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Best lessons learned

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 
Alright, my other thread was a little negative, so I thought I'd start a positive thread. Also, alot has been said about me, so hopefully I can share my own experiences starting out, and why I feel the way I do about food. The question is:

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.
post #2 of 12
There are many lessons that I learned that are important, the one though that sticks out to this day is when I was in school. The 2nd year Fine Dining chef instructor was a hard *** French fellow who was known to produce searing plates. If you did not have a side towel you would inevitably get burned. I think it was also a test of his. Well during table service I was taking some plates and he was yelling about getting them out quickly before the plates cooled and also using dry towels. As I was trying to balance the plates I tipped one to the side and the sauce started to roll around the plate a bit. He yelled that I ruined his plate and to tell the customer that the presentation looks like crap because of me, not him! And so I did. I served the plate, it looked fine, but I told the customer that the presentation was a bit off because of the way I held the plate. The customer was fine about it. I returned to the kitchen and told the chef that I told the customer what he wanted me to say. He then proceeded to yell at me that you never tell the customer that something "like that" was wrong. He said by pointing out something like that then the customer starts to second guess everything else and cannot enjoy their dining because they are wondering about things that are not right with the food, service, ambiance, etc.
I thought about it and it made sense that there are little things that are not important, but that can be magnified just by being aware of them. So there are times now when I might notice something but will keep my mouth shut. It's kind of like a "white lie". It's not something that anyone would ever be hurt by, nor be ripped off by, but some things are better left unsaid.
My latest musical venture!
Also "I'm at the age when food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact I've just had a mirror put over my kitchen table." Rodney Dangerfield RIP
My latest musical venture!
Also "I'm at the age when food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact I've just had a mirror put over my kitchen table." Rodney Dangerfield RIP
post #3 of 12
Perhaps not a "lesson" in the truest sense of the word, but here goes...
I was working at one of the best restaurants, if not the best, in Pittsburgh. At the time, I was in college for Economics- a world away from cooking. The chef, a very reserved man, came over to me and said "Jim, I can't believe you aren't going to do this for the rest of your life" knowing that I was cooking only as a means for money. And that, friends, is what got the whole train a'rolling. I hope at some point in my life, I'll find him and let him know just what an impact he had on me, in just a brief moment of time. I guess, sometimes, it just takes spark to light the fire.

Chef McKinney... if you're out there... I'm talking to you!

Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple

My Author Page


Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple

My Author Page

post #4 of 12
Why can't I get those types of chefs, or peers?

I don't really have anything to look back on, as I'm still a apprentice. Right now, the hardest thing I'm going through is actually learning things. The only reason I'm on the internet, reading cooking forums is for a hope that I can grab a couple new techniques, or things to do/look for/watch out for/think about when I'm cooking. Every chef I've had has been so self-centered on HIS food, or HIS life outside a kitchen, that as long as I serve the food on the menu the way he wants it, he doesn't need to teach me anything else. It's really quite frustrating. Right now I'm the Sous-Chef of your regular everyday family Italian restaurant. A bullshit title, but I am deserving of it (as I do look after everything).

Up to this point though, I think seasoning has been a big thing. Making sure to season everything, and season it properly. I still see a lot of people not season meat before cooking. I asked one person about why then never did it, and they said "What's the point? Seasoning a chicken breast before searing it doesn't make sense, there's a hot pan with oil in it, the oil is going to take it all away". Wasn't too impressed by this.

Also, just alertness. Being aware of everything that's going on around you. Trying not to get tunnel vision into what I'm doing and that's it. I'll never learn anything about what's going on around me if I just focusing on one thing infront of me. From this expands into a lot of things, especially multi-tasking.
post #5 of 12
Thread Starter 
Was just thinking of another great lesson I learned from my chef/mentor - emulsions. I always knew how to make a mayonnaise and emulsified vinaigrette, however one day we got into a more in depth discussion about emulsions over a split ganache.

He explained about stabilisers/emulsifiers (such as the lecithin in chocolate), and that for an emulsion to happen there needs to be sufficient water (based liquid) prior to adding the fat, since the fat molecules get dispersed into the liquid medium. It's a lesson that was very important to me, in every application from mounting a sauce with butter, emulsifying fats into stocks for a foam, to making chocolate ganache. One of those 'ah ha!' moments, now I can create bombproof emulsions of just about anything.

