A little while ago I was working on a menu along some amazing colleagues and a great chef, we were going back and forth on flavor profiles and creativity, firing ideas and why not say it bashing just a little on the competition.
As we went on with the conversation the chef said, “and they want to be a Jedi”; Jedi being the equivalent to a chef, we all had such a laugh, thinking on how you really have to be driven by The FORCE in order to be in this industry, how your light saber skills (knife skills) have to be on point, and if you really want to be a Jedi you have to learn from Yoda!
After a few days this blog title and the idea to write about Culinary School and the industry in general came to my mind, Star Wars fans sorry for misleading you, if you stop reading just about now I will understand.
It is a very interesting place, it is EXPENSIVE, it is full of personalities and all kinds of people that you can imagine, It is a sanctuary or shelter, for outcast, free spirited and why not say it, and some pretty weird people.
I remember the first classes that I took, feeling like I belonged somewhere at that point I foolishly thought or hoped that it would be easy. I mean how hard can it really be? I had watched pretty much every American Iron Chef episode there was growing up, and well, my heroes were and are still not from the past. I mean, I will forever respect the history of my industry and the big names that laid down the foundation in order for culinary geniuses to come.
Up to this point my heroes include the great Anthony Bourdain; I believe that more than anything else, I look up to his unapologetic form of artistic expression. He is not bound by cooking or traveling, let alone writing. The man can get in front of a camera and show you exactly what’s going on at any location in the world. He will not try to sugar coat anything or try to make it look as if everything that makes up a country is its gruesome violence or social problems. Bourdain will give you the frank truth. I feel that if he was a painter, he would be a realist .
My friend Marcela went to culinary school and I mean from the very beginning we knew Martha Stewart was full of crab! And not even king crab but the low quality canned kind. We knew it all!. This is far from reality…
However, getting ready to go to my classes I was not packing a laptop, pens, and books… I was packing knives, putting on the coolest uniform, and executing exquisite recipes.
Marcela and I have always been great friends and this experience forged a great bond. We used to have a couple of classes together, I’d carpool in her car because I was immensely broke (well, I still am but that’s another story). The point is we spent WAY too much time together. Although Marcela has not pursued a career in culinary arts, I know for a fact that she was great. She was always all over the place in every aspect of her life, a restless soul that questions everything. This complicated her life a bit, but she has these extraordinary qualities (among many others): she knows exactly how to listen, absorb information, and precisely execute the correct result.
On the other hand, I was a total mess when it came to learning. I believe that at that point in my life, my religious views were very strong, but probably not channelled in the best way. Anyway, at this point in my life, I thought that there was RIGHT & WRONG. There was no
gray area and I had NO doubt about it. Looking back, this is very foolish thinking, but I do believe that living with that erroneous philosophy allowed me to channel every question and doubt I had into culinary school. This was the place where I could be wrong; it was my grey area. This became extremely annoying for Marcela. I believe her approach was much more centered on control, whereas for me, it was about trail and error.
The deeper I went into my classes and as we practiced at home, cooking for friends and family, I realized how much I loved it. I knew I was going to allow every failure that came my way in the kitchen, it just made sense for me. Why would I follow a recipe? (now of course you have to follow a recipe if you want a good outcome) But I realized very early on that cooking was an art. A lot of people might differ but when you get to a certain level of cooking, you understand how food on a plate can be artistic expression. If you follow a recipe you can get good, but never great, extraordinary, or revolutionary results. For an artist, they cannot merely aspire for “good”.
It has been four and half years since I graduated culinary school, and I guess at this point I know a couple of things about cooking… However lean in a bit so I can tell you a secret, I said a SECRET so don’t go around telling your friends about it. Half of the time I don’t really know what I’m doing. You heard that right, however I have successfully gone from being a prep cook on a cruise ship to managing and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about 400 people on a daily basis, managing a staff of 14 people, and work as a Culinary team lead for Vail resorts.
When I was in culinary school I remember working side by side with multiple people. Being in school was one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had. Everyone had different views on how to approach the whole career. There were the apathetic people, the overly enthusiastic who dreamed of working for Disneyland (because is the most magical place on earth… if you have the money to pay for the magic), and the ones that already knew everything. The superior ones were generally the ones with tattoos, being extremely aggressive because they knew they were the best (although quite frankly, most of the time they really weren’t).
Last week I was asked if you need to have tattoos to be a chef. Up to this point I have consider getting a couple myself, but it’s always a back and forth between thinking that I would only be doing it for the sake of fitting in with all of those badass superior people. I know… now don’t get me wrong, I know I’m just generalizing and I will take some heat from friends and ex-coworkers that have tattoos if they read this. Let it be clear I do not believe a tattoo makes you a chef, I know some amazing people in the industry that have them and some amazing people that don’t.
That is the interesting part, going to culinary school doesn’t make you a chef, it gives you some technical skills and if you pay attention to the chefs it can make you realize that it won’t be an easy climb. But that’s what it’s about it.
I have never regretted my education; but the more and more time that I have spent in a kitchen, I have realized that is all about confidence, being fearless but keeping at least one foot on the ground. If you believe you are the best, you will stop learning, and if you don’t have enough character, it doesn’t matter how much you know, you will not be able to lead.
However, the beauty of a kitchen is that never-ending knowledge, the room for change and creativity. Now of course, I was being a bit modest previously, I mean… I am pretty damn good at what I do (if I do say so myself, and I do). If you talk to someone in this industry you will realize how full of ourselves we really have to be in order to be successful in a kitchen.
Here I come generalizing again, in this industry, at least for me, there are way too many types of people! There’s the foolish that actually believe they are untouchable, mighty and better than anyone else; I have met way too many of those fools and I do believe that they end up getting stuck in a hot line and never have the chance to advance and become chefs. The others are the ones that understand that all the culinary skill that you have means nothing if you don’t back it up with work ethic, preparation, effort, attitude, and passion. I will personally not say anything about punctuality, because I’m bit bad at that… I believe it’s the Mexican in me.
In order to give you a general idea of a kitchen, there is no room for apathetic, dirty, unorganized, or weak workmanship. It is a very competitive industry and there is always something that can be done. It is a never ending constant workload that does not go away, a cruel environment that will gnash at you and spit you right out if you are not prepared for it.
I do believe that that’s the rewarding part… the never ending questioning of am I good enough? Can I really do this? If I decide to do it and I crash and burn would it have been worth it? I believe that if you work in this industry and you answered yes to those questions, you have got a quality that is essential to this industry. You are fearless. Now this doesn’t warrant irresponsibility or a reckless kind of fearless. You might end up being good enough, but never great. Be the kind of fearless that picks up a broom, looks at every detail, and works with passion. Be confident but never arrogant, both brave and bold… more than anything be a true artist! An artist has something to say, so make sure you have some kind of values, principals, ethics, and believe in something that will keep you driven and passionate about being a chef!
By Cristian Hernandez