May 24, 2005

Ask the Chef

Hello! I just wanted to write and say that I love your ChefBlog. I want nothing more than to be a chef ~ I plan to go to culinary school next fall and begin the process. My question is, before I go to school, how do I get a food-related job? I do have a college degree, in marketing, but am ready to leave my corporate position behind. Should I send out my resume to a caterer? Just take a job in any restaurant to get food prep experience?
I live in Southern Indiana ~ there is no cooking school nearby or I would be there already!
Have fun on your day off!
Thanks for your advice,

Thanks for writing, E. Would you believe that I get about 2 emails a week asking for this kind of advice! Your e-mail was so nicely worded and so sincere, I chose to respond to it publicly here.

So, you have no professional culinary experience, right? Well, I've never lived in southern Indiana, so I don't know the catering "climate" there, but here in Los Angeles, you can work for a big caterer like W0lfg@ng Pµ¢k or Pat!na, even if you have very little experience, and earn the whopping sum of $10/hr. It barely pays for your gas to get to-and-from the venues. God save you if they send you to Descanso Gardens or up to some remote Malibu location. They'll work you like a dog, but you get BIGTIME hands-on experience. That's what I did while I was still in culinary school, and I highly recommend it. You know, School of Hard Knocks, and all that. There's a difference between "great experience" and "having a great experience". Those jobs were the former, and NOT the latter.

And let me caution you, restaurant work is not catering work. Very Different. In a restaurant, you have to be able to put together a meal from a bunch of half-cooked and partially-prepped ingredients, and in most nice places, you'll get about 15 orders at a time. Catering is having to have 30/50/100+ servings ready all at the same time. It all has to be hot at once, and it all has to look great from start to finish. You don't get to focus on just apps, salads, desserts or sauté... you get all the stations, all at once. Anyway, I digress.

If you can't get an entry-level paying job, just offer yourself to a local caterer and volunteer to work for free. You can make your own schedule, which is a bonus you won't get at any school. Offer them at least 6 months of free work before you even ask for a paying job. Maybe, three months in, tell them you need "a few days off" from this work-for-free job, to give them a chance to miss you. If you're any good, I'll bet that they'll make you an offer before that 6 months is up.

Hmmm... Maybe I should set up a program like that, like a working vacation for people who want to get in this industry. Let's say, you come to Santa Monica, and put yourself up somewhere, you can "intern" for me and I'll teach you whatever I can while you're here. You just shadow me and watch how I do things, and even do some of the work. Instead of paying for lessons in culinary school, you do the stuff I need you to do... I'll teach you how to do it in the process. The stuff I have to do on days I DON'T cook is not the stuff you learn in culinary school, anyway... and it's the most important part of my business!

I kept all my exams and paperwork from school, so I'll use those to quiz you. I'll even print a fancy certificate with the number of hours you put into our little work-study program. I'll emboss it with my corporate seal, and it will look official..even sexy! A "certificate of completion" from a Los Angeles caterer might be enough to convince a company in southern Indiana to give you a shot at a paying job. Regardless, you get to spend your vacation in my beautiful adopted home-town of Santa Monica and you will have learned a lot about how I run my business. (I guess I'd have to stipulate that you can't be from Southern California. I'm not training my competition! )

I don't want to get in trouble with my husband, since he reads my blog: Don't worry, honey, I'm not setting up a hostel for culinarians-in-training. Well... not exactly!

Last thing I ate or drank: leftover Gyros meat, cold from the fridge. And a coke. Some days, food's just food.

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  1. I would love to be the charter participant in your program! It would be so much fun and who wouldn't like to spend a week in sunny SoCal? Thanks so much for answering my email and giving helpful advice. There are several caterers in the area and I'm excited about the possibility of offering my services (gratis, of course!) to them.

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