A Short Rant on Kitchen Ethics

The differences between the restaurant industry and most 9 to 5 jobs people hold are obvious.  Begin with the simple fact that we work when most people play, nights, weekends, and holidays.  Add to that the type of person attracted to working opposite the rest of society, in harsh physical conditions where the stress and urgency of a deadline hangs over your head every 5 minutes.  To describe the restaurant industry with the phrase “counter culture” would not be a stretch.

Working in restaurants all my adult life, I am accustomed to industry standards I know go against everything you are taught about jobs.  For example, padding your resume with wordy descriptions of previous positions may push your resume to the top of the pile from 9 to 5, but it is a sure way to loose your chance at a restaurant interview.  There is no way to make a “pantry” position (the entry level position into a kitchen where one plates cold food like salads, and often desserts) more than it is.  Fluffing that up to sound like more than the entry level position it is, and the chef will see through it, knowing exactly what your position truly was, and reject you for not being strait-forward.  Worse, say your deceptive words do land you a job you are not quite qualified for.  Just one day in the new position will show exactly where your skills stop, and you will look like a fool.

I have let friends who hold office jobs look over my resume, and they always make the same comments and changes, using words to glamorize what it was that I did.  One friend, upon knowing I produced and plated the desserts at Lampreia, insisted I use the title “pastry manager.”  I can only imagine laughter when the chef I (hypothetically) handed that resume to a chef I was hoping to work for.

In our industry, you call it like it is, because the true interview is physical and you are given the job providing you can back everything you claimed to be with performance.   Overstating your experience will leave you hanging in the kitchen, and most likely without a job.  Admitting less experience but performing to everything you promise shows honesty, integrity, and the ability to grow in a kitchen.

Say you are interviewing for the meat/grill station at a new restaurant, and while you have cooked on the saute line for 2 years, you have only had a few days experience on the meat/grill station.  If you claim to have worked the line on the meat station, you will be placed on the meat station with every cook watching you, gauging your performance, measuring you by every mistake.  These mistakes will quickly add up and your lack of experience will be taken for lack of skill and talent.  If you claim to have had a few days working on the meat station, but are looking to learn that station next, then your first day will most likely be viewed differently, often with a few tips shared from other cooks who have held the position before, and a more forgiving judgement will be placed on you.

A local Seattle Pastry Chef’s bio often includes a story about lying her way into a kitchen job at a French ski resort to extend her vacation.  It makes good press, and sounds romantic, but the second part of the story the press often excludes is the first day, when it was clear she didn’t possess the skills she had claimed, the chef confronted her quickly about it.  Luckily, rather than loosing a job altogether, she was demoted to the dish pit.  I emphasize luckily, because most chef’s wouldn’t offer second chances like that.

No matter how much experience you have, if you are working for another chef you need to posses the capability to learn their cuisine and grow in their kitchen.  If you can’t own up to the amount of growth you need in your resume, then how can they trust you to grow and assume their style of cuisine?  It sounds selfish and egotistical, but in the end you are in the kitchen for one main reason, to help said chef make their statement, their way.  In trade you earn a paycheck, expose yourself to a different style of cooking, and earn skills that you want and need to continue your career.  Eventually it will be your turn to set the kitchens terms, decide the details, and call in the karma of your own years submitting to another chef’s will.

One of the first lessons on kitchen ethics I learned was never be afraid of what you don’t know, and never hide it.  Chef Carsberg told me that if you hide from what you don’t know, then you will never get the opportunity to truly learn it.

Being in the restaurant industry, you will have the chance to repeat the interview process many times.  Unlike other industries, high turnover is the norm.  Two years in one place is a long term commitment by a cook.  It is in every cooks best interest to bounce around while they are young, flexible, healthy, and poor, and expose themselves to as many different styles of cooking as possible.  When it comes time for you to be the manager and creator, the broader a base of experience you have to draw from the stronger you will be.

Once you begin to seek management positions, you are looking at long term commitments.  Until then cooks, go sow your wild oats, bounce around, take unpaid internships in far off places sleeping on couches and living off staff dinners, and be honest with yourself about how much more you need (and get) to grow.

