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A bit of career advice to learn from my mistakes

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 

This is something I learned the hard way.  Every job you take should have your resume and future career prospects in mind.  Even the name or impression of the place matters as much as what you actually do or learned there.  If someone looking over your resume has no idea what something really is, they may or may not bother to find out.  They may not ask the question for you to properly sell yourself.  They may not even bother reading the polished description. 


Time is money, and people are full of BS.  Often they're looking for the one guy (or gal) out of many that seemingly fits the bill at first glance, with little to no apparent risk.  This is especially good to keep in mind for those without a culinary degree.  Not all, but many chefs have biases. 


I had an interview obviously cut short for a job I was certainly over qualified for because I didn't go to culinary school.  Nevermind the fact that my almost 7 years of breakfast cooking at places at least double, some quadruple the size of this little cafe is more than adequate to sling eggs and potatoes.  I cooked like 1500-2000 cover brunches for years.  This place sat 40 - 45 people, and had the same set up.  Knowing what he was doing, I even offered to demonstrate my knife skills, cook a few orders and offered a letter of reference I brought with me (keep those in your back pocket for the interview, don't forward them, they'll often get ignored because the process isn't there yet) just to try to aikido my way around the stonewalling. 


You never know what someone is really looking for, even if they tell you something, so my point is cover your posterior.  Every chef and interview is different.  Have all your bases covered.


I have had real line cook jobs, worked breakfast in a super busy place for years, have done a ton of stuff from high end pizza to BBQ to some catering, to bars, cafes, baking etc etc.  I have a solid work history, good references and know what to say, how to answer the questions and what to ask.  But, many times an interview may not get far enough for most of that to matter.  You cannot give good answers to questions never asked.  You cannot seem too needy by conjuring it all up without prompting.  Most chefs decide when the rest of the interview is a polite formality and you can do so little to reel it back in. 


The job before my last I did not stay in long because company policy was that they did not give out professional references.  No wonder they have high turnover.  So I only worked there for like 6 months until jumping ship into something much better paying and more up my alley than inauthentic but high volume Mexican working with the likes of those with "no class" tattooed on their face and possibly illegal alien level 2 sex offenders.


I took job at a place called Dogtown.  It is a Rochester dynasty at this point, like Pat's King of Steaks in Philly, or Zweigle's hotdogs itself in the Rochester and Fingerlakes regions.  They hock Zweigle's hot dogs with gourmet topping combos listed as a dog "breed" on the menu, burgers, good sausages, and what is huge in Rochester known as a garbage plate.  They have really good ingredients for most items, make almost everything from scratch in-house, tons of veggie options (#1 Vegan restaurant in the city while being the second largest buyer of Zweigles franks behind the Wegmans supermarket chain lol), won a PETA award for the best original veggie dog (custom made by a good local company) because of a new topping I contributed to, and we do homemade vegan soups and sides and have decent food.  Every year they win like 4 or 5 City Newspaper awards.  It was very high volume.  It is probably the second busiest place I have worked in.  It is the second busiest place in the ROC behind Dinosaur BBQ.  I made more money there than many of the chefs who recently interviewed me lol.  I could tell when I answered the question and offered my last stub (I wouldn't believe it).  I won't say how much I made to sling cheap meat with fancy toppings because it will probably piss you most of you off, but it was darned good, and I had some benefits. 


I took the job not just for the money, but the guy was also interested in my experience and knowledge for new specials, soups, sides and menu items.  I jumped at the chance to have some serious freedom of creativity (good luck finding that as a mere cook boys).  I took advantage and did some cool stuff.  I could just call him up, have him get what I wanted after a brief explanation of my vision, and he'd just trust me to do it right, which I did.  I knew more about equipment than his staff and I needed no training.  It was cake.  I was also a shoe-in because his wife and business partners were Greek, and I came up from Greek restaurants and diners; they already liked my roll.


It is a super popular place among the young hip crowd, but not the type of person probably interviewing me.  Most of the interviewers are older, don't get blasted and stroll down the avenue looking for grease and carbs to stave off their hangover.  Some of them aren't from Rochester or drive in from the country or 'burbs on the other side of the city.  Many of them may have only heard of it in passing but have never been and do not know what it really is.  Most of these chefs have families and little free time and can eat better food for free.  I know that is boning my resume in the minds of the chefs I want to work for right now. 


I worked there too long.  I got lured in by money without paying mind to the future.  The people that would most likely recognize and respond well to it, are not people I am seeking employment for.  I want back into full-service, casual dining, high volume and I want to cook good breakfasts again. I want more than that like fine dining and this one place that  has a national buzz going but first things first.  But, that relevant experience is farther back in my work history than you should really put in a resume, or that may be believable, although I do work it into my cover letter well.  My last 3 jobs look terrible for what I am trying to do.


