Sentient Mentality

I think because I think I can


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Taking the bait: What’s it like to enter a pro kitchen at nearly 40 years old for the first time?

Are you thinking about cooking, as a career? Did something click for you after watching that show or going out and tasting that dinner or experimenting at home with a couple nice ingredients? For anyone wondering, I wanted to take a look at what its been like for the last 5+ years of my life. Everyone’s always talking about what’s in store for the next 5 or ten years. I’m a nostalgia guy. Its probably what the main draw of the culinary field was for me. I grew up around good home family cooking. The smells, the tastes, the traditions, the time spent with mom while she put it all together. I’m taking a “me day” today and in true cook fashion I thought I should give of my time with others.

I’ll start by saying that a decade ago, doing what I’m doing now would have never come close to crossing my mind. I probably would have been against it if it had. Some folks can take their passions and turn them in to work such that it doesn’t feel like work. I have yet to learn that skill. I was around 30 and a beverage manager and though I liked cooking, I didn’t have a clue how little I knew about what I was doing in the kitchen. I had a couple good ideas and even fewer dishes I could pull off.

I was in to a few food shows over the years. I had a penchant for the written word and thought sometimes about “food writing” without really having a clue what that meant. Between Gordon’s idiot sandwiches in contrast to Bourdain’s linguistic charm, I was entertained enough without being specifically inspired in any direction. I kept watching and learning what I could.

It wasn’t until struggling to engage in finding work in another field for 4 years that my wife suggested looking in to this thing that I’d been playing with at home every day. That encouragement led to two very important steps; setting up a casual interview with a Chef in town at a restaurant we love (if anyone’s in London, On. Abruzzi is some primo eats), and registering for a one day Macaron making class in Paris. All I can say is, if you’re considering cooking for a living, set up some casual interviews with some chefs. I’ve had a few over the years now and its always great conversation. Come prepared with some questions that are meaningful to you though. Consider all your working history and things you didn’t like and try to compare that with what a chef’s telling you. The grass isn’t always greener if you know my meaning. On the other hand, you might be finding the only path in your life that motivates you beyond paying rent and getting by.

…. Side note…

When I showed up to the Macaron making class, the baker, his assistant, and I were the only males in attendance. I walked in to a class of females, and they joked about me for a minute. Everything in the place was pink and red. I quietly went about my business anyway and at the end of the day I was getting tips on equipment and supplies. The Paris trip wasn’t specifically for this as I was tagging along while my wife attended a conference. We’ve been a couple times now, and honestly the food, everywhere, is exceptional. I’m still not sure what makes European food taste a level above anything I’ve had in North America but we try don’t we? If we’re being honest with each other, it wasn’t long before all this that I learned about my lactose intolerance and had started a gluten free diet with incredible benefits, but that’s another story.

… Back to cooking…

You can’t know it until you try it right? I’d gone to post secondary or college for some of you for a couple of fields and never ended up being interested. We found a job training center here in town that did a 3 week course that ended with a “Feastivle” where we’d show off a little. This is where I met the “don’t call him Chef” Chef. He’s not a fan of attention so we’ll just call him Chef here anyway just in case he ever comes across this. You know, in those movies, when they introduce the old but not too old, rugged but banged up guy; the one with all the stories? The one you know has seen it all and probably more? Then, you expect one demeanor and instead get the guy who jokes around, makes fun of you a little, has a world of patience for you? This is Chef.

Chef didn’t have a whole lot of time to teach us things at the training center between us getting our food handlers and WHMIS (workplace hazardous blah blah …of course its important). This is where I first started learning about making food in quantity. We made some crème brûlées, which I’d done before by the half dozen, but never a hundred at once. Learned how to sear off buss bins full of chicken and what oil burns really feel like; its only later that you learn this is not something you get desensitized to. I learned some tweaks to how I diced onions and how to marinate flat iron steak and how to feed a starter and make sourdough and a few other things along the way. You know what cooking shows ALL leave out? Clean up. Spoiler alert… I’m five years in to this career, in charge of two kitchens and advise on a couple more and I still spend equal time cleaning and doing dishes compared to the time I spend cooking.

