Opa! My name is Adam (not a Greek). I'm glad I found this forum. I've already read many great posts about the biz in other areas and it is great to know some things are universal, and some are not. I hope this will be as much for the reader as it was for the writer. Sorry if people do not appreciate the fact I may get off food/career topics to discuss the shadow nature of this industry here and there. This may become a big rant, but hopefully it will be my only one. I promise any future forum post will be concise and direct. Since I am generally introducing myself, I may as well express some thoughts as well. Word of caution. I have been accused on other forums and on Youtube of having Aspergers.
My non-culinary background is that I have a strong science background and was pursuing STEM courses to become an engineer. I have a strong math and chemistry background, and was leveling up my physics skills a little while ago. However, I still have little debt, and a huge passion for cooking. I hate dealing with engineering instructors and other engineering students. None of my buddies with engineering or science degrees even have jobs. Ironically, my most successful friend from high school doing what he loves, has a great career in graphic design of all things. I've cooked alongside many of his fallen comrades and he just keeps soaring. I am truly happy for him too, and not just to spite all the pretentious baristas I don't like who don't really press good shots and know more about selecting quality footwear than coffee beans.
I could never do anything requiring tedium and dealing with the stupid aspects of civilization like being a lawyer or dentist. Those people make more money (sometimes) because they need to afford all that junk to distract themselves from wanting to end it all anyways. I've been super broke but still thrilled to go into my low-paying job time and time again. Retail peons and custodial technicians cannot say that.
I'm thinking of just diving all the way into cooking professionally for life, because I will never tire of combining my own creativity, with competitive repetition, playing the always fun new whacko coworker lottery and never having to wear a tie ever again with almost complete freedom of speech in the workplace. Money is important, but so is caring about what you do with your time. My friends that work in healthcare could care less about anything but the decent pay. Ever wonder why your hospital visits are so awful and you are almost convinced they want you to die? Their job sucks. Decent pay keeps them coming back and not giving people unnecessary insulin shots, but it still won't develop their bedside manner or genuine empathy. If you have real talent with food, you will make enough money.
I know that I hate big organizations, dealing with corporate BS, and not being my own boss. Even if I work for someone in a kitchen, they hate BS too, so we're usually on more of the same page than most other industries. If your boss is really BSing you, or going to screw you, the law of the jungle will form a joint task force with Karma and take that sucker down hard and fast. Trust me. The restaurant gulags that make it year after year were almost always inherited and at best just break even on the books with very little skim for the little diktater (see what I did there) that owns it. Fevered egos usually become funny remember-that-guy stories in this business, not career gate keepers that stalk you in the office and haunt your dreams for decades.
I have cooked since I was 17 fresh out of high school. I was lucky to come up in a "Family Restaurant" (Greek diner) from dishwasher to a cook, where I learned basic prep and grill work, slinging breakfast and sandwiches, learning most basic techniques, tricks of the trade, some personal shortcuts, assertive vulgarity, how to have a normal conversation about social deviances, and other useful information about human nature and cooking.
I am now 30, and have mostly worked in kitchens and many varieties of them, the exception being 2 years in telemarketing and sales, which was a dark time in my life. People sometimes look down on all of us cooks as scum. At least we really earn our money. I feel most office workers are scum. They don't have el huevos to tell their coworkers that they don't like them. A line cook will call you out on all of your personal flaws in descending order of the most important to address in terms of priority in improving both your life and that of everyone around you. They should make twice as much as the therapist who will never actually push you to better yourself in any specific way.
I love the cooking trade, and the nature of the business. Most of my friends have BS jobs being overpaid to do nothing, or nothing important, but I would rather work in a kitchen because it is the one career closest to nature, at least working restaurants that is. Only the strong survive to financial security, only the smart and motivated excel. Nepotism often buries businesses and their naive owners; success rides on real talent and sweat in this trade. Restaurants don't leech off the state and thrive because they truly offer people what they want. The slush fund that is medicare gives medical professionals their wealth no matter how bad they are at their vocation. I feel the most successful chefs and cooks and owners avoid ruin by honing their avocation. If politicians were held accountable in the way restaurants are to the public, democracy would really work.
No other job offers the unique interdisciplinary study of anthropology, abnormal psychology, political science, economics and language while using chemistry in and out of "the office". I like how my "office" is filled with knives, fire and allows swearing and dirty jokes. Ivory tower academics do not birth useful and ubiquitous neologisms at the rate obtained through the collaboration of kitchen staff and their blue collar clientele do. Between the entertainment I get from observing people's personality disorders, bad habits, sexual deviations and social pathologies interact with each other in real-time, with new permutations appearing daily, and knowing no matter how broke I am I'll never starve, I think I'm at home here. Only God could script this stuff, and he isn't proven to exist.
