Young Cooks Need to Pay Their Dues in the Kitchen

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

One of the downsides to a formal culinary education is that young culinarians tend to lack the patience to pace their rise to the top. What time has taught me, as well as many other chefs, is that there really is no shortcut to excellence. The degree will prove invaluable as graduates take one step at a time towards that first sous chef position, but it is patience that sets the course for success when the time is right.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle

Patience is a critical skill that comes from an understanding of where an individual wants to be and the process that will lead to that end. Work methodically towards your goal, and know when you are ready and when you are not. Those young cooks who thrust prematurely into a position of responsibility will fail more often than not.

The following words of advice may help tomorrow’s chefs understand the need to pay their dues first.

1. RESPECT & TRUST:
A chef is only successful when he or she is surrounded by a team of supporters. Respect is not a right; it must be earned through consistent actions. A cook should never assume that respect comes with the title. It comes when the chef demonstrates that this respect is a reflection of his or her daily actions. Trust is even more difficult to earn, and it only comes over time when a chef’s actions demonstrate that he or she walks the talk. Trust is a two-sided action. Time allows you to learn how important it is to trust your fellow workers. When this happens, the planets are aligned.

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.” – Warren Bennis

2. THERE IS NO “I” IN TEAM:
Great restaurants run in the same manner as a unified sports team with a single focus on winning. Leadership among this group is oftentimes shared by individuals who own this common goal, not simply because a person in authority deems it so. You must demonstrate the ability to serve as a member of the team before recognition of your role as a chef is evident.

3. CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE ISN’T ALWAYS THE BEST MOVE:
Cooks who are promoted to the position of chef before they are ready will often approach the job as an opportunity to place their signature on the operation. If there is one surefire way to alienate a team, it is to change without winning over their hearts and minds. This takes time, respect, and trust.

4. EXPERIENCE IS STILL THE BEST EDUCATOR:
There are many things in life that can only be taught through experience. Always remember that challenges and crises are opportunities for seasoned leaders to demonstrate successful action. Your team needs to have confidence in your ability to problem-solve and make well-thought-out decisions. The only way that this skill can be developed is through experiencing challenges and learning what to do and what not to do. When a cook melts down on the line, the chef will need to have a solution. If the power goes out on a Friday night with a full dining room, all eyes will be on the chef to carry the torch. When food cost is way out of line, management will expect the chef to identify the source of the problem and correct it. All of these situations lean heavily on experience.

5. KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:
Until a cook is faced with challenges without answers, he or she may see their path to the top as a right and a natural transition. Inexperience can be dangerous until the cook admits what he or she doesn’t know and sets a course to find the answers and grow into a position of responsibility.

Regardless of age, and despite the level of formal education, the most successful chefs are those who understand that it will take time to earn the title, respect, and trust that come with the role.

“To be great at anything, you can’t avoid a fundamental law:  you have to pay your dues.” – Joe Pane

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.

Third Time’s A Charm

By Derrick Connor, CCC®

My culinary mentors and yours will tell you how important it is to practice for certification. They are right. After three attempts, I was successful and met all my requirements for Certified Chef de Cuisine® (CCC®). It was not an easy road to travel as there are many challenges along the way.

In 2009, I was a recent culinary school graduate, landed my first head-chef position and made my first attempt at the CCC® practical exam. My menu was 60 ounces consommé julienne, 1 quart velouté, 1 quart espagnole; two first-course portions blue crab-stuffed flounder roulade with lemon/dill beurre blanc; and two main-course tomato stew chicken leg and thigh, roasted asparagus and Israeli couscous.

Needless to say, I was unsuccessful. I listened carefully to the critique to prepare for my next attempt. I also gained my first culinary mentor, and we began to email. I asked many questions, drafted a new menu and, after practices, sent photos.

In 2010, I decided to move to Florida, and I became chef for a yacht company. Eager to get back to my culinary objective to be certified, I practiced hard, emailed pictures to my mentor and made adjustments.