Chef ended up helping me land my first restaurant gig in an Italian place he’d opened some 18 years earlier or something like that. He was only advising there at the time but he put in the good word with the owner who I went to meet with and I started the next week. I can’t remember being more excited … to do anything… ever. No joke. At 39 years old, when you hear the words “minimum wage” and you’re still pumped to do something, you feel like you’re now doing that thing you’ve always been meant to do and that thing you’re more afraid to fail at even if you know that’s impossible. Ya, I heard that line somewhere… do the thing you’re most afraid to fail at. Its powerful right? Try it out if you can give yourself the chance.

… Side note…

Somewhere in the scheme of things, I want to say half a year before the restaurant, I “published” a “cook book” online with a couple snacks and spice mixes and such. Its a bit cringeworthy but its an interesting thing to finally try something and realize how much you can learn in something you might deem a failure. Its not that there’s nothing good in there; I still make my candied nuts for the holidays and … I don’t even remember what else is in there, but I’ll give it a go again some day and really take my time with it and make it cohesive and entertaining.

…The Trattoria…

I spent a year in appetizers. Others came and left. I prepped and made salads and manned the fryer. Others came and left. A red seal proud “chef” tried to teach me how to preserve lemons when I stopped him mid sentence and offered to let him get back to whatever while I continued doing the thing I already new. This guy… nevermind. One “chef” came and left. There’s something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. I stopped counting, in all seriousness, at 30 cooks who came and left in just my first year in that kitchen and under that guy. Keep in mind this is a 4 -7 man line depending on the rush. I was lucky to have a few great cooks pass through who I got to learn a lot from. This. This is where the the benefits of age and experience come in.

Here’s what happens when you’re 39/40 and going to school 2 days a week, working 3-5 days, have a newborn at home and barely ever sleeping. You resign yourself to let things work out. This is when the shine wears off. This is when you realize you’re not doing Flash Gordon Ramsey things or spending your time on a travelling global culinary tour enjoying beverage and bud and countless exposures to cultural pleasures. I’m sure neither of those things are easy. I’m sure the stress of doing either is far different from what we imagine. Let’s get one thing straight though, when you’re 40 and scrubbing god knows what out of stacks of pans while that same substance flies around ever so effortlessly landing in your eye or better yet that fresh wound you got just after mentioning how you haven’t cut yourself in a while, you have no choice but to suck it up or move on. This is one of those moments, when the “chef” who no one’s respecting throws you on pans to run the line with no experience outside of apps because he walked in on you badmouthing him. This is one of those moments, when the owner has to have a chat with you because, completely unrelated to anything any of us did, one of the staff was having nervous breakdowns instead of getting up on the line. Maturity finally kicked in and kept me doing the thing I was most afraid to fail at.

I kept at it that year. I got a few less than stellar shifts out at the pizza/dessert bar. It maybe took me a little longer than most to learn to stretch dough, spin around and plate up a dessert. Somewhere in that mess between this station and that, when I got comfortable in my space and my feet started moving for real, I found that second gear, and I learned the dance. Its one of those things some cooks never seem to register. This is what you’re here for. This is what’s really needed. I learned to start bouncing around and helping different stations. I made myself more valuable. Experience in other year and other jobs taught me to do that. Experience elsewhere and before taught me that just because you’re getting paid by the hour doesn’t mean you can’t show up earlier just for the sake of getting ahead and making your whole shift a little easier.

… Here we go…

Just after my first year there and about to head in to year two of my apprenticeship I get the news that we’re closing for a private fundraiser one night and Chef, yes, the training center guru/fun guy/part time advisor to this place is running the dinner that night and coming in for two days before and I get asked if I want to help him prep. With no clue what’s in store, I jump at it. Two days away from salad? Yes, thank you.