Dogtown.  Mexican place known for its bar and weak food.  Spot Coffee.  Sales job.  Then the meat and potatoes!  Not good.  Luckily, so far Spot gets me interviews for baking which is what I did there, and I have what seems to be a sure thing lined up right now.  Don't be stupid and only chase the cash.  I worked at Spot because the money was good, I was already a solid baker from previous jobs, and it was easy money.  But none of these jobs have anything to do with what I really wanted down the road in food.  I was just getting good money while I took college courses I was doing to please my family.  Now I just want to do real cooking again and there is an endless queue of applicants for the jobs I want because it is lean times right now. 


I know I will luck out and eventually find a good person that will give me that shot they won't regret, but it is a pain in the rear stalking it down.  This city kind of sucks to cook in too.  Some places want dishwashers to have had their last 3 jobs and references to be for dishwashing, it is ridiculously an employers market.  It dies hard in the winter (half my problem now), but the hiring craze is on starting now.  Now is when all the places scoop people up, build them up, get ready for the season.  And, there are a lot of bad people to work for.  Bad chefs that jump from new place to new place wrecking some saps investment and treating his help like garbage.  Owners that don't have chefs and are only in business because they inherited it, own the building, and hire cheap crack heads and sell to bar crowds to stay out of the red are not my cup of tea. Only gigs I don't want are the ones calling me back.  Most people really only care what you have been doing lately, not what you did.  Talk is cheap.


I may have had a good resume 5 years ago, but it is garbage now, and I am 30.  Keep this in mind people younger and smarter than me.  This has actually pushed me into going to a solid culinary school now.  I know if I had that, that would offset some of my problems in perception, and give me a better network than Craigslist, Indeed, and word of mouth to work with. 


Now this may not be sound advice depending on where you work/live, and what your background is, but your resume and cover letter and interview matter the most.  For many cook jobs you just need relevant references.  Nothing fancy.  Someone to say he showed up, gave notice, learned and didn't steal.  My quality executive chef references have done squat.  It never gets that far.  Most jobs I have ever gotten never checked references, either they needed a guy and their guys already knew me, or they just wanted to see me work and nature would take its course.  Bam.  Or, the guy interviewing you knows someone on your resume, which is always good game.  But finding jobs you want out in the wild from scratch without connections is different. 


I tried getting a job at a hot breakfast and weekend brunch place that a former boss of mine worked at for years before taking over his parent's place, and he had a good relationship with the owners, and despite them genuinely liking me they wouldn't do it just because it had been that long since I had done the job they were hiring for.  I almost can't blame them in hindsight.  Why waste time possibly waiting for Lt. Dan to get his sea legs back when some hungry punk fresh off the street has been doing this for the last 2 years and is leaving a place for that one?  These places are total wolf pits.  The guys that work in these places do not screw around.  I know, I used to be one of them.  The owners do not want to hear them gripe and get their grill game mucked up.  You can't count all the money you lose, but you know you lost it.


My strengths are that I know how to organize myself, be efficient, think on my feet, and know how to learn what I need to know to meet the job's expectations.  I pick new stuff up fast, and have had jobs where I knew more than my bosses.  Sadly, half the people getting the jobs I want are probably screwing them up, if not already, in the next few months.  I don't drink, smoke party or have drama in my life.  I'm straight edge, get plenty of sleep, work out, groom myself and have a good car.  I have a college education, am well-spoken, no tattoos, write very good cover letters and resumes (I have hired/managed people in sales), a good attitude and yet, I've seen who gets my job.  I know why now.  Their last job fits the bill nicely.  Shucks.


Build and maintain a solid resume kids.  It's like brushing your teeth and drinking water.  Take the low starting-pay job that sounds better and is recognizable over something not appearing relevant.  Like the rest of life, know where you came from, where you are, and how you're going to get to where you want to be.

post #2 of 3
Thread Starter 

Well, I finally found something new, and great, that not only liked my resume, but will be a nice long term addition to it.  I just got hired at a massive BBQ and live entertainment operation that is undergoing even further expansion.  They have their restaurant kitchen, a smoke house, and then a separate and much larger catering kitchen that will begin servicing a comedy club and a new bar next year as well, in addition to the massive amount of catering and fundraiser events they man out of there.  Their dry goods storage area was bigger than the last place I worked in.  This place is a serious monster.


I had to turn down a few jobs and quit another one I had just started to get in there, but it was a good move.  They haven't hired any new cooks in two years (good sign), and are hiring to add to their core team for when their volume goes up a lot more.  I foresee great pay, job security and good coworkers.  The volume is unreal.  They seat 380 people in all, with patio and bar etc, right now.  They have good equipment and some serious and dedicated linecooks and management. 