6 Responses to “A Short Rant on Kitchen Ethics”

  1. Michael says:

    dana, interesting points you bring up. I think you are lucky to work in a market where there is a definate divide between the strong and the weak. Unfortunatly in the small market of Cleveland, Ohio, my employee base is rather small, and my friendship with many other restuarants hiring managers is expansive. i would guess that 95% of job applicants lie on the application and/or resume weather it is job description, title, or time spent, or schooling. So is it my job as the person hiring new employees to play private eye and check each person out??? Sure we can hire everyone, set them up on payroll, give them a uniform, spend time training them, and see who falls, but that is alot of time and money wasted.

    My second point regards who set the “fluffing, and deceptive” standard. In my experiance it has been the Chef him/herself. It is my opinion that if you stage somewhere for 3 weeks, or intern/extern during school, especially if you get turned down for an actuall job then you didn’t ‘work with’ jean georges, or wolfgang puck, or charlie trotter, or thomas keller like the Chef’s i’ve worked for in the past have claimed. Obviously anyone would like to be connected with those great names, but when you build your professional resume around an externship, and your face is in the newspaper next to one of those names, i feel dupped as an employee when i find out Cheg “superstar” didn’t spend enough time working at his job in the spotlight long enough to collect un-employment. How can you blame a line cook for trying after these things come to light.

  2. Rho says:

    Hi Dana! This is so true even in my personal experience. Chefs in most kitchen’s I’ve ever applied for have made me cook food or bake desserts (black-box style) as part of my interview process. It makes perfect sense. You can tell a potential employer anything on paper, but its what you can do that ultimately matters. It’s great isn’t it??!! Truly fair, truly “equal opportunity-esque” =) It helps me stay grounded, and meek knowing I can’t ever and won’t ever dare B.S. my way on the grill cooking steaks! ahahahha.

  3. dana says:

    Michael- The moral of my story was hopefully to help cooks understand that by lying and overstating, they are mostly cheating themselves. And that there truly is no reason to lie, if you can honestly state your experience and express an ernest desire to grown with enthusiasm and honesty, then you should see your career grow. I am shocked to hear that 95 percent of people lie on their resume. Are you in the 5 percent who don’t?

    As the person who takes in resumes, are you able to see the fluffing? I doubt you need to go as far as to hire, uniform, pay, and train people just to find out if they are all they seemed. I have never had a job in which I didn’t trail for at least one day as part of the interview process. The physical interview is in place to gain a clearer picture of a cook. And at this point I would think that you could separate people who have claimed skills that they don’t posses.

    I agree that claiming to have “worked with” a powerful chef requires you to have held a paid position. I staged at the Fat Duck for 2 months, and never have I claimed to have “worked with” Heston. However, I still read in various places, that I was a pastry chef or chef at The Fat Duck. The first time it happened, I immediately called the offender and got this response, “So I overstated a little. It will sell better.” In the second case, a person made an incorect assumption and printed it. A chef’s public image is often taken out of their controll, subject to word of mouth, and twisted for the sake of good gossip, and bent to add credibility to a third parties cause. You can sell dinners from “a chef at The Fat Duck” than you can for “the pastry chef at a local restaurant who’s experience includes an internship at The Fat Duck”

    I am not saying this is the case of all chefs. Those that do use a minimal time spent as though it were working experience are setting a poor example. It may be dissapointing to find that you admired something about a chef that wasn’t true, but that does not give permission to lie yourself. I can blame line cooks for lying, and I can blame chefs too. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and it is always in your own hands to do the right thing, no matter who you see cheating.

    Which brings us back to the moral of the story, if you hide what you don’t know, what you haven’t learned yet, then you never get the chance to truly learn it.

  4. Michael says:

    dana, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment. The first time i read your post, and commented i saw only negatives, but since i’ve re-read your post, my comment, and your response i can see that you wrote a well rounded piece that i injected my personal negative experiances on. I hope my comments didn’t come across too spiteful…more real world hard knocks, that sometimes get to you emotionally.

    I completely agree with the moral of your story as you stated it in your comment. I only hope i come into contact with more people with similar understanding, and passion for their profession. I think this is what i lack in my personal situation, being around passionate, honest people.

  5. primebacon says:

    something you said about young cooks to go ahead and work/learn new styles of cooking before they establish their food philosphy touches a cord
    i work in india for a hotel chain and i need help in terms of contact information on chefs benevolent enough to let some chump work for a while with them and survive on wht ever it takes
    could you let me in on some addresses i could correspond onto

  6. Dana says:

    Prime Bacon

    It’s really on you to find the chefs and restaurants. Part of doing this is taking the initiative and writing to them on your own. My best advice is to be persistant. Good luck!

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