Good Cook Or Great Chef? - "It's Only Food" Blog at - 246011

"It's Only Food"

Good Cook or Great Chef? 
Aug. 4, 2011 4:51 pm 
Updated: Aug. 13, 2011 7:25 am
I knew when I decided to write about this topic I would probably offend a whole lot of people and have death threats made against me.  But in my endless drive to educate the unenlightened proletariat on the truth and madness of the restaurant/ foodservice industry, I had to express myself on this subject. 
Please bear in mind I literally have 34 years of blood, sweat, and tears invested in this business, with a myriad of observations, and in no way am I trying to demean anyone, I am just pointing out the truth after interviewing many people like myself in the trade, and drawing from my own humble experience.
It seems the term “chef” is given out like candy to anyone who can lift a knife and cut a vegetable.  Someone who graduates from culinary school with no previous experience is called a chef and enters the work force expecting a huge salary and an executive title without paying the dues.  I decided a long time ago I would rather be a good cook than a great chef. I have worked and run the 4-star hotels and resorts and I know how to make the fancy French cuisine that impresses the ostentatious crowd of gastronomic snobs. But by choice, most of my career has been getting down and dirty making burgers, sandwiches and chicken wings for the everyday people who just want a good meal at a good price.  Fancy food is exciting, but no one eats like that all the time.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you graduated culinary school and cook for your family and friends that is great, I am happy for you and wish you the best.  But if you are looking for a job as the executive chef or kitchen manager position on a line filled with people who have worked their way up from the bottom of the kitchen food chain (bus boy or dish washer), you had better be prepared to work 60 or more hours a week, sweep and mop the floors, wash the pots and pans if needed, and scrub down the kitchen like the rest of them.  You can’t sit on your laurels and write the menu and spend all day at the organic produce market and then expect everyone else to sweat to make your recipe and menu ideas come to life.  You will never get the reverence you think you deserve.  I am sure you have great recipes and menu ideas, but I hope you are prepared to make them 40 times a day for 7 days in a row, 365 a year.  This isn’t a dinner party you are doing once, with 12 people showing up, and sitting at the table with their place cards and a glass of the flavor of the month.  And the dish needs to taste the same every time you make it, or when someone else is making it if you aren’t there.
For all of us who work and toil in the industry, we applaud the fact that you went to school, and we pray for your success.  My research has shown that a few things are not mentioned to the students.  There are long hours for low pay and you will have to work holidays. You have to cover when someone calls in sick or hung-over (believe me it happens all the time, especially after payday). You will be the only cook on a busy night and you will have to do dishes or wait on customers. You will have to put the deliveries away and you may get your chef coat dirty.  You might actually have to stock the kitchen yourself, do the prep work and cook all at once. Food you think is perfect is going to get sent back to be prepared correctly (gasp!).  It isn’t an easy life, and that is why we take exception to those who walk into the kitchen with big ideas and no understanding.  I am not bitter or resentful because I never went to school.  I learned a long time ago to keep my mouth shut and listen to those who have been around the block.  School is great, but this is an industry where you never learn everything. It is also an industry that will chew you up and spit you out if you let it.  You could spend a lifetime just learning the food of one culture. 
So if you ever get the opportunity to run a brigade, make sure you tell them “great job” after every service, and buy them a round of drinks after you help them clean up.
Aug. 4, 2011 5:00 pm
I am a food lover and cook and entertain a lot at home. I have GREAT respect for those working in the food industry - it has got to be one of the hardest jobs on the planet - catering to every taste! I eat out fair bit and truly appreciate what goes into making of great food. Kudo's to those who "pay their dues" and love the food industry anyway!!!
Aug. 4, 2011 5:49 pm
Great blog! My mother dreamed of owning a British Tea House - what she got was a 7 day a week breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant. I was a kid growing up in the back of the restaurant - I learn a lot from that experience. The only "cook" she could count on was my brother (who didn't want to be there) and herself. Fast forward a few years to my college days....I could work part time retail and struggle of work as a waitress and rake in the tips - I did both, choosing the latter. CONSISTANCY - was our biggest challenge. It is hard work! It is dirty work! It becomes your life.... I still love food - I am a personal chef and you know what - I run into the same issues. Consistancy, timing, quality, individual tastes. Why do I do it? It certainly isn't to get rich, it is because I love to cook. I am a foodie.....
Aug. 4, 2011 7:25 pm
* Applauds * Everything thing you said was SO true. Hubby and I have always dreamed of owning our own little corner of the food service industry. One of these days, but we'll be doing it for the love of cooking, not the love of money. But for now, I sit at home while he works at a chain restaurant, and gives up his weekends, and holidays, and school events, all to feed other people.
Aug. 4, 2011 8:35 pm
I left a very lucrative technology career to pursue my passion for food. I am now a 48 year old culinary student. "Chef" I am not, but "Cook" I have always been. You are right that many students think that a 9 month certificate program will get them the Exec Chef position at a prestigious eatery, but more often than not, their goal is to be "Top chef" or the next food network star. Way too many think that the 9 months of school IS the due payment. Surely, some of them will achieve personal and professional success, but most will end up working long hours for little pay and zero recognition. It's not a career path that's easy and it requires hard work every step of the way.
