About a month ago, I was offered a job at the restaurant where I am learning to be a chef.
On one level, this was a huge personal victory for me. Part of the reason that I decided to see if I could hack it in a professional kitchen was to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a home cook “playing chef.” The question in the back of my mind for a long time has been, Am I talented enough to make a living at this?
I wanted to test my culinary competency by actually putting myself (and my ego) on the line.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I am not a chef (yet). I know I came into the restaurant as a complete amateur. Having a passion for food and a working knowledge of basic cooking techniques in no way prepares you adequately for the demands of a professional kitchen. And to become a chef takes years of hard work and dedication.
Before I made the jump, I asked my friend Ike how he got started in the restaurant business. His advice was simple: work really hard, be polite, be eager and be honest.
And that advice was spot-on in every way. If you lie about your culinary skills in a restaurant, it takes about 5 seconds before the gig is up. You have no other option but to walk the walk or take a hike. And you cannot be above doing any task. Everyone does their time washing dishes, cleaning up fish guts and dumping grease in the rusty barrel by the dumpster.
It is hard work. It is not glamorous work.
If you are willing to risk, willing to fail, willing to look like a complete fool, and willing to keep working when you just want to pull off your apron, tell everyone to F— off and go home, then you can make it in a professional kitchen.
My early weeks at the restaurant highlighted everything I didn’tknow about a topic I have studied as a hobby for more than a decade. To say it is a humbling experience is an understatement. But the challenge is also exhilarating. It is a steep learning curve, but certainly not an impossible one.
I have succeeded in a professional setting in ways I didn’t think were possible, and that is empowering. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with this whole experiment is that my success has less to do with my innate culinary talent (or lack thereof) and more to do with me just being stubborn and persistent.
So I was surprised when instead of feeling happy that I had been offered a position, I felt tremendous anxiety. My response confused a lot of my friends. Isn’t this what I was working towards? Isn’t this a dream come true?
The answer that began to emerge from the quiet deep of my mind is: No, this is not the right choice for me.
Do I want to work in the culinary world? Yes.
Do I want to work in a restaurant? Ehhhh.
Consider a few of the realities of working in a professional kitchen:
1. You lose your weekends or nights or holidays or all of the above, meaning, you lose your social life. At first you are invited to a lot of things you can’t go to. Eventually, you just will not be invited to anything any more.
2. You have family coming up for the weekend? You want to take a week vacation to France? Tough. Good luck finding someone to cover more than one shift ever.
3. You work without any breaks most of the time, including breaks to eat or use the bathroom.
4. Your back will hurt, your knees will hurt, and your hands will be covered in scars from various cuts and burns. And you will come home wired at 11 pm when everyone else is ready for bed. (Which, I now realize, is probably why most line cooks are about 10 years younger than me.)
5. Your starting wage will be not much above minimum wage, and if you finally make it to executive chef, you will likely still have servers who make more money than you do.
Of course, Chef told me from the beginning how crazy I was to want this life and exactly what I was getting myself into. So he was not the least bit surprised when I turned down the “dream job.” Though if I’m honest, it was never my dream to begin with.
The other night, Chef was telling each of his staff members what he envisioned their next step to be. For one person, a move to the grill, for another, to become a sous chef at a bigger restaurant. For me? To quit all of this restaurant business and go back to writing. When I want to cook, I can make canapés for dinner parties with my girlfriends.
I laughed and shrugged it off, because I certainly had thought about quitting all of this restaurant business, but the implications of his statement stayed with me. Have I just been Susie Homemaker “playing chef” this whole time? Should this whole experiment end with me returning to my home kitchen to lick my wounds, or at the very least, make bacon-wrapped shrimp and fiesta pinwheels for the next Dancing With the Stars premiere?
I say, no to canapés, no to Dancing With the Stars premiere parties (sorry DWTS fans), and no to giving up on a dream much larger than this small chapter. I am a writer. I am a cook. And I am not that easy to get rid of.