If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen.
By Chef Rachel Portnoy
I’ve really been wondering why chefs are all over the place these days. They’re showing up in really unlikely places: hosting day-time TV shows, judging competitions; their names are on knife sets, pan sets, cooking gizmos and reality shows.
It’s all very strange to me—a pastry chef married to an executive chef—because in my experience we’re a pretty gnarly lot. Most of the time we’re hidden in the kitchen and most of the time that’s where you want us to stay. Cooking in a professional kitchen is generally adrenaline-fueled, your time spent doing repetitive, mundane jobs and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, and it doesn’t make for interesting small talk or public appearances.
The single-minded way that we can read about food, talk about food and think about food even when we’re not at work: It takes a powerful combination of obsession and desire to work in a professional kitchen. (It takes a further dose of pure insanity to actually open your own restaurant.)
So what is the best path to become a chef, and how do you find out if you want to take your love of cooking and make it into a profession?
My husband and I came to culinary careers in different ways: I am a former English teacher-turned-pastry-chef from Connecticut, and Franck is a French chef raised in a tiny village in Brittany. He began his culinary training at the age of 14, following the traditional French system, and never looked back.
We both apprenticed often at various stages of our careers, and have similarly hosted apprentices in our own kitchens. It’s inherent to the culinary community to learn and develop this way, and it’s invaluable. We firmly believe that the only way to decide if you want to work in a professional kitchen is to actually get in there and do it.
Of course, everyone knows stories of people who start out as dishwashers and end up running their own kitchens and there’s a reason for this. The term “chief cook and bottle washer” doesn’t come from nowhere! Unless a potential chef gets in the kitchen and works it from every angle, they cannot know if it’s the right path. And trust me; you’re going to be doing a lot of dishes!
We recently had the opportunity to visit the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, for the day and had an amazing tour of the campus and a delicious lunch. We’ve worked with interns from the CIA frequently and were really curious to see what kind of training they get. The campus itself is breathtakingly beautiful. The kitchens
and instructors are equally
impressive. For us, it’s always been hard to comprehend the concept of taking on what is considered a “normal” burden of debt these days to get a culinary education by going to a school like CIA. In order to progress in the kitchen, graduates still have to work their way up in a series of what are normally low-paid positions, even after going to culinary school. There is no replacement for experience in the kitchen. No matter how talented they may be, young cooks have to do the repetitive work of getting down the basics. No one can cook a recipe once and then go on to replicate it consistently and quickly for paying customers. It’s the nature of the field.
But the Hyde Park campus lures you in, that’s for sure! Who wouldn’t want to get into those kitchens and start working with such exemplary chefs?
We saw their baking and pastry kitchens, where all levels of cake decorating, chocolate and sugar work were happening, as well as breads, and a gluten-free curriculum. There are international classes taught by chefs native to the cuisine, be it Asian, South American, European. There is a wine tasting seminar room that holds one of the most respected wine courses in the country. And at one of the restaurants we were served a lovely meal by the students, who each have to take a turn learning dining room service (something I think every chef should do!).
Franck and I had to be dragged back to the car by the end of this beautiful day … we felt right at home and we wanted to stay! Where else could you find such a huge community of like-minded, passionate people?
There’s clearly no “right” or “wrong” way to get into the culinary field. And once you’re in it, it is such a broad field that there is a space for everyone, as an instructor, recipe-developer, food-writer, caterer, food truck owner, you name it.
Whatever way a potential chef chooses, at the end of the day it’s an honorable way to work and live. We regularly host home cooks as “Chef for a Day” in our restaurant kitchen and give them a taste of what it’s like, chopping, stirring, tasting their way through the afternoon. They usually leave with lots of new tips and techniques for their own cooking at home. For many food-loving people, this just might be the perfect option. Allez cuisine!
Rachel Portnoy is a pastry chef and co-owner of Chez Nous Bistro in Lee, Massachusetts, with her husband, Franck Tessier. She owned and opened Cakewalk Bakery in Lee, which she sold in 2005. She now spends her time running the restaurant and developing recipes for delicious desserts.
Edible Berkshires is a local, independently owned publication dedicated to covering the unique culinary culture of Western Massachusetts.