Aug. 5, 2011 5:55 am
It's very true of any career field, as well. You gotta work your way up, regardless of your education. If your diploma/degree can get you a couple steps higher to start out with, great, but don't count on it. One of my good friends is disgruntled that two years after graduating with a double degree in Law and Journalism, she's still working retail because she can't find a "good" job in her field that doesn't require tons of experience. She refuses to apply for admin assistant or clerk type jobs. I have a degree too but I'm working at a job that doesn't require post-secondary education at all (and it's not even really an asset) and not in a field I particularly want to do forever, but you gotta start somewhere..
Aug. 5, 2011 2:39 pm
I think Foodnetwork has created a lot of unrealistic expectations. They never show all the scut work that goes into running even the simplest cafe. I do a small bit of personal catering and consistency is the hardest part for me. I am an excellent cook - not just my opinion, but according to my clients and family (who can be brutal critics!) I do tend not to measure so making things exactly the same time after time just doesn't happen for me. My clients are ok with that, but if they were paying big bucks for a special occasion they would want the meal to be as they had it before. I love your blogs they are usually so thought provoking. Thanks!
Aug. 5, 2011 3:53 pm
Thank you BSM and to all the rest of you. I know all of you are great cooks and great people and love the feed back and banter that I receive on this blog, it is fun and love sharing what I know.
Aug. 7, 2011 9:41 am
Kudos, John, for a great blog. I believe that in any industry/career a key component to success is having done ALL the work...unless you have cleaned the kitchen, you cannot truly appreciate the work that goes into the "plated masterpiece" that comes out of the kitchen. In every job there is dirty work and to be successful, we have to be willing to take the grunt work with the glamour work. Thanks again for sharing your experience and insight:)
Aug. 7, 2011 10:06 am
Huge applause-I have worked in a few restaurants-waiting the tables and short order and you have hit the nail square on the head. Years ago when I was in the kitchens a new cook would appear with high hopes and pipe dreams. He/she would be shocked if ever asked to wash a pan, this high expectation did not last long. If he wanted a relationship with the waitresses and other kitchen staff he/she needed to step up and take on whatever role was needed. I laugh when I recently watched a TV reality show with many inspired new chefs, LOL they think the food critics on TV are harsh, get a real job in a real kitchen and serve the real public. Tom Hanks said it best -there's not crying in baseball (cooking) lol
Aug. 13, 2011 7:25 am
Hi John. I owned a franchised fast food restaurant for almost 4 years. I worked every stat holiday on top of regular work hours to keep labour down. I have cleaned many dishes, scrubbed floors, washed yellowed ceiling tiles, put food orders away, take orders at the tills, wipe tables, load the burgers with condiments and calling out the orders on the screen. I worked every position in the place. Did I mention taking out the garbage and filtering the fryer oil, shoveling the walk way? I worked along side my staff and perhaps this is what probably burned me out. Yes, it is an industry that will eventually burn you out. I cared about my staff and would try to provide the time off requested, preferred shifts and so on and so on. Sometimes the drama in their lives was a little too much for me to handle, but I understand it happens. A franchise keeps you in a position that if you want to be profitable and successful you are working poor to them. They benefit and after everyone receives their money, very little for yourself. I was not neccessarily profitable however I was successful. Our location won many awards from Corporate for Standards and I won "Best Franchisee" from the Chamber of Commerce, the first time nominated. Other store owners in other locations were not as fortunate as I and had to dig into retirement money to keep their stores afloat. Franchises rob people of their dreams to own a business, you are owned by them. I am glad I sold since 2 more burger places are being opened this month (too many in a small Canadian community), however I sold knowing that I treated staff well, made many friendships and learned valuable experience. If anyone is even considering a franchise be prepared to work at least 6 days a week 8 - 10 hours just at the location and then hours at home on top for paperwork. You will have payroll, food orders, scheduling, marketing, deposits, remittances to the government just to list a few things to be on top of. We were only allowed to be closed 2 days a year and the hours ran opened 17 hours, 7 days a week. Be prepared to work everyweek end (your busiest time), holidays not so much so I would reduce our hours on the stat days to give staff a bit of a break. You were pretty much spot on about a restaurant business, I am giving my insight into a franchised one. Great blog John.
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John Politte

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About Me
I have been a professional restaurant person for 30+ years. I started out as a dishwasher and worked my way up the ladder. No schooling except for hands on experience in locations around the USA. I am now starting my own business as a consultant and food writer.
My favorite things to cook
Everything-except baking and desserts
My favorite family cooking traditions
Gravy, my side of the family is mostly French , so we love the sauces and gravies.
My cooking triumphs
Starting my own public access cooking show-"It's Only Food". Did 33 shows in 3 years as the chef and producer. It certainly opened up a lot of doors and paved the way for changing the way I look at food.
My cooking tragedies
Missing my family growing up and working 80 hour weeks, but I can say that it paid off. No regrets.
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