It has been about 15 years ago for me but here is how I did it.
There are two ways you can choose to go about getting a job overseas, you can do it through a placement company that will help you get the legal documents you need and place you overseas. A good friend of mine did this and had an ok experience working in a large hotel in Switzerland. The other route is to simply go over to Europe with a contact or two and see if you can work for them. This is what I did.
Upon graduating culinary school I came back to Chicago and spent time working at various restaurants and saving money. After exhausting every contact I had to try and find some place in France to work nothing panned out. Finally I met a fellow chef who helped me find a couple places one in France and one in Switzerland. In each case he had worked at both establishments himself and felt comfortable enough to call the owners and ask if I could come over and work. Each job was only for a week or two. I did not know how this would work out being only for a week or two but after talking with my friend he said that if you know what to look for you can learn a lot in a week.
With a few thousand saved up I bought a one way ticket and made my way to Bourg en Bresse France. I showed up at the restaurant and introduced myself to the chef and explained who I was. They asked me how long I would be working with them and I said I would be there for the week before I had to go to Switzerland. They gave me a room to sleep in and two meals a day with no pay. When the week was up I asked the chef if I could come back after Switzerland and he said yes.
From France I made my way to Switzerland and found the pastry shop I was to work for three weeks. I met the owner and he also asked me how long I would be staying and I said that I would be there for three weeks. At the time I was staying in the local youth hostel which was pretty far from where I would be working and asked what my options were. The owner and his wife were very kind and they put up a sign in the front stating someone was looking for a room to rent. An older woman living alone not far from the shop offered up a room and I was all set. In exchange for my work the owner’s offered to pay for my room and I was given two meals a day (breakfast and lunch). In addition to that they allowed me to use the laundry facilities to wash my clothes.
When my three weeks were up the owner approached me and asked me if I wanted to stay longer and I of course agreed to do so. In all I stayed a total of 8 months working there and worked in the pastry, chocolates, bakery, and the small restaurant. It was a perfect experience. The owners paid for my room and board the entire 8 months and also gave me a small amount of pocket money each month which was more than enough to live on.
After Switzerland I went back to France and worked for a month. While I was working in France there I met a chef from Italy. We spoke about what I was doing in Europe and I asked if I could come and work with him for a while in Italy and he agreed. Before I went to Italy though I went the Greek islands (Santorini) and where I worked for the summer.
All in all I was I worked over seas for about two years. I worked very hard (France 14 hour days, two shifts lunch and dinner, Italy 14-18 hour days) for those two years but loved every minute of it. Here are a few myths and realties I learned that I hope will help you.
You have to speak the language
-Fact is I only spoke a little French ( a few words really) and I did just fine. It is amazing how much you pick up when you have to.
You need working papers to work overseas
-Nice to have and it isn’t a bad idea to go through an agency but you will may get quicker results going over and just looking for work.
You will work hard
- If you’re not up to working hard and being the new guy in a strange country then don’t go. You will put in a ton of hours, get paid almost nothing if anything, and
You will experience culture shock
- Never thought in a million years this would happen but it did. After about six months I realized I had not spoken a decent English conversation with anyone for such a long time. Also realized I had no idea where to go for the doctor, dentist or any emergency type of situation. It is a different rhythm of life from where you are from most likely and at some point you will have to accept it or move on. For me I found a great English speaking church in Switzerland and made some wonderful friends and it made all the difference.
You will probably not get paid anything
- I was fortunate but even for me when I was in France they did not pay me a dime they just gave me a room and two meals. Prepare for this.
Don’t work in a 3 star Michelin restaurant
-Work in a one or two star restaurant and you will probably get to cook something. Work in a 3 star like Georges Blanc and you will probably clean lettuce and chop herbs all day and you don’t need to go to France to learn how to do that.
Really question your experience
-What I mean here is really take a good hard look at what you are doing there. You don’t need to go to France to learn how to clean 3 cases of snow peas everyday. If you are not really learning technique then be smart enough to move on.
Ask for room and board
-If you don’t ask they will probably not offer so ask for room and board and you might just get it. You should get something for your time.
-The people you work for will know other people so politely introduce yourself. Network and see if you can work in other restaurants for a day a week or a month. That is how I ended up working in Italy I met the chef while working in France who was friends with the chef I was working for at the time.
Have the right attitude
-You have travelled a long way, be humble, be quiet, be respectful and pay attention you will be surprised how far it gets you. Seriously if you are a loud mouth who likes to shoot there mouth off then don’t go you will just waste your time and theirs. Keep quiet, look around you at what is going on and learn that is what you are there for. If you are going to complain because they asked you to clean the garbage cans out (again) then forget it. You are either in or you’re out.
-You will never remember it all so take lots and lots of notes and photos.
Enjoy the country you are in
-One of my biggest regrets was that I did not see more of the places I was working in. I was so focused on working that I neglected to go places and see the beautiful places around me. For example when I was in France I didn’t go to Paris, in Switzerland I never went skiing not even once.
-If you are fresh out of culinary school wait. If you are still trying to remember the ratio for a pate or custard or stock then wait to go. Get some experience and work in some local restaurants (good ones) for a week or a day in addition to where you are currently working. Take notes while your there and review how much you were able to pick up. Learn about the things you need to look for in an experience. Like I said you don’t need to go all the way to France to learn how to clean lettuce.