First off, thank you to anyone for taking the time to read this and respond.
I am in a little bit of a pickle and I am trying to take that "next step" in my career. I'm 23 years old and have been cooking for the last 3 years. I started cooking at a fairly well known whole hog barbecue restaurant here in North Carolina that would regularly do upwards of 600 to 700 covers a night. It was an awesome first kitchen job, in my opinion, because even though there wasn't much "actual" line cooking, it taught me to work fast, quick, and clean. I learned basic knife skills and eventually how to saute and grill. Nothing super fancy or intensive but I spent a year there and enjoyed my experience.
After that, I moved down to New Orleans on a whim in order to further pursue cooking. I lucked out and ended up working for a really great Chef in an awesome restaurant. My first actual fine dining job and I learned so much in that time, as far as improving my knife skills, how to actually cook vegetables, stocks, different proteins, pastas. Everything from scratch, focused on good, local produce that's available in Louisiana & with a menu that was printed daily - so I got to see a lot of different plate ups and work with different ingredients. I started working garde mange and eventually ended up working all the stations in the kitchen. I worked there for most of 2011 and I owe that Chef a lot. He had confidence in my abilities when I didn't. I honestly believe it is one of the best restaurants in New Orleans today and it has been recognized in 2012 by the local paper (Times Picayune) as a top 10 restaurant in the city.
2012 is when things went a little wrong.
My Chef in New Orleans partnered up with a newly opened hotel downtown on Canal St. - and was in charge of all the food for the hotel as well as a new restaurant within the hotel. The original focus was a more upscale, tasting menu only restaurant that focused on Southern cuisine (a passion of mine). It was an extremely educational experience for me - my first time helping open a restaurant, seeing menu development, and working in a hotel. The kitchen staff was awesome from bottom to top there and in my opinion, we were cooking some of the best food in the city. But there were a lot of problems as well. The restaurant opening kept being pushed back because of construction issues and it was poorly promoted. The location proved to be a problem as well, the dining room was extremely odd and open to the rest of the hotel lobby and the hotel was extremely poorly managed. We weren't doing very much business and just losing money left and right. After 4 months my Chef decided to break his lease with the hotel and close the restaurant.
I got a job shortly after with another very nice restaurant in New Orleans, serving the same level of food, but after 2 months my lease was up in New Orleans and I felt like it was a bit of a toxic environment for me. New Orleans can be a hard city to live in, especially if you're young and have no family or support group there.
I had the opportunity to move out to Southern California and I took it, thinking it would be a nice change of pace. Palm trees, sea breeze, fresh seafood etc.
It was a frustrating experience. I ended up working in 3 different restaurants during the 6 months I was out there. The majority of the time, working two jobs just in order to get the hours I wanted and to keep my head above water financially. Things just didn't work out for me - from the first job, an upscale French restaurant charging $40-50 a plate where there was constant shoemaking (I saw cooks pick dropped proteins off the floor at least 5 times) and they treated their kitchen like shit, including illegal pay practices like not paying overtime. The second was a more casual gastropub that focused on Southern food, where there were no reservations and on a slow night, we'd do 200 covers. The third was a more upscale, Asian influenced California restaurant, where after a month of working the Chef told me he wasn't even on speaking terms with the owner, and that they had got an eviction notice from their landlord and were going to be closing by the end of the year.
I decided the West Coast wasn't for me and have just moved back home to North Carolina. But my resume is kind of a mess right now, because of all the moving around I've done - and I understand why a lot of Chefs would see that as a huge red flag. I don't regret any of my decisions - I'm young and I have and will continue to make mistakes, and it's helped me focus on what I want to do as a cook. This is a career thing for me and so getting to see all those different kitchens has been very educational to me.
But right now I want to make a long term commitment and spend at LEAST a year in the next kitchen I work in, and I want to cook the absolute best food possible. At the same time, I want to work in restaurant that is very connected to its surrounding area and community. I had some initial hesitation when I first started working fine dining, because growing up I'd never had multi-course meals or anything of that sort, and the pricing seemed outrageous to me. That's changed now, and I honestly believe it is the best environment to grow as a cook, as far as technical skills, ingredients, good habits, attention to detail etc.
To give you an idea of the places that I'm interested in working in - my two dream jobs at the moment would be at the Fearrington House here in North Carolina or at Blackberry Farms in Tenn. I've never been to culinary school and with only 3 years of cooking experience, I realize I am drastically underqualified to work at places like that. I also realize that there is massive room for improvement in me as far as being a cook. There is so much that I want to get better at. I want to be faster, cleaner, more precise as a line cook, I want to learn more about butchering - of all sorts -, handling fish, making pasta. I'd love to learn how to bake bread and I'd even like to work pastry for a little while, in order to help me improve as a line cook.
I'm hungry and I love to work and I love doing this. I'm not stupid - I didn't get into cooking for the money, and I would genuinely work at restaurants of that caliber for free - but I'm not sure they'd accept someone without schooling for an internship. I'm just not sure how to proceed. I'm confident I could find work in local kitchens serving some very good food, but like I said, I want to cook the very best food possible and push myself - and I want to make a long term commitment and not keep f'ing short timing.
So yeah, long rant I know, but I appreciate any sort of career advice.