Honestly, I long for the days of being an apprentice again. The thrill of learning everyday, spending one on one time with the chef, doing something new for the first time everyday. Heck even being yelled at by the chef, scrubbing the stairs, cleaning the other cooks' knives, pulling apart a veal's head, doing mise en place for the next day at 2 in the morning.... Having that beer after a long, hard 16 hour shift. So many great memories. Unfortunately my apprenticeship was cut way too short (learned a ton though, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the mentors I did, especially considering where I came from). Nowadays, my professional life, and personal life are just getting far too complicated.
post #6 of 12
My biggest lesson was learning that life isn't fair. :)
post #7 of 12
Huge lesson for me was that FOH is actually more important than that was a total shocking eye-opener.
cooking with all your senses.....
cooking with all your senses.....
post #8 of 12
To be honest, I haven't been in the business long but so far my best lessons were from my Chef at school. There's times I thought I was going to just snap from here yelling at me all the time, but it helped pound the important things into my skull. The key things being:

1. Seasoning: If you don't add salt and pepper to everything, then not only are you failing your customer, but you're failing at the simplest part of your job.

2. Side towels: The best quote ever that I tell everybody when I see them burn themselves on something: "Assume EVERYTHING IS HOT!". I don't care if I just saw it come out of the fridge...I assume everything is hot, it's saved me from burning off my fingerprints on numerous occasions

3. Consistency: If she wasn't yelling at me about my horrible knife cuts, then it must have been about how every dish needs to be consistent. If you have 2 of the same dish going to the same table, make sure to pick equally sized pieces (like steaks, or fish, etc...). Make sure you present them exactly the same every time, and for God's sake, make sure your presentation is STABLE.

4. Heat management: Everyone thinks that if you turn up the heat higher, food will cook faster, not true. You're just going to burn and/or overcook what you're putting over that flame.

5. Last but not least... I think the one she always yelled at me most about...

TIMING!!! If it's not one's another. Not every part of that plate is done cooking at the same time, so remember what parts you begin first, what you can cook ahead of time and hold (if neccessary), and other various timing issues.

p.s. Forgot one, when working sautee....HOT PAN!!! I'm surprised she didn't begin hitting me with the pans trying to pound that into my brain. That pan better be hot before you add the oil and/or food.

Remember folks, sometimes the best way to teach somebody, is the most abusive one. :D
post #9 of 12
Yes, A few things my chef said back then DO stand out...

Many things in the kitchen are easy to do. (But only if you know how)

When cleaning a beef tenderloin...the chef always gets the chain.

If it's beyond your control...****'em if they can't take a joke!

And the worst isn't fair :cry:
post #10 of 12

Fine Dinning Technique

I think finally I am in the right place to learn abt fine dinning. I have great passion in fine dinning lately. Creating a certain dish thru trial and terror and reading up on books and would be helpful to ask the learned the experience chefs here who really worked for years in fine dinning like Mike and others. Not every cooks can do fine dinning. You need certain qualities like tolerance,patience, cool head, co-ordination, clean, meticulous, love and other trait.

What exactly is foam and I heard of foam saice all the time?

"The truth cook hold in his palm the happiness of mankind", quote Normal Douglas, South Wind.
"The truth cook hold in his palm the happiness of mankind", quote Normal Douglas, South Wind.
post #11 of 12
a great lesson i never forget was when i liked to know something about fish.
the chef took the phone and called the fishsupplier asked my qeustion told me the answer and added to that "always ask the pro if you call them with good qeustions there becomme a better relation between you and him and they defenitly know where theyre talking about"
post #12 of 12
Two things that I learned from two different chefs stand out. The first was "whatever you do, put your heart into it" which sounds kind of corny in print but when chef said it I could see how much he really meant it and the quality of the food he created said it even more so. The other was a French chef that I worked for who said he was taught "the difference between a cook and a great cook is salt and pepper". They both taught me alot more than this but I can't remember all the times I've passed these two things on to younger cooks. Sometimes the simplest advice is the best...
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