Getting Ready for culinary school
My advice is to find a restaurant which is more relaxed. If you have a contact or a family friend who is in the industry, this would be a perfect way to get your foot in the door. You can’t really get the same idea of what it is like cooking at home because if you make a mess, it’s ok.
Your guests are not going to fire you. If you are eager enough, you can volunteer somewhere; this is what I did before I started out at an academy. There is always something to do. This is not about the money – you will probably be paid peanuts anyway, and you will be treated a whole lot better if you volunteer.
You are not going to learn to dice an onion in no time overnight, but you can start to learn the basic technique. When you are up to speed, you should be able to look up, have a conversation with your fellow chef, whilst chopping away at a good pace. Don’t rush this though because it takes time to get to this point.
In the beginning stages, you are going to burn yourself. Any good culinary school will have a gel pack or something similar. So head off to the fridge and don’t ask for help. This is a tough place to work in and you will start to see that.
If you are plating up in a restaurant, nobody will have time for you to bandage yourself up whilst the food gets cold. Life goes on. You are going to suffer in the beginning. As soon as one burn mark healed on my hand, I developed another one, but you soon learn the tricks of the trade
If you were to touch someone else’s prep there would be outcry in the kitchen. Get into the habit of doing this, so you have some sort of idea of what to expect when you venture out. Obviously the scale will increase, but you can start to see how a chef thinks.
You will find chefs are pedantic about their knives. If you touch their knife it would be the same as driving off in someone’s Porsche for a joy ride. Get yourself your own knife. Most chefs will go for a particular brand and don’t look back. I love Global because it is light and it just works for me. Other people say that it doesn’t grip as well. You may go through a couple until you find the right one.
You will probably get knives at the school, but if you are fully focused on going into the industry, then you may as well start now and build up your equipment. Knives don’t come cheap so it is best to build up slowly. Start with your chef’s knife and then move onto a paring knife, for example. You will begin to see what other knives you need when you go to culinary school.
There is a lot to take in all at once, so you will do yourself a big favour by reading up on terms associated with various methods and recipes. I’m seriously glad I made the effort because I found that as soon as my chef started demonstrating, I knew what he was talking about. Obviously, you can’t possibly do this for everything because there is so much to know.
Watch some good TV programs that you can really learn from. I’m not talking about reality shows or a something on the food network. The kinds of shows to watch are shows by chefs for chefs, where they will be showing you how to prep and make basic pastries with a couple of scientific explanations along the way.
As you are cooking at home for the family, practice your multitasking abilities. This is something you have to get used to as a chef. You have to be focused, always one step ahead. Know what you are going to do beforehand and have everything out, and then get started. Time yourself and every time try and work faster. There is no glass of wine involved in this type of exercise. Work neatly as you go, keeping your surface clean. This may be a challenge, but this is all in a day’s work.
Mise-en-place is probably one of the first words you get to know when you start your culinary career. It is a synonym for the preparation of food. A good chef sets all his items out beforehand so there is less to worry about during service. Chopped garlic, Breadcrumbs, crushed peppercorns and softened butter are just a few examples.
Apprentice chef vs. Culinary School
Sure, everyone will say that you should be shown the ropes at a proper culinary school. Although this is tough, it may not be nearly as rough as what you might be getting yourself into in a top hotel or restaurant.
It is bad enough walking into the line of fire straight after graduating and cooking with a couple of arrogant chefs who have been in the industry for a couple of years, but if you don’t even know how to dice an onion properly, then you are just going to be laughed at.
Now, not everyone can afford thousands of dollars to enrol themselves at the CIA and that is what it comes down to at the end of the day. Back in the day, there were no fancy schools and if you ask me a lot of these schools have become very commercial and do a better job at marketing themselves, rather than focusing on what really matters.
If you want to earn some money, then you must go into finance, but don’t become a chef because this is not where the money is. However, you can branch off into something once you have the experience and open all sorts of businesses – this is where the bucks start to roll in. In saying that, if you open your eyes to other opportunities, you will start to see there is more than just a job in a five star restaurant.
So – back to apprenticeship – if this is the way you want to go, or this is the way you have been forced to go, then you should realize that you are going to be up against some stiff competition. People who have just graduated from culinary school are going to be looking for jobs and they will know more than you. Why should someone employ you when they can find someone with skills?
Well, one reason employers choose those with no skills is that they have a desire and a passion to go the distance. Often graduates from a school are just rich kids without much drive and more than often, just drop out because they can’t cope – of course, this is a generalization.
These days, there are so many people available with skills that your prospects are limited, and seriously what are you going to say in your resume – you have passion, you work hard, that’s what everyone says!
I can tell you how you will land the job – volunteer! You don’t want to work for free? How keen are you? That is the question. If you volunteer you will find that you will be snatched up because people don’t find this too often so it must say something about the character about the employee. Someone like this has to be dead keen to sacrifice the pay.
Obviously you can’t let people take advantage of you. You have to make them understand you will be doing this for a couple of months and if they are satisfied with your attitude and your progress, then you hope can move on to something more substantial than a staff lunch.
Watch! People will respect you, and if you stick it out you will find that it is definitely worthwhile learning for free. You may not be taught in the same way as you would at a top culinary school, but you are getting a lot out of the whole situation.
So on to chef school – obviously this is the first choice, but do you go to the 3 week course down the road or do you enrol in something where you get a full blown degree? This is a choice you have to make, but remember this is a career just like you are studying to become anything else.
If you have decided that this is something that you want to do for the rest of your life and you can see yourself standing in whites dicing onions like a mad thing or sweating away in the pastry kitchen, then it is time to begin.
One small point – just before you do, it may be a good idea to connect with a chef. This is easy to do. Find a forum or a community online in your area. Go to a restaurant and ask if you can spend the day there. Afterwards ask the chef a couple of questions. They are definitely going to be straight with you – knowing chefs! Oh yeah, don’t forget to buy him a beer at least!