Cliff notes: I've only been what I would call a professional chef for about two years, but I have been working in the food service industry off and on since I was 14. After nonculinary related college studies and a reasonable career as a professional gambler, I found myself wanting to go back to cooking. I now find myself working in what is, in my opinion, one of the nicest restaurants in the Pittsburgh area. I also tend to ramble, write novels, and have entirely too many questions that often cannot be answered. I love and hate (mostly love) restaurant life. So, you've been warned. Stop reading now, say "Hi, welcome to the forum" and get on with your life, or get drawn into what is likely a maze of plot discontinuity and spelling errors, and it's all about someone you don't know or care about. The option is out there, and I won't be offended. Seriously, most of it is just venting. Same yourself the time, and save me probable future embarassment. Scroll down to the next cliff notes section.
The whole story: When I was 14 I got a job working at a snack bar in a country club type pool. It was a job and I was 14, but that was the beginning. It was an unknown satisfaction serving people hot dogs and nachos when they were hungry from swimming all day. At 16, I got a job working for Eat n' Park. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a simple short order dining type place. Denny's would be equivalent. The food wasn't good, and I didn't really care about the job. I have always been a perfectionist, so I always tried to cook things as well as I could, but I had no idea. Literally, I didn't learn until years later that salt went into literally every dish. I thought salt was something that sat on the table. But I did love the rush. The pressure, the constant refresh of the "to do" list. A ticket comes in, add another dish you have to take care of. A ticket goes out, take something off. It was fun, but at the time, it was just a job. I didn't realize until later how much I would miss it.
I went to West Virginia University. I studied Physics. For four years, I went to maybe 20% of my classes, but managed to get by pretty well. For some reason, the perfectionist trait didn't come out here. Of the classes I went to, I found myself knowing where the lecture would end five minutes into it. It was easier to spend five minutes skimming a book than it was to sit in class for an hour. I was always one of them smart, nerdy kids.
Of course, two years in, we started getting into heavy physics stuff. Five minutes was no longer enough, and I struggled with my bad habits. I ended up disliking physics. Stories of people in basements 30 stories underground to detect 10 to 12 particles a year sounds boring beyond belief. Spending 3 hours to work through an equation to determine how a charged particle would move in relation to a magnetized plane was torture. So, thought I was still in college, I started playing poker.
Poker was fantastic. Every single second would demand a new consideration. The unknown demanded massive quantitative weighting for maximum profit. I started playing a local game that began at midnight with local slumlords and drug dealers. I constantly took their money, but I was personable and they loved me. I learned that people can be worked to amiable even if the situation absolutely doesn't warrant it. I would frequently walk out with $500 or more extra in my wallet at 6am, and with a class in 2 or 3 hours, I still needed sleep. Why should I bother with class to get a working job when I can do $500 a night easy?
I played poker at every opportunity from my sophmore year until several years after graduation, both online and in live games. Unfortunately, the internet has a way of making relatively unknown information much more known. Soon, secrets that had taken me years to perfect were available to anyone capable of performing a simple google search. The average opponent got better, which means my profit got worse. On top of that, I was bored. After a while, situations that used to take at least a few minutes of thought took fractions of a second because I was so accustomed to doing so. It became nothing more than point and click for hours a day. I have never been motivated by money, so many of you will be surprised to learn that I was making a hair over $200/hr at peak. But, it was so unbelievably boring that I couldn't stand to do it more than necessary to pay the bills. Having a commute that consists of walking to your bedroom to your desk sounds unimaginably appealing until you actually do it. I found myself cooking food at all hours of the day, even when I wasn't even remotely hungry. I wound up throwing most of it out. For months, my refridgerator was stocked with outrageous amounts of leftovers for a single guy living by himself. Then I thought, if I cook so much and love it so much, I might as well get a job doing it. At least it'd break up the boredom, and at the time, I was pretty socially isolated and thought it'd be good to meet new people.
I got a job a newly opening restaurant. Well, more like restaurants. It was one facility, but two separate menus, two separate dining rooms, two different restaurants to the casual observer. One was the typical cheap American fare, like Applebee's or Chili's and such. The rub was that the chef was classically trained, had worked in many high end restaurants, and was only there because his uncle was the owner. So, the menu, while typical of crap places, wasn't frozen and microwaved, but prepared the way it should be prepared. Alfredo was made from scratch, BBQ sauce was made in house, etc. The other was a fine dining seafood reastaurant. Long story short, as if all this weren't long enough, I was promoted to sous chef despite having no experience in this type of restaurant, and when chef left, I became head chef.
I learned two things in that time, through numerous instances. No one ever knows it all, and you can always learn new things. In my opinion, I did a great job as the executive chef. All of the other employees agreed. Unfortunately the owner had never worked in the restaurant business. He owned two restaurants and a banquet hall facility that combined sat over 600 people in a high rent property. Ridiculously high sales were required to maintain the bills. He cut corners on management labor, our servers weren't trained or skilled at all, the business suffered. Having never been in a restaurant, he responded by closing the seafood restaurant and focusing on the cheap american fare crap place. He cut corners. It became evident to the guests. Over many months, I tried to explain the changes he needed to make, they all cost too much money. I left. I heard that on a recent Saturday, their sales were less than $1000. Unsurprising.
With an insatiable eagerness to get the **** out of there, I took a decent paying job as a line cook in one of the nicer restaurants in the Pittsburgh area. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh is basically a culinary wasteland. It's funny when you are the newbie. I remember another cook asking me "I need you to get me some thyme, do you know what that is?" Similar questions about how to make alfredo, what color fried food should appear, and what temperature should medium rare read abounded. But, they figured out that I know what I'm doing, the questions quickly stopped and I've been happily working there for the past three months.
I didn't go to culinary school. I love food. Thankfully, I can easily relate new aspects of cooking to the physics of what is actually going on and understand much more quickly than the average person. The previous chef at my previous employer once said to me, "The only school you need is your tongue." If it tastes good, it's good. The other question he would ask, "Is there anything you can do to make it taste better?" Those words have always stuck with me.
So where am I as a chef? I thirst for knowledge about food. I spend hours after work thinking about food, researching food, tasting new food, etc. I am, as mentioned, a perfectionist. I know a good deal more than I have experienced actually doing. The knife sharpening threads were what first brought me to this forum, as I never knew a whole lot about that topic. The first special I designed at my current job was a seared duck breast, braised rainbow chard with candied walnuts, fried beet chips, and a blood orange reduction. I put it on paper, then came back the next day and the chef there said "Make the blood orange reduction" I was near clueless. Well, I suppose it's more accurate to say that I was too clueful. I had never made a blood orange reduction, I'd just eaten blood oranges and thought that a reduction of them would compliment the dish well. I had a million ideas running through my head, but couldn't figure out which would be best. So I juiced the oranges, reduced, add a few things. It turned out ok. I think an experienced chef would have made it turn out better.
Lastly, if you have read all of this crap, seriously, go to work! You could have been paid for all this time listening to someone in the kitchen rant, instead of listening to me rant for free. When I join a new forum, I tend to go all out, and down the line people will be able to look back and see a little about me. Easier to put it all in one place I suppose.
Cliff notes: Glad to join, hope to talk to you all soon, and I hope I can provide some insight.