I took the exam in September 2012. There were eight candidates testing out of one baking kitchen with a single double-door refrigerator. My station blocked access to the refrigerator, and my cooking station was on the other side of the room around long prep tables that served as other candidates’ stations. My menu was 60 ounces consommé julienne, 1 quart velouté, 1 quart espagnole; two first-course portions Maine lobster-stuffed flounder roulade with lemon/dill beurre blanc; and two main-course pan-roasted chicken leg and thigh, sauteed asparagus and toasted Israeli couscous.

During my critique, I had mixed feelings, thinking I did enough to pass, but that was not the case. The items that needed work from my first attempt were good, but others that were fine the first time fell short. Again, I took the criticism and found many certified chefs willing to help me on my journey.

I felt that my fundamental cooking skills needed to be revisited, so I left my chef position to work as a tournant and chef de partie at a fine-dining restaurant under a strong chef with a growing reputation. To work on my skills and stay humble was the best decision I had made in my culinary career thus far. My skills became stronger during each service and gave me a better appreciation for all certified chefs.

Two years later, I wanted to accomplish my goal to become certified. I contacted two culinary educators, both of whom shared their advice with me, and also one who was willing to let me practice in the back of his classroom so that he could observe, taste and advise. We repeated this process once a week until the exam.

This time around, I had a plan. Seek culinary mentorship and ask questions, have my mentors evaluate each practice, create a timeline so that evaluators could easily follow my organizational progress, adjust, refine and practice—a lot. My menu was 60 ounces consommé brunoise, 1 quart velouté, 1 quart espagnole; two first-course portions poached flounder, steamed mussels, sauteed cremini mushrooms, tomato/dill cream sauce; and two main-course pan-roasted airline chicken breast and thigh, steamed broccoli and toasted Israeli couscous with pan sauce.

Each exam is three hours long, and by the end of this one, I had attempted nine hours’ worth of practical examinations. The hardest part is afterward, waiting to know if you passed or failed. It gets quiet in the kitchen. You talk to other candidates to feel out how they thought they did. Then, one by one, we go in for our critiques. I felt good about all my exams, but this was by far the best one yet.

When I am finally called on, I sit in a room in front of the evaluators who ask me why I want to become certified. I tell them that this was a goal I had been working toward for five years, but that along the way, I had come to realize that this was an opportunity all chefs should take to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. At this point, the lead evaluator congratulated me on passing the exam. Like the previous exams, it was a great networking opportunity for building friendships with other certified chefs.

As of Sept. 18, 2014, after three attempts at the CCC® designation, I successfully passed all my requirements and became a Certified Chef de Cuisine®. This is my advice. Do not get intimidated by the evaluators watching you. They are evaluating your skills. Most importantly, do not be discouraged if you are unsuccessful. Trust me, you gain something valuable.

So, when you are ready, get a mentor, ask questions, build your menu, practice, have a certified chef evaluate you, adjust and refine your menu, develop a timeline—and keep practicing.

Derrick Head ShotDerrick Connor, CCC®, sous chef, Adena Grill and Wine Bar, Hallandale Beach, Florida, is currently planning for his CEC® exam and hopes to compete in ACF individual competitions in the near future. He is a member of Fort Lauderdale ACF, Inc.

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

Derrick Connor’s story illustrates that the road to certification requires humility, perseverance and commitment. Certification symbolizes the achievement of a professional goal, and if it is a goal you aspire to, it’s important to stay the course. Take pride in your pursuit. Be in command of your craft and your future.

