In an industry like food and hospitality there’s really only so much you can learn before you start your first job. Culinary school is a great experience – essential for many – but it’s when you show up on your first day that the broader lessons begin. From the real level of pressure in a professional kitchen, to the actual skills you’ll need to get by, much of your learning will be on the job.
Your workspace will likely be pretty small
Workbenches at culinary school tend to be on the generous side; it can be a real shock to get into a kitchen and find that you’ve got a postage stamp sized area in which to create. Most kitchens, especially in big city restaurants, are miniscule, sacrificed in space terms to make more room for the diners. And yet, somehow, there is still enough room to produce beautiful food – some of the most stunning dishes come from the smallest spaces. You’ll need to be inventive and adapt – learn to work with elbows in, stack and be smart about space.
Food costs are real
When you’re paying tuition for culinary school this covers the cost of the food that you burn, chop badly, ruin and generally waste. If you do this in a restaurant then you are costing the business money. The margin for error drops significantly as soon as you walk through the door of a real restaurant. Every herb must be correctly chopped, meat properly butchered - don’t even think about burning the sauce!
Butchery is often your job
Given the emphasis on food costs, it can be incredibly intimidating as a newbie to be faced with a whole fish or piece of meat that you have no idea how to butcher. Many culinary schools don’t teach butchery from the top i.e. receiving something whole and understanding how to remove and use all the various parts of it. The likelihood is that, at some point in your career, someone will slap a whole salmon or lamb in front of you and expect you to know how to turn it into fillets, chops or mince.
You have to work smarter and harder to get ahead
The old saying of ‘work smart not hard’ is often bounced around student circles but it just doesn’t apply here. Success outside of culinary school requires you to work at optimum levels when it comes to being both smart and hard working. Work hard to get prep done, to be swift and keep spaces clear, be smart about the way you work and how you plan. Interact with others and successfully execute your tasks so that you’re noticed for all the right reasons.
You’re not yet a chef
No one walks out of culinary school as a chef. It’s the road testing of your skills that will define you as a professional - this is where you’ll start to gain respect and define your aesthetic and expertise. If you stroll into the kitchen on your first day thinking you’ve already made it because you have a qualification then you’re in for a rude surprise. Get the qualification and then almost ignore it – approach your first job as someone who has some background knowledge but needs to learn how to apply it. You’ll avoid treading on toes this way and won’t miss learning opportunities.
Talent needs to be combined with assertiveness
You don’t need to be loud, rude and brash – in fact that’s unlikely to do you any favours. However, culinary school won’t teach you how important assertiveness is in the kitchen. Calmly stand your ground, learn how to say no, acquire the strength to stand up for yourself and take credit and praise where it’s due. You need to protect the talent you have and nurture your desire to progress. Learn how to manage people, to command respect and take control. If you’re looking to make it to the top (or even half way up) these qualities are essential.