An externship is required at the end of the first year at the Culinary Institute of America. After a year of intense focus on the fundamentals, I was ready to get away--far away from Hyde Park, New York. Dublin was the furthest-away placement I could find. I packed my bag with my knives and my toque and headed to Ireland. I spent four months stressed out in the pastry department of a five-star hotel. It was a huge transition, it was really hard, and I’m very glad it’s over. The good news is that I learned a ton of stuff that I will take with me for the rest of my career. Here are 10 things I learned working in a professional kitchen.
- Do not touch the big red button. The big red button turns everything in the kitchen off. It shuts off the lights, the ovens, and most importantly, the gas. Everything, and that means the work of a few dozen professionals, stops instantly. Unless there is a blazing fire and you can’t get it under control, do not touch the big red button. Don’t ask me how I know.
- Irishmen are emotional. Seriously, don’t touch the red button. That mistake, and others, results in an overwhelming emotional reaction from the chef. Screw-ups, big and small, get magnified by the stress, pressure and speed of service time in a kitchen. All mistakes get noticed and there’s not time for a pleasant feedback session. Feedback comes quickly, with a ferocious intensity, and more than just a soufflé can be quickly deflated.
- It’s better to ‘fess up--fast. It’s hard to hide your mistakes in the kitchen. And one mistake is likely to cause a domino effect resulting in the formal afternoon tea service (at €57 per person) to come to an abrupt, and not particularly glamorous, halt. Your chef will find out when you screw something up, and you will, eventually, screw something up. ‘Fess up, get yelled at, and help fix it. Hiding it will just make it worse.
- Running is not just for races. Professional kitchens require moving at a high rate of speed. I don’t mean mentally be on your toes and think fast. I mean literally lace up your non-slip shoes and flat out sprint. Running is not only expected, but it’s essential, because someone always needs something or wants something and the extern is required to do it--right now. Move fast, run, and give the chef one less thing about which to get emotional. Life in a professional kitchen is a sprint, not a marathon.
- They make you walk before you run. I’ll admit to wanting to start, day one, with baking in the big leagues. I’d spent months imagining baking beautiful loaves of bread for hotel guests. I was excited about helping to decorate wedding cakes. I dreamed of baking fresh chocolate croissants. That’s not how the game is played in a professional kitchen. I spent most of my time, early on, alone with my mop. Eventually, I worked my way up to cutting fruit. I cut more fruit than you can possibly imagine. Apparently five-star-hotel guests love fruit.
- Fruit burns are shockingly painful. Apparently the acid in fruit can burn your skin. Who knew? My hands were a mess after the second week of peeling, cubing and slicing. I went home every night in agony and covered my hands with band-aids. I had no idea what paying my dues might look like, but now I do - not pretty.
- It’s not over until it’s over. I learned, on the first day, not to make plans after work. The schedule said I’d leave at five most days. That never happened. I never left on time. Somehow my five o’clock departure often ended up happening at 8 PM. I rushed home exhausted, and showered so I could get up early and be back at 7:30 in the morning. It’s a never-ending cycle of exhaustion. #cheflife
- There’s a war in the kitchen. Customers don’t know of the rivalry that goes on behind the scenes. It’s Culinary versus Pastry in a death match behind the kitchen door. It’s a never-ending feud but Pastry is, of course, the better of the two. I don’t know when or how it started, but the rivalry persists and it’s taken very seriously. Culinary may have more knives, but they would be smart to remember that we have the blow torches.
- Worship your dishwasher. Washing dishes is a nightmare in a professional kitchen. There are more dirty pots, pans, plates, knives, spoons and forks than I’d ever imagined. The dishwashers struggle to keep up and it’s a particularly dirty job. These folks deserve our thanks and they almost never get a kind word from a customer. Being back there and standing next to them gave me a new appreciation for how important these good people are and how much better they make the world for all of us. I try to say “thanks” with a leftover pastry or two. They deserve our appreciation and gratitude. Dishwashers make the world go round.
- Unexpected things happen in the Walk-in. The Walk-in freezers are soundproof (although maybe you should double check just to be sure). You’d be surprised at what happens in a soundproof room tucked in next to a professional kitchen. Some of it isn’t what you’d expect. I used it to hide, cry a little sometimes and, once in a while, scream and curse.
I had a good summer. I learned a lot, got positive feedback (although, with that Irish accent, I can’t be certain) and, most importantly, I survived. I’ll end up putting a lot of what I learned to work as I continue my education. The lessons just keep on coming and I do my best to get up each day and keep learning--even when it hurts.
This post was written by Point Honors Point Scholar Lane Rosen.
Lane is studying Baking and Pastry Arts Management at The Culinary Institute of America. In high school, Lane was the Youth Chair of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, as well as president of the school’s Queer-Straight Alliance. Read more about Lane here.