I love food and cooking, so naturally, pursuing chefdom would be the perfect fit, right? Not quite, but in this case, the joy really was in the journey.
My naive, first instinct was that if I wanted to be a chef, I needed to enroll in culinary school A.S.A.P.
Adventures in For-Profit Admissions.
I called The Art Institutes International Minnesota (AI) and Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) who immediately sent me marketing materials and called to arrange informational tours. I was swept away by AI's impressive downtown facilities and LCB's sprawling Mendota Heights campus.
At LCB, I was given a personal tour of the facilities. However, my antenna was raised when I stopped to examine a job/internship board. I remember being largely unimpressed, noticing a prominent ad for work at Jimmy John's.
Immediately after the tour, admissions tried to arrange a meeting with a financial aid counselor. I protested and kept repeating that I was there to gather more information before making a tens-of-thousands-of-dollars-decision. The school's attempt to convince me to ENROLL in classes that day, let alone, discuss how I was going to pay for these classes, completely caught me off guard.
I left LCB shaking my head and feeling suspicious. My suspicion was later confirmed by a LCB admission representative's incessant phone calls, post-visit. I finally asked a representative named Tracy to stop calling, to which her reply was along the lines of, "Well, I guess you don't really want to pursue your dreams then."
AI was more expensive than LCB, but the admissions staff were more respectful. I was given a personal tour, information, and no follow-up calls or mail. However, I thought it was odd that admissions did not help to validate parking or have certain spots reserved for prospective students, given the high tuition.
After these experiences, I did some online research. Chowhound especially had some valuable threads in which members recommended informational interviews and "staging," also known as begging a chef to let you work in their kitchen for free. So, I embarked on some informational interviews with people who recently completed culinary school and began my quest for an unpaid internship. I also read Kitchen Confidential. Many times. If an individual wants to be a chef, he or she needs to gain firsthand experience in someone else's kitchen.
These culinary schools did not encourage or recommend that I gain firsthand experience before enrolling. These schools do not put into perspective that they will admit individuals with no prior kitchen experience, that I could graduate with at least $30,000 of debt, and that I may have to work my way up through a kitchen's ranks with minimal pay, even after dropping a small fortune on school.
In March, Andrew Zimmern referenced an NPR article that notes LCB's parent company is facing a class action lawsuit from graduates. Many of these graduates claim they earn entry level, line-cook salaries of $8-12/hour, unable to pay off their debt. Although LCB claims 97% of their students from their Chicago branch gain culinary employment, post-graduation, plaintiffs claim that the company counts any kind of job in the industry. This is not surprising considering that a Jimmy John's ad was the most prominent on a sparsely populated job board at the Mendota Heights location.
The NPR article Zimmern references also says "Career Education Corp., worried that its cooking schools will have a hard time complying with the new federal rules, recently announced major changes meant to ensure that students graduate and repay their loans."
An esteemed, local chef I looked up to was kind and generous enough to provide advice, encourage me to check out St. Paul College's culinary arts program, and allow me to gain some hands on experience in her kitchen. Upon my arrival, I expected to receive "Kitchen Confidential" brutality, but worked in a peaceful environment where I was treated with kindness and respect. Not all kitchens operate as Anthony Bourdain described, but some may. One individual told me of an evening she interned at a local, celebrity chef restaurant, now defunct, where chefs snorted coke on the line.
What I learned on the line
- To be a successful, you must be fast. And not just quick, but lightning fast at prepping food for current service, food that is running low, food for future service, and food for customers' orders. Sometimes simultaneously. And you can't just throw food onto a plate. Food must be thoughtfully arranged, clean, and sexy.
- Reading tickets is hard. One busy evenings, I struggled to juggle multiple tickets that never stopped arriving. Tickets must be organized in such a way that the cook knows the order of each ticket, how many of each dish at your station has been ordered, when each need to be fired, when the other items from the same ticket but from other stations need to be fired. Again, this process needs to be executed really, really fast. For a sweat-inducing portrayal, watch Anthony Bourdain's "Into the Fire" episode of No Reservations.
- Physical strength is an advantage. I'm a tiny woman who does not strength-train. I struggled to carry full pots, pans, and containers that needed to be transported to and from the stove and hoisted atop tall, walk-in shelves. Fortunately, I worked in an atmosphere where it was ok to ask for help. However, I was embarrassed that I was the only individual who could not carry her own weight and knew my body would be unable to handle this lifestyle, even with strength-training.
- Knife skills are vital. Learn about knife cuts and practice often. Chefs are justifiably uneasy about letting anyone else use their knives. A few kind chefs offered to let me borrow their beautiful knives. You should probably invest in your own knife and understand how to correctly sharpen it.
- If you are in someone else's kitchen and you are even the slightest bit unclear about something, ask. If you think you are sure about how to do something, you should also probably ask. Ask for an example. Then follow it. And double check.
- Front vs. back. Prior to my internship, I was desperate to escape the front of the house (FOH). This desperation was compiled by years of retail experience. I felt liberated and comfortable working in my favorite tee-shirts and comfortable aprons, listening to the radio, and engaging in conversation and jokes without fearing I would neglect a customer. Although I did not have to serve difficult customers with a smile, back of the house (BOH) staff are generally not tipped in the same way that front of the house staff are. Eventually, I actually did miss customer interaction and realized I was a better fit for a job with a more relational emphasis.
- Taste everything. If you are making a dish, keep tasting throughout the prepping and cooking process. If you are preparing a meal for a customer, never send it out without tasting for freshness of ingredients, proper seasoning, texture, etc. Never. If you are in doubt, ask someone else to taste.
- Your blood is bad. If you accidental cut yourself, throw everything at your station away. Throw the food away, wash your knife, and acquire a new cutting board. I am shocked by chefs on reality cooking shows like Chopped who cut themselves and work with open wounds, utilize contaminated foods left on their cutting boards, and do not replace their bloody cutting boards. GROSS.
Ultimately, I decided that a career as restaurant chef was not my best fit. However, I am grateful for the privilege of having learned in a kitchen with female role-models, where staff treated each other with generosity and respect, and passionately loved food.
Food will always be my first love.
And, my dear Tracy, despite not enrolling at Mendota Height's Le Cordon Bleu, I am still passionately pursuing my dreams.