The day I watched two dishwashers, one a homeless guy with a 200 word vocabulary, and the other a 45 yr old schizo that makes Japanese pop tinged techno music in his mom's basement, who had worked there for over 20 years since day one and has only ever worked there, duke it out over who was "god of the dish pit" over a supposedly unwarranted cigarette break, I knew I could never go back to worrying about the toner in the copier and the specifically vague language of some BS report no one wants to read anyways. Suddenly the sky opened, birds chirped and I knew I would die farther from Nirvana if I tried and probably failed at getting paid to use differential equations for a living.
This stuff is real, and freaking awesome. Stuff like this is why TV, the exception being It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is for dull people. Team building exercises behind a restaurant, like smashing old furniture behind a dumpster the prep cook found on his way in, actually serve their intended function. The corporate office equivalent are so mentally painful, the ideation of self-harm with bic pens is the only thing that keeps one from putting their name a background check for an AR-15 to prepare for the Christmas party. Don't get me wrong, the culture brewing in call centers can be mildly entertaining, but lets face it, there is something more than slightly better about sharp provolone over the mild.
At this point I have done well in school, and even better in kitchens. I have a wide array of experiences under my belt that taught me how to move like the wind, create great and fresh stuff, think on my feet, and I have seen the dark side of the biz. The backstabbing, the self-serving lying, the using people, cheating people, and I know where to not go, when to get out and who to pretend to like just to make my life simple, and who to actually befriend because they're damn cool. I feel as though I have learned how this biz operates and know how to deal with bad chefs, stupid owners, sociopaths, bed-wetters, clowns, and the amusing realities of talking with crazy people from third world countries. Nothing fazes me. Nothing surprises me.
The dishwasher who does bath salts was arrested for kiddy porn? All I can think is that it is Friday and "does his friend need a job right now?", and that "thankfully I declined his FB friend request". The food runner/bus boy could only have caught the herpe from that waitress. I'm good at judging character and the contents of their medical records. Having to suggest to the other line cook to wear a glove when he uses the gold bond cream I'm insisting he just keep, and to wash his hand afterwards while hearing the wonders of legalized prostitution in third world countries at the pantry station while he attends to his chafing in the walk-in are probably why I don't mind missing prime time TV. Bosnian war criminals who scam welfare and steal panties out of the clean wash basket in the back of my friend's car just means I'll stick around until after that guy leaves and remember to sharpen my knife tomorrow. Foreign curses and how foreign people got laid back home are things college won't teach you. Watching stoned immigrants screw everything up and move like zombies through a butt-hurting surprise rush from the theater crowd is only funny in hindsight. It was annoying at the time. Asking to fire D4 for the third time when I put half of it in the window already makes me consider the possible virtues of a Department of Homeland Security. I may be crazy enough to be an owner one day, but for now, I am looking to get new experiences, and eventually complete culinary school.
I am glad I did not do culinary school right out of high school. I feel as though my work history and hard won lessons will allow me to extract so much more from it. If I am already advanced with a knife, bread baking and breaking down a chicken, I'll probably score some serious insight I couldn't notice otherwise. I have seen how soiled fan blades can get, been through the worst coworkers, bosses and rushes, burned and cut myself more than sadist, and have been screwed and counter-screwed those jerks to my hearts content. Mi huevos have a thick callous now. I also have a strong food knowledge background to build on already. I want to fill in the gaps and learn more classic recipes and techniques to further round myself out. I also want to have that piece of paper and its associated network to grant me access to better kitchens with better equipment and better coworkers. I've had enough working in the culinary versions of the glory holes. I don't lament those times, but I want more now.
I have dished out eggs and old potatoes for Greek so cheap their broom was made in America and originally purchased at Ames before I was born. It had half a duct taped hard wood handle and no functional bristles. "It's fine, the mop will get the rest" they said the first time I pushed large debris across the floor with the ferule of the old warhorses abused corpse. Their mop smelled worse than pig slurry on a hot August afternoon, because a new mop head obviously costs more than a new broom. You cannot convince penny-pinchers to shop at a Dollar General. I even offered to buy the new broom. They were too polite to accept my charity. Heck, I was doing it for me because it made me feel "screw them", but the cultural barriers make odd things happen.