Why did they hire me?  Because they saw that I had hung in many different positions and different kinds of kitchens before.  I've gone into places uninitiated and was held on to.  They also knew what my last job was and that it was not a joke like it could seem to many people.  They had all eaten there and seen me work.  They knew I was a serious grill man if I manned that grill for two years.  500+ tickets a night shift Thursday thru Saturday, one grill guy, and two others for fryers and cold side, fast ticket times and a line out the door, with one serious grill guy who set the pace.  The possible combinations of stuff even without the rampant modifications alone would break lesser men on this grill.  This is like Jim's Steaks in Philly but with a 100 other things on the menu.  A six foot grill with nothing but sandwich and hots fodder stuffed to the gills non stop takes a serious grill man to pump out flawless food, flawlessly.  But if you read that place on a resume and had never been there, you would think it was like working at some slot in a mall foodcourt.


So what if my previous BBQ experience was small and short?  Every high volume place I had ever worked in without related experience worked out fine, and they liked that I wanted to work there to do something new.  They know fresh blood is good for the knees as well as the kitchen.  They even said they didn't exactly want people with previous BBQ experience because half come in already bored of it just needing a paycheck, and the other half already know everything.  They wanted generally strong line guys to come in and be molded to their operation.  This one chef that wouldn't hire me to cook breakfast 2 weeks ago because I didn't have a culinary degree and hadn't done breakfast in awhile, well he still has ads up on CL every few days.  I ran into him in a restaurant supply place I like buying my home stuff from and I could see he still had obvious work related stress on his face, probably from staffing issues.  Good luck with those fresh culinary grads and half the shady cooks in this town bub.  Sorry you didn't give me a shot because I would have killed it.


I plan on being here quite awhile and doing some side jobs around it.  There are so many jobs that I could move around forever before I got bored.  Everyone in the city knows this place and when my time is up here, this should keep me on a better track than I was on.  However, I will say, have a good cover letter!  That is what really helped me here.  They even told me as soon as they read it that they called me.  I was able to present myself as exactly what they needed, and my interviews were short and sweet and they did not hesitate to hire me because they knew I fit the bill.  Don't write a generic one, write one that is tailored for the place and position, and your resume.  Focus on your strengths, what is relevant, why it matters to them, and how it all stems from what is on that resume.  But sound humble and focus on sounding like you will learn quickly, not that you already know everything. 


Also, create a sense of urgency.  If they ask, tell them you've forwarded your resume everywhere, have had a few interviews you haven't heard back from yet, but that you want to work for them and that you are glad they called you in before you took something else.  A trick I picked up was that when they call you in for an interview and they suggest a time, always ask for an hour later or before, tell them you have an interview somewhere else at that time and you still want to show up to it as a professional courtesy but that you would rather work for them.  You can come off as more desirable and that they need to decide much more quickly what they will do about you.  However, actually be seeking other jobs because you never put your eggs in one basket.


Not only does this place have name recognition, but the starting pay was very fair.  None of that BS where they say everyone starts at this, and then say they give raises in 3 months, which usually doesn't happen for like 5 or 6.  So they actually hire decent cooks and people who care.  A real good sign:  They guy gave me a half-hour grand tour of the whole operation and introduced me to everyone.  He showed me the whole smoke house, we discussed the glory days of when chicken was cheap and cases of wings were the best investment for expanding your margins, over racks of chicken roasting over hard wood charcoal.  I was actually sad I wasn't starting that day.  It was like they actually want me to work there and the people there actually like working there.  This is not even a corporate place btw.  Just local guys who played their cards right and that have some dedicated people for good reason.  He told me the plans for the future, and what else could be in store the longer I am there.  After working jobs where people do not bother learning your name until 2 weeks in, no one bothers to show you where anything is because too many smarty-pants never come back after day 2 anyways, and they could really care less if YOU come in or not because some crackhead wants less money than you for the same job, this was a good vibe I haven't had in a few years.  My last job wasn't bad, but the one owner, the real decision-maker, was a total goober and never wanted to be bothered with the place.  Any reasonable request for his time was like an affront to him.  The inmates were running that asylum and the place was only so buys because it was idiot-proof and his partner held down the fort.  He never even interviewed me.  I showed up expecting an interview, and he gave me paperwork and my schedule.  Never a good sign for the long term.  Usually places that don't check references, don't give them, no matter what. 


So if you ever get stuck in a bad spot for awhile, do not give up.  Someone cool will give you that shot.  It may not be who you want initially, but you never know what you're getting into until it is too late anyways, for better or worse.

post #3 of 3
"A trick I picked up was that when they call you in for an interview and they suggest a time, always ask for an hour later or before, tell them you have an interview somewhere else at that time and you still want to show up to it as a professional courtesy but that you would rather work for them. "

Tell me, did I read that corrctly, between the lines enough for you? You are advocating lying? Nice. Enough.

Desperate times call for desperate measures but in my book a liar is a liar and the worse quality behind thief, although some would argue they are one and the same. This is what Chefs really look for in interviews. Name of the last restaurant is quite irrelevant.

Go ahead and " aikido" yourself out of that one. Please keep it short.

Grats in your new job!
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