Trained culinarians are becoming increasingly valuable in today’s workplace, and employers realize the bottom-line benefits of hiring ACF-certified culinarians. ACF can help you achieve your certification goals and dreams. Are you ready, and do you understand what it takes to become certified? Consider these ingredients for success:

  • INVEST You are your best asset. Increase your earning potential and secure opportunities for advancement. Evaluate your education, experience and skills and determine what level of certification best capitalizes on your educational background and work experience.
  • EMBRACE perseverance, inquisitiveness, humility, ambition, confidence, hard work and competitiveness.
  • PREPARE Identify a mentor. Ask questions. Practice. Seek out constructive criticism. Define and refine your menu. Tap into your creativity. Innovate.

To learn more about ACF Certification or membership send us your question below:

The Workplace: Creating Balance in a Chef’s Life

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

Working 80 hours a week in a restaurant and viewing this as a badge of honor is misleading and not sustainable. I know many old-school chefs, such as me, will scoff at this statement with such a response as, “those who can’t invest the time will never make it in this business.”  What many seem to lose sight of is the distinction between “living life and making a living.”   Passion and commitment are cornerstones for effectiveness in any profession. However, passion sometimes is used as a disguise for an unhealthy lifestyle that physically, emotionally and mentally drains an individual.  I have been there and many of my friends would likely smile and point to my own unhealthy commitment to a career in food. So be it.  With age comes wisdom, and I hope that this is true for me as well as many of my contemporaries.

What I am discovering, thanks to one of my most important benchmark chefs, Eric Ripert, chef/co-owner, Le Bernardin, New York, is that no one benefits from a one-sided life that fails to consider what balance means. Ripert has accomplished what most chefs aspire to and has reached this pinnacle with a balance that my old-school friends would find hard to understand.

As I mature, I have found the following pointers to make sense for any and all chefs who are willing to stop and assess their level of efficiency and happiness:

  1. You can be 100% committed to your career and still have a life away from the kitchen. Forty hours per week is not feasible in the kitchen. But neither is 60 hours or more.  Plan and organize your schedule to give you flexibility to step away.
  2. True happiness requires the same level of commitment to balance as to the career. Successful chefs, long-term, make time for reading, daily exercise, travel, family and being outside.  These are must do commitments for a chef.
  3. A career without a family to come home to and enjoy can be very empty.
    A chef’s significant other, children, siblings, parents and friends define the type of person that he or she is.  Don’t ignore them. Make the time to include yourself in their lives.  Don’t fall into the trap of exclusion–it never leads to good things.
  4. Without some level of balance, the career you are passionate about will eventually begin to taste too much like a job. Be honest: are there more days that you dread going into work than ones that make you feel energized and whole?  If you are there or on your way to that point then it is time to assess how you approach life.
  5. Create routines outside of the kitchen just like the ones that drive your daily activity on the job. Chefs fully understand the importance of mise en place and the consistent organization of every part of their workday.  Use that same formula to build in time for exercise, reading, travel, family, and being outside. An Outlook calendar works for personal time as well.
  6. Leave room for some spontaneity in your life. As important as this organized time is, it will also be critical to leave caution to the wind at some time and do something unexpected (a getaway weekend, leaving the reins of the restaurant to the sous chef and taking your family out to a movie or play, going for a hike on a brilliant sunny day, etc.).
  7. Train, delegate, and trust your employees and they will give you the freedom to have a life outside of the kitchen. More often than not, the key to making balance happen lies in a chef’s commitment to training and empowering others to take on additional responsibility. A chef will never get away without trusting others to take on his responsibilities and this will never happen without investment in training.
  8. Strive to be great at all aspects of your life, not just those involving your career passion. Be a great spouse, father, son, brother, sister and friend.  Be there when it is important. Be there in mind, heart and soul.  Turn off the kitchen for that period of time and be truly present.
  9. Define your career. Don’t let it define you. Chefs who are fulfilled are ones who are true to themselves and their food philosophy.  They know that this belief structure is important.  Make sure that it includes other aspects of life.  Without the ability to realize this balance, a chef will struggle to be consistent, efficient and successful beyond the range.

 

“To me, it’s very important to have time at the restaurant, but also time with family and time for myself.”–Eric Ripert

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.