One of the most difficult concepts for me to accept in the culinary industry, and life in general, was that you should take advantage of any and all connections you may have that can help you get ahead in your career. For some reason, I was hesitant when given the offer to utilize a contact to get jobs or make new connections. I think I was under the impression that to really earn my way in the industry and pay my dues, that I had to do it on my own. Any aspiring cooks that may read this, take note: I was crazy. There is absolutely no reason to not utilize the connections you have or accept the offer of someone willing to help you out. Your success in this business is solely dependent on what you can do, but getting the opportunity to show that can often be dependent on who you know. The food world consists of a vast industry with the connections of an intimate community, and there is nothing wrong with embracing opportunities that may arise.
Like most posts here, this was inspired by a reminder of an ad that changed my life. This theme may carry throughout the month of August, but I wanted to discuss the notion that a career in this business is a one-man operation. Everyone needs help; you’ll be a better cook for it and you can enjoy where you’ve gotten after you put in the work to get there. The best chefs I have met weren’t handed anything. They didn’t graduate culinary school and assume they should be an executive chef. They didn’t yell at the people under them for the sake of showing their power or because they could. These chefs worked their way up; spent a lot of time in the trenches, sweating behind the line, prepping dinner mise for hours on end and hearing ticket machines in their sleep. There may have been a helping hand or two along the way that put them in kitchens that made them better cooks, but that’s all they were: helping hands. Helping hands tend to come after you’ve made connections. Having connections in this business is great; I believe you get something out of every relationship you make in life, but definitely in the food industry. Now, that relationship can get you jobs, knowledge or education, or maybe just after-shift drinks at a nearby bar – but a connection is a connection.
Personally, there are several connections to which I can attribute very specific skill sets that I picked up. My first job out of culinary school was working as a pastry sous chef for an incredible pastry chef. I learned more about time management, being detail-oriented in the kitchen and plating working under Stuart Marx than I have anywhere else. The pastry skills I picked up were a huge bonus, but his standards and work ethic are something I aspired to carry through every job. I spent two years trying to learn as much as I possibly could from him, about the kitchen and life, and still consider him a wonderful friend. After that job, a cousin of mine (who works in the industry) recommended me to an executive chef of a prestigious country club. Michael Giletto became a recurring face in the kitchen for me over the next couple years. I worked for him part-time at his country club while becoming a full-time line cook (and pastry chef) for a new artisan cafe for which he was consulting before the grand opening. I bounced back and forth between the country club and the cafe until it opened. After that, there were a few times when I would get a call out of the blue from ‘Chef Mike’, seeing what I was up to and if I was looking for a job. He is definitely a rolling stone and that benefited me on more than one occasion (I ended up working for him again when he offered me a ‘too good to pass up’ job while I was working at Shackamaxon).
When the cafe opened, I was just a line cook – Rob was the chef de cuisine. We became fast friends because we had a shared passion and philosophy when it came to food and service. Rob left for greener pastures and then I was running the kitchen. About eight months after Rob had left the cafe, he called me up and asked me to go see him at a country club in Scotch Plains where he was now the executive chef. Intrigue led me to Shackamaxon and I found myself with a job offer. The promise of a significant raise, vastly different experience and the opportunity for a shorter commute (and one job instead of two) led me to accept.
The executive chef from the catering portion of the club took over and then working at Shackamaxon changed the way I cooked. I became a much better line cook. I can definitively say that working there is what enabled me to get the jobs that followed. Evan Goldstein is one of the most incredible chefs I have ever met, and he is a truly good person to boot. Besides being a great chef, the team dynamic that flourished under him is without a doubt the best kitchen crew with whom I’ve worked. Jonas, Eric, Marlee and I just fit together. Yes, for catering events there was extra prep help sometimes, but we banged shit out day in and day out. It was our kitchen, and it was awesome. I don’t know how to explain it to people who don’t work in kitchens… but if you have ever been a line cook, I hope you have been lucky enough to have had that one team that just sails. When we were working together, it didn’t matter what shit hit the fan (because it always does), we had no issues handling it. Everybody always covered everyone else. We worked so well together, if someone had to cover cold station or had to be running a private party, we made it work. The camaraderie and support in that kitchen was unlike anything I have seen anywhere else. No egos. No entitlement. Just people who were passionate about food and loved to cook. I miss that team and those individuals every single day.
I could go on about the opportunities that arose, but those were some of my favorites. It proves that if you’re willing to bust your ass every day, opportunities you never imagined may pop up. Sure, I took help along the way, embraced connections and answered when opportunity knocked, but I worked incredibly hard at every step. I say this to people who are in the industry all the time, but I like to think it applies to anyone working in a field for which they have passion:
Learn as much as you can every day. Appreciate it – every day – even the annoying bullshit. Don’t take it for granted because you have no idea what it feels like to lose that…And trust me, you don’t want to know.
Opportunity will always come knocking…when it does, will you answer?