When you think back to your days as an apprentice, or even after, what are some of those lessons you've learned that in your opinion, made you a better cook, or really stick out in your mind as being important?
I'll start. My first fine dining job, I was working for a french chef. I had absolutely no education, was 19 years old, and had only worked in chain restaurants. The very first thing he hammered into my head was the importance of salt and seasoning. I'll never forget it. Also, attention to detail. I was working the garde-manger section, and we had 5 or 6 different types of lettuces. There could not be a single stem on the arugula, mizuna or baby romaine (the romaine also had to be cut to order), the curly endive had to be trimmed to only the tender, centre leaves. Carpaccio was cut to order, every order. 'Scrambled' eggs were cooked with cream and butter over a bain marie, and then topped with a generous heap of white truffles. Anything other than perfection was thrown away and started over - he ran the kitchen like a 2 or 3 star Michelin restaurant. As far as real techniques and whatnot, nothing sticks out from that job (although I did learn a ton) - what my chef really taught me though was professionalism and detail.
My second fine dining job. This is probably where I learned the most - the chef was a chef de partie (all stations) in a 2 Michelin star restaurant during it's transition to 3 stars... The lesson he taught me that sticks out most, is heat control. I learned how to properly sear a piece of meat, how to roast different meats and vegetables in a pan. How to gauge the temperature of a pan, how to adjust it, when to turn a piece of meat, etc...
The second lesson that sticks out is the importance of cooking with fat. Basting meats, cooking with butter and other fats, knowing how hot to get them, and when to add them (for instance - for scallops we'd sear them in very hot grapeseed oil, once they get a nice crust on one side, throw butter in the pan, take it off the heat, baste over and over, a minute in the oven, and then out of the pan).
Third lesson - flavour combinations. Now, this is something every cook can learn by tasting everything, but my chef really hammered this point home to me. Taught me about acid, salt levels in different kinds of food. Showed me great flavour combinations, and very bad ones (just for demo purposes). Also taught me quite a bit about wine and food, as well as how to put together a tasting menu, progression of flavours.
Fourth lesson - pastries. Chef wanted to not only teach me to cook, but also how to be a chef. He wanted me to be well rounded, so I learned pastries. Over a year of doing pastries every single day, I worked with some very talented cooks, and learned a ton - now I can say I'm a better pastry cook than most people out there. Lesson here - not to neglect pastries, because once you run your own restaurant, you'll need to know them - you can't always rely on having a pastry cook.
Anyhow, enough for this post. My second chef was not only my boss, also my mentor, and now my friend. Taught me not only cuisine, but also management, planning and organisation, how to write and cost a menu, basically training me to be a chef. He made me cook all the important dinners - critics, photo shoots, celebrities, chefs, etc... I've made recipes that were published. Between jobs I've done many 'stages', I've worked in close to 20 restaurants in total now. I've done so much in my short career, gone through so many struggles in life, I feel very, very old for 21 (mentally anyhow).
Sorry for the long post, but just wanted to share some stories. Now I hope to hear from others, about some of your experiences.