He used to come in at least once a while for a while then completely stopped for months, so having him come in for this event got me intrigued. I knew ownership wasn’t pleased with the current guy… they weren’t hiding it. They complained about losses and missing inventory and this and that. Part of me was hoping Chef would be coming back for more than just that dinner. We had a good couple days doing prep together. To be honest, the way he was walking around the place, it felt like we were all being sized up so I put my best foot forward. Head down, work hard, focus on a good product and good things will come. The fundraiser almost came and went. I think the owner had maybe had a couple glasses of the vino when he’d come by at the end and asked me how I liked working with Chef. I told him it was good, loved the change of scenery and got to actually learn a few things. When he responded “good, you’ll be seeing more of him” I smiled and kept my mouth shut. There was no announcement. A couple of weeks later, “chef” was gone and Chef was in charge and cleaning up the dry storage. I think there’s something to be said of coming in to a place and cleaning house and getting that fresh start instead of trying to wade through someone else’s mess.

…The rise…

I immediately got moved over to pasta for a week to learn the dishes and then on to back prep. Prep in that place did a few hours prep until the rush and if needed would then jump on line. I did a solid six months on prep before chef trained me to run the line. Line supervisor after only two years in any kitchen. If you don’t know what its like to be proud of yourself its something I recommend you put yourself in a position to experience. Ya, I’m aware there are probably teenagers in similar roles the world over. It doesn’t matter. I wanted to do this thing. I stuck it out while countless staff came and went. I was learning A LOT in a very short time. When this all started, it didn’t seem like this day would come. When I struggled with making pizza, of all things, I didn’t think this day would come. So I’m 41 years old? The list of different jobs and industries I’ve been in is long one full of important experience. That’s why this means so much more. I love what I’m doing and this is really the first sign of success at it.

I shared that role with two others, both in their twenties. Both great human beings. After a large minimum wage increase, I don’t think any of us saw any raises and we stuck it out for a while. Age and experience told me that there wasn’t going to be a raise coming without additional work involved so I talked to Chef and said as much and asked what else I could do. Ordering, scheduling, whatever else he wanted to get off his plate. The initiative was appreciated and I was made Sous. Three years in to a kitchen and made Sous chef in a 200+ seat place. Again, I was patting myself on the back.

… Now…

We closed a year later when the owner sold to retire. I’ve land a head chef position almost that same week that’s interesting every day. A lot happened in between when I entered and when I left that place. It was an immense learning experience from start to finish. If you’re wondering if you can really get anything out of it or if it’s as great as what some of those cooking shows portray, all I can share with you is my experience. I think you can get a lot out of one kitchen, but not as much as many kitchens. If I could go back, I would have moved around a bit more. That said, if you’re older like me, and you can open a cookbook for ideas, you can still get creative. If you’re in a spot where you can put something on your resume to help you rise out of the dish pit (while still having to do dishes, don’t kid yourself), then its not to be ignored. We’re not getting any younger, and truth be told, the line takes a physical toll. If you have bad feet or knees or hip or back or elbows or hands or anything at all, get ready for it be exaggerated for the duration of your stay on the line. If you can’t work around a vast variety of personalities, or lack thereof, consider a smaller kitchen. If you think you can learn to dance and dig out of the rush with a smile on your face or at least a sense of accomplishment of getting through controlled chaos for a few hours a night, give it a go.

If you’re told you can make head chef in 5 years like I was by everyone, then do it in 4, you’ll be proud you did. Just know, at the end of the day, not everyone gets to learn from the best or work in the best places. If you’re not happy where you are consider the reasons. If its right for you, move on. Do I wish I started this career 20 or more years earlier? Yes. Would I have probably moved on from it after accomplishing the title? Who knows. I’m here now and good at what I do. When its time to see what’s next, I think I’ll be better prepared this time around.