I even had the chance to see the crimes against gastronomy and public health in a Chinese kitchen hacking chicken thighs with a cleaver so dull it'd probably only break bones with the skin intact if I slipped, on a counter so dirty that the cigarette ashes and mold were probably keeping whatever kills AIDS from breaking out. All I had to do was be desperate for work and respond to an urgent but intentionally vague classified that would have read like a scam if they were selling something. As a quick sidenote - possibly useful for people fresh out of prison, with face tattoos (teardrops or snakes anyone?), large scars on their scalp, or trackmarks - usually kitchen jobs that would prefer to not bother reading your polished resume pay cash, at the end of every shift, and have no standards for you you to worry about not being able to adhere too. I could have been employee of the month when I wiped dessicated chicken scraps off the wall and counter after I assumptively relocated tubs of chicken thigh pieces into sub-par refrigeration, only to be told by the mediator, this American guy that functioned as the manger of their affairs, that they just leave it out until the end of the night because warm chicken cooks faster. I was shocked when this American guy was telling me it was a Chinese restaurant on the phone when I asked what restaurant it was. I'm just glad he was there while I worked because none of the men would make eye contact or talk to me directly. It was so strange. They would call him over, then he would relay their wishes to me. Communism works, but it isn't optimal. Foraging works but for some reason we invented tools, machines and computers so a third of us could work jobs that produce no real value anyways.
Chinese restaurant hire roundeye? My preconceived notions about the world were broken in a way I never imagined and thoroughly welcomed. The ad even said the right person may even learn to cook orders. If Larry Bird was a unicorn in the NBA, then I could be Chuck Norris riding a unicorn on Mars, or something. The curiosity got the best of me and in an hour I found myself rationalizing oddities to a first word nation such as "who needs hot water for your sinks if you're not going to clean and sanitize anyways?" Everything is mental. The psyche can project or endure anything with just the right shade of logic to guide its impulses. Cult-leaders, war criminals, politicians, and artists have always known this throughout the ages. Religions and states are glued together through ideology and the distribution of propaganda by this natural law.
If they have a very large full bathroom off the back of the kitchen with a shower, tub, and a mattress, why wouldn't you have hot water? Duh? It probably costs like $400 a year. That is like 66 orders of sesame chicken. That is a Tuesday night's worth of sesame chicken for an entire year of hot water bro! Either is probably a luxuery where they're from. Even if they could have both, they may not want to push it. Caught up in the moment, the only surprise I did have about the whole ordeal was that they WEREN'T prepping vegetables in the bathtub. It was obviously the cleanest part of in the joint. For a second I wondered if the broken toilet was cleaner than the table I was preparing "food" on.
Sometimes health codes don't matter; most people who would pick up and then eat from a Chinese restaurant like that regularly, never poop solid or feel right anyways, and are already borrowing time from somewhere else in the universe to keep Walmart profitable. These people may never cure cancer, even if they beat it two or three times while they still smoke and only eat veggies smothered in cheese or sesame chicken sauce, but they're winning the natural selection game show that even the best doctors have no set advantage in, despite their credentials and expensive vocabularies, which is confounding to the scientific portion of medicine whether it is aware of it or not.
Most people like working in restaurants for free food. If you find yourself in a restaurant you're afraid to eat from, you will learn unconventional half-wisdoms you cannot discover just anywhere if you simply open your mind and just soak up the realness of the now. Some you may never close your minds off to no matter how hard you try or how much grass you blaze. I couldn't help but infer that grease traps also trap roaches and small vermin if you just stop interfering with nature and forego certain frivolous maintenance efforts and expenses. The Chinese disocovered synergy 1,000 years before corporate America. Sometimes your observations inspire new lines of questioning like which is dirtier, this Chinese restaurant's combination graveyard and grease trap, or the sewer their Chinese raised shrimp came from. If the area you prepare ingredients on is dirtier than the sink, than you don't actually need soap to wash dishes because it won't correct for any of your kitchen's hygiene issues. Am I right? Just rinsing the stages for salmonella to perform their magic show on with cold water quickly IS theoretically better than not for that meat cleaver. People who half-@$$ stuff, are cheating themselves because they still do that other half.
Logic takes you to otherworldly intellectual acmes once in awhile, that only you could have obtained in your interesting life. You find the weirdest opportunities to see some torrid and peripheral stuff on Craigslist, even if you eschew the T4M Casual Encounters section. You've got to wonder how badly a WASPy person screwed up their life to be handling the English-speaking side of a Chinese restaurant's business in America for Chinese people. If I ever need someone killed, he may be the first person to ask. Italian-American fraternal organizations just aren't what they used to be. But more importantly, why the hell don't they have enough cousins and nephews to need to hire gaijans to cross contaminate everything for them at a premium expense? I thought they only made money because the whole family worked for nickels and the family meal? They may not be able to slip into a shipping container in Shanghai yet or something. No wonder they don't have hot water in this place.
