of information, but you have to ask! After my trail at Spice Market, I went into class and asked my instructor Chef Scott for advice. His answer? “Take a knife skills class, silly! And buy a tub of Crisco to practice quenelling at home, over and over again.”
Number 4: This is another piece of wisdom from Chef Scott, prompted by my frustration at failing to recreate an exact replica of a chef’s perfectly executed recipe. Chef Scott said that it’s a myth that someone can just watch and learn, which was quite a relief to hear. In other words: Practice makes perfect. To be your best, practice at home.
Number 5: Read the dessert menus ahead of time. Chefs love it when you can show how much you care about being there!
Number 6: Try everything, ask questions, and don’t be afraid of failure. Go on as many trails as you can. It will help you gain not only perspective, but also knowledge of your own needs and interests!
Good luck on your trails!