So, I'm new to the industry and have only worked in a few restaurants as a part-time server or bartender but have known that I've wanted to be a chef for years and am finally going to take the plunge. I'm going to attend cooking school in about 7 months but I would like to start gaining work experience in the kitchen beforehand. I've tried to contact a few restaurants to find out any options for someone like me. Does anyone have any suggestions of how I can get my hands wet and start gaining kitchen skills and industry experience without having any formal training??
Getting Work Experience
Go around town, talk to chefs, tell them your situation. Some people will be willing to get you started, others will thank you for coming to talk to them and walk away. The limiting factor in your case is the fact that you probably won't be working for them once you start school (unless the school is where you live) and usually people that will be willing to invest time in training you will look for longevity, or at the very least something that will benefit them as well.
Definitely. If you find a chef that had to bust his @ss to get where he is and never went to school, he'll train you. We're not all dicks. Fact remains though, longevity matters. Tell him you'll come back every summer, or tell him you'll come back for a period after school is done and over with. Gotta give a little to take.
I had your same exact question 3 years ago. When I was 17 I got my current job at a hotel as a pantry cook then I eventually moved my way up to the line. The Executive chef had a open spot I really got blessed because he asked me a few questions then handed me my papers to sign with hardly a interview. I guess I got in the easy way. My advice to you is find places online use your computer to find hiring hotels/hospitals/country clubs. Make sure you express to the person in charge that even though you have no experience you are eager to learn. Also please do not try for chain places like (Firdays,Chilli's) In my opinion you wont learn much there.
You could go to college too to do like a basic cookery course, they teach you how to make pie, soup some different cakes and how to cut stuff and then you can use those skills and volunteer some where for like 5 months (people are always looking for free workers) and then gain even more experience, of course you will probably need your own chef knife set anyway, i reccomend trying amazon for sure for that if you don't have one, i just got a really good Ethos set for like £24 odd, even had the sharpner and steam forks and knives for testing :P.
One of the best things you could do, is to find a restaurant that will hire you, and get your ass kicked in a kitchen for about a year. After that year if you are still interested in culinary school and think that it's the right path for you, enter the program then. After a years worth of real world experience and a years worth of kitchen skills, you will soar through school, leaps and bounds ahead of anyone that doesn't have experience. The restaurant may even be willing to work you while in school (depending on how far away you are, and your schedule) which would be a plus because you would be able to put the skills you learn in school directly into practice with your job.
I'm not going to say that culinary school isn't worth it, or that you shouldn't go, every individual situation is different and you should evaluate and re-evaluate your own. Sometimes, especially in bigger cities, culinary school is a staple that you have to have, while in smaller suburbs and towns... it's more of an option. Honestly, either way if/ when you come fresh out of culinary school or just walk through the doors looking for a job, you're going to start in the same spot, doing prep / pantry work, or even washing dishes. My thoughts behind that are... If I'm going to start in the same spot, do I want to go into it and make a little money, or do I want to go into it X thousands of dollars in debt. Again, I'm not saying do or don't go to culinary school, I'm just giving you pretty much the same advice that was given to me. 95% of your learning is going to be done on the job anyway, so .. it's something to think about.
Whether you decide to go to culinary school or not, I would say don't spend a dime on anything education related until you get your butt kicked in a kitchen first. I've known lots of people who "want" to be a cook and then can't hack it in a kitchen. I started out as a server / bartender as well, and there is a monumental difference between front of the house and kitchen.
Pretty much, just weigh out all your options and do what's right for you. Not long ago, I was standing exactly where you stood, and the right option for me was to put in a year getting beat down in the kitchen of a local restaurant, then re evaluate culinary school as an option, but that may not be the right choice for you. Either way, good luck and I hope everything works out for you.
Edit : I second what rocktrns said, stay away for corporate places, or chain restaurants you will do more microwaving than cooking, and it could destroy your passion. Find a local eatery/bistro/upscale dining place and try to get into that kitchen, that's where the fresh food will be. Hotels, country clubs are all really good options as well.