Being a professional cook doesn’t actually have a whole lot to do with cooking. Anyone can cook; but to be a cook, you need so much more than the ability to work with food to survive in a commercial kitchen.
Anyone can learn to cook, just like anyone can learn to write or weld or garden or paint; it’s just a skill. Sure, some people are more adept at it right off the bat while others have to work at it. But you do work at it. Hard. You have to. Because no matter which group you identify with, cooking is your passion. But it’s not your only job. In fact, it’s only a small portion of it, and the higher up you go and the more you get paid, the less time you get in the kitchen. This is where skills far beyond cooking come into play.
Time management. This might be one of the most important skills you can acquire as a cook. There will be plenty of times where you will have to work your ass off and you’ll still be behind. Any other time, though, don’t work hard; work smart so you don’t have to. Manage your time effectively and you will have everything you need – all your mise en place – before you even know you need it.
If you have ever worked in the hospitality industry, you’ll know that anticipating the guest’s needs is what takes a good customer service experience to a phenomenal one. We are talking about the difference between thinking, “I’d love a glass of water right now,” and having it delivered promptly with a smile, and never knowing you were thirsty because you never didn’t have a glass of water in the first place.
Now, apply that same principle to yourself, as a cook. Imagine, in the middle of a crazy dinner rush, your chefs are there ready to run a table of six and one of them turns around yelling at you for the aioli dipping sauce for the sweet potato fries. For a moment, you panic. What do you mean you don’t have it? There’s no more left up there? Why didn’t you tell me sooner when you were getting low? I have three pieces of fish in the oven, another one searing, two side dishes that need babysitting and a backlog on the frier baskets; I don’t have time to get you more sauce from the back fridge!
Except, you don’t have to. Why? Because you set yourself up for success. You open your line fridge and low and behold there is your backup of aioli, sitting nice and neat in a squeeze bottle, labeled, ready to go. Less than five seconds pass before the table’s food is ready to be run. Before service, without even knowing you needed it, you ensured that that squeeze bottle was there for you if you did. That is the difference between a someone who can cook, and a cook.
Efficiency. Closely related to time management, efficiency is another top quality that distinguishes a mediocre cook from the one that makes everything look so easy. These are the ones that get everything done and still have time for a snack, while the rest are running around actually losing time because they’re worried they wont be done in time. Efficiency in a kitchen is equal parts thought and experience. You need to know the flow of your kitchen – and every one is different – to know what needs done, but you also need to think ahead and be smart about what you do and when you do it. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting your own time.
To explain, say you have a sauce that you’re responsible for heating before service, the amount that you heat up depends on your business levels. If you’re closing down after dinner service on a Thursday, preparing for Friday, you can expect to need a little more sauce than tonight because Fridays are always busier than Thursdays. That is knowing your business and thinking ahead. Furthermore, you know that on Fridays, you have to start work an hour later because you’re open an hour later. This means that you have one less hour to set yourself up before it gets busy. That sauce that’s sitting in a stainless steel container in your fridge is fine, but why not make your life easier tomorrow? How about putting that sauce in the pot that you’re going to heat it up in? That way, you can take it from fridge to stove – boom – in one go. Easy.
Now, multiply that concept by as many reasonable shortcuts as you can think of and you’ve suddenly just saved yourself that lost hour without even noticing.
Work smart, not hard.
Teamwork. This one is, as I imagine most of you could have guessed, crucial. A kitchen is not – I repeat, not – a solo show. You must – I repeat, must – be able to work as a team, with a variety of different people. In fact, in my workplace, we take training courses on teamwork, personality types and flexing your own behaviour to accommodate other’s personalities more easily; it’s that important.
In an environment where your team’s execution of food becomes a dance, one person stepping the wrong way results in a disaster. This is an environment where timing is everything and seconds count more than minutes do. You can only imagine how on-the-same-page everyone has to be, at all times. One person out of line can disrupt the rhythm that’s so necessary for a successful service. You must have the ability to get to know people and learn how they operate, even if it’s not the same as you or doesn’t make sense to you; accept it and work with it. At the end of the day, everyone, including yourself, will thank you for it.
Learning. Learning that you’re always learning is a tough milestone to reach for a lot of cooks. The fact is, though, that the world of food and cooking is already unbelievably large and diverse that it is unlikely anyone knows everything about it already. On top of that, it’s always changing. Like technology, if you try to sell something outdated, you will be forgotten faster than you can flip an egg. Furthermore, meeting someone who does something the exact same way you do it is the anomaly. You will spend your career moving from job to job, working with hundreds of different people, and everyone will have their own way of making risotto. Play your cards right and you could end up with hundreds of ways of making risotto in your arsenal, some of them good, all of them different. But only if you are open to being the learnee. You need to enter new workplaces and meet new people humbly and with an open mind; imagine them to be someone you can learn from, and learn from them. This is invaluable.
Invulnerable. Less a skill, more a quality, most professional cooks have developed a thick skin over their years in the industry. In fact, though I went to school with several more sensitive, more delicate personalities, I don’t know of one who is still working as a cook. First off, as a disclaimer, I am not just talking about defending against the Gordon Ramseys. Although I have had tough experiences with tough chefs in the past, they are not – I repeat, not – all like that. And what people say in the heat of the moment, because there are a lot of hot moments in commercial kitchens, they don’t always mean. It might seem harsh but they’ll probably apologize to you over beers at the end of the night anyway.
As a final note on immunity against weakness in a kitchen, as passionate as you are about cooking and the food you create, you have to understand that not everyone will love it. You’re going to have failures and you’re going to have food that you think is exquisite while someone else will think it’s garbage; you have to be able to accept this and move on. Good cooks will listen to it, take what they deem valuable and forget the rest. Great cooks will encourage that feedback, ask for suggestions to improve, maybe try them out, and continue to grow and learn as a cook. Sounds a little bit like what I talked about earlier, no? But when you get unwarranted negativity toward your food, because you will, you must take it and move on, immediately. If cooking is your passion, letting criticism ruin your night will soon ruin your life.
So, the next time you dine out, I encourage you to think about the life that those who are cooking for you are living, and the kind of sacrifices to their sanity they might be enduring in order to create the food you have in front of you. It is a painful job; physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s a taxing job. It’s stressful. It’s hard – or smart – work, day in and day out. And it’s not for the feint of heart. There is much more than chopping a bit of this and sautéing a bit of that; those are the easy parts. And if you’re interested in becoming a professional cook, be prepared for the most important skills required. Time management. Efficiency. Teamwork. Learning. And invulnerability. You might know how to cook, but it takes so much more to be a cook.