Many years ago, when I was a competitive long-distance runner there were two competitive seasons. In the Fall there was cross country and road races. In the Spring and early Summer there was track. What the two seasons had in common was that they were precluded by a base-building phase that consisted of a lot of long steady runs with minimal fast running and typically no racing. It was the work required to build lasting strength and a solid foundation for an increasing amount of fast running in both training and in racing. The same kind of base-building is a requirement in many occupations including those jobs in the kitchen.
This topic floated to the top of my sea of thoughts recently when a young member of my kitchen staff decided, with almost no cooking experience, take a job as a line cook in another restaurant. Fortunately, he was convinced to stay in my kitchen and learn as much as we could teach him about food and its preparation. I like the kid, and he has an aptitude for the work, and it’s also what he wants to do with his life. My sous chef and I will make sure he starts to build a strong base of knowledge and experience before he takes the next step in his career. Just as the long-distance runner is sure to fail without the base of hours of running, so to will an individual fail when thrown into a position they’re not prepared for. Not only is this young man avoiding a bad experience, he’s avoiding taking a step that may waste valuable time in setting off into rewarding career.
Being willing to do the necessary base work is what finds a lot of young cooks-turned-chefs producing mediocre food and running poorly managed and even dysfunctional kitchens. Laying the groundwork is well worth the time investment. Some years ago, I had a young fella washing dishes for me who declared that he wanted to learn to cook. I told him to go down to the walk in cooler and get a box of shiitake mushrooms that were on the right-hand side, first row on the shelf about waist-high. He came up with them with great anticipation and was sure he was going to make something with them. I showed him how to trim off the stems with a paring knife, and to save the stems for stock. Disappointed, he corrected my intentions by informing me that he wanted to cook, not prep. I sent him back to the pot sink.
I recall a story told by a famous French chef about how he got his start in kitchens when he was 13. I simply cannot remember who was, Jacques Pepin I believe, but I’m not sure. He wanted a job in a small bistro in France and took himself to the back door of the kitchen and asked for a position, so he could learn the trade. The chef instructed him to return the following day and he would teach him how to cook. Upon returning the young apprentice was shown a tower of pots and pans with instructions on how to clean them. He did it, and every day for six months continued to do it at the chef’s instruction. Finally, the young man asked the chef about cooking. He peeled potatoes and onions for the next six months. He never quit, he never complained, and he became a great chef.
Young cooks listen up. Do the work. Peel the potatoes, slice the onions, wash the pots, mop the floors. Do all of it as well as you can. Construct a strong base of knowledge, experience, and excellence on which to build your career. It’s all about that base