Personally, I favor experience over education in life in general. Some of the dumbest people I have ever met have Masters degrees. It's not just human resource specialists and art therapists either. Some of the worst cooks and chefs I've worked with have culinary degrees. If their imagination matched their knife skills, maybe they'd make as much money as I did slinging gourmet hotdogs at the second most popular trough in my city.
I think some really average but decent men go to culinary school too young, get saddled with debt and kids too soon and blunt themselves down with a relentless grind that slowly retards you so you can never muster enough will to flourish out into a better version of yourself that some undocumented metaphysical vector once pointed to. They never had a chance to explore themselves before a well-intentioned woman and a bad-intentioned owner took all of their soul and molded it to become nothing more than the kludge-like operating system of a walking lifeless genitalia closeted by a big gut left unbalanced by an empty cheap wallet, declining social skills and eroded problem solving abilities. You just end up a pallid zombie with knife skills and perpetually unmet needs and diminished expectations. Some of these guys are good people, but such goobers that even moderately decent people like me in a charitable mood have to force ourselves to dispense a modicum of respect to them outside the context of their domain. I try to be a good person, but I cannot tell a lie.
I've worked with kitchen warriors and culinary geniuses, and have worked for some great people, all that were entirely self-taught, like many great musicians. I've worked for maestros that built a dynasty out of practically nothing as well as princely trust fund children who couldn't do anything right except use their iphone.
This Spring and Summer I want to juggle as many different kitchen jobs as possible, soak in as much as possible, and hopefully the following Fall or Spring go to ICC in NYC for my formal training. I don't know short term what I'll do after that, but eventually I want to try some mobile ideas like catering, public market stands and a food truck before I attempt store ownership or a real sous or executive chef position somewhere decent. I also want to get into pickling, making jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves from quality, local in-season produce to sell in local businesses. I live near the Fingerlakes region of NY which is known for its grapes and fruit, and some great little restaurants. One place I know I want to work for at some point in time, is the Moosewood in Ithaca, NY. The Moosewood cookbooks and Mollie Katzen were a huge influence on me when I was younger, and taught me how to think much more like a chef by showing me how one basic recipe can branch into many recipes and got me thinking about how you can make one soup actually become three over the course of a few days (if you had to).
Besides learning the foundations of classic and ethnic cuisines, some things I want to explore are combining fusion food and farm-to-table concepts with heirloom, seasonal and local crops with old-school recipes/techniques of many cuisines. For instance, I have experimented with substituting many distinctly American heirloom varieties of beans and vegetables in Greek and Italian dishes, or Asian stir fries. Vegetable salads and herbs are readily interchangeable for blurring these boundaries while cheeses or dressings often tip it farther towards one way over the other. A recent and surprising success was a cornbread focaccia with a fresh basil, garlic and toasted sesame oil pesto chicken, sundried yellow tomato curry pesto, and a Mennonite yogurt spicy chile pepper cheese. I still think it sounds stupid being a three continent fusion food, but it was genuinely delicious. I'm trying to avoid doing something that crazy again. Except maybe an Itialian stir fry. Think about it. Italians borrowed noodles from the Chinese. They have greens, mushrooms and most of the same veggies.
Lastly, despite the opportunity to explore wine and wine pairings, wine culture and wine based cuisine, I do not drink. There are also many microbreweries in my area and an up and coming independent local beer industry, but so many people are already capitalizing on that. If I got more into beverage, it'd be tea and coffee and fresh juices. Not just to sell my morals, but to do something different. One side project I want to try when I have the capital is dirt grown wheat grass and possibly a fruit orchard and small farming operation to fuel a juice operation. When I was 22, I worked in a hydroponic sprout factory my friend's family owned, and leaned the basics of growing all sorts of sprouts, wheat grass, and shoots. This is another tangent I want to explore on my journey and incorporate into the corpus of my knowledge. However, I'm not impressed by the microgreen hype.
I also enjoy gardening. I've often wondered about how to organize a small farm and labor force around a 4 seasons menu to supply a small cafe or bistro with most of its ingredients.
If no one read this, then you probably have better things to do. I respect that. I think I rambled so much because I was just excited to find this forum and express myself to food people. Most of my close friends are not food people and don't get it. If you did read it, and would like to chat it up about anything food, or anything else, feel free to PM me. Everyone else have fun and work safe.