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Kitchen experience in DC


Rebo
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I’m thinking of enrolling in culinary school and becoming a chef here in DC. I’ve read lots about school, the cooking field, and various career paths and talked to a few chefs. While I've waited tables, I have little restaurant kitchen experience – just salad and cold appetizer prep, plating desserts, and some chopping.

People often advise prospective chefs to spend some regular hours working in a kitchen before taking the plunge. What’s your advice for doing that here in DC? Should I answer an ad in Post, or should I approach the chef of a really nice restaurant? Do you think I can get hired for anything other than washing dishes, working weekends or a couple of evenings a week?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions. :smile:

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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Most of the chefs I've met here in DC are pretty welcoming if you act like you're serious (and don't seem to have an entitlement chip on your shoulder). I trail periodically at different places just to learn something different and keep myself on my toes. Usually it works best if the chef already knows you because you're a customer at their restaurant. You don't have to dine at the same place several times a week--I've had people agree to let me trail the first time I met them, just 'cause I was nice and they were nice back.

You can get hired fairly easily to do things like cold apps or dessert plating, and then work your way up to the hot line from there, but if you don't have experience you probably won't get hired straightaway to do those sexier kitchen jobs. Have patience.

BTW the only places that advertise regularly in the Post seem to be chains a la Applebees--you'll have better luck scouting washingtondc.craigslist.org (where I've gone to hire help myself before) or looking at the donrockwell.com boards for the occasional listing. Responding to ads is one approach since you already know those places actually need folks in their kitchens. But you don't need to wait for a place to post an ad to ask for an evening trail or a part-time job. If you like the restaurant and the chef, just show up around 3pm between lunch and dinner service and make an inquiry. Most folks don't bite. :smile:

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It is defintely a good idea to spend some time in a good kitchen before investing in school.

Look for a restaurant that is chef driven and serves the kind of food that you want to cook or learn. Or better yet, find a chef you look up to and ask him for a chance to follow in the kitchen. Most chefs are open to letting people trail or stage but usally won't pay you until you get a little more experince.

I wouldn't respond to an ad because they are looking for steady- experinced help and you would possibly be taking a job away from a better cook. However it would give you a good idea of who really needs some help and might be more willing to take you on because of it.

When you do find a place- keep your eyes and ears open, taste everything you can and ask alot of questions.

Also dont take any yelling or blunt answers personal- its just the heat of the moment.

Edited by blueapron (log)
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Rebo,

I found myself in a very similar situation 10 years ago. I wanted to be a chef and had no desire to spend $40,000 on a culinary school education.

Before even thinking about the profession, there are a number of factors that MUST be considered. Yes, working in a kitchen will give you some idea of the lifestyle, but not the commitment. I'm trying not to preach, but most professional chefs will give you the same warnings I'm about to give you.

1. You must be able to take criticism. Most people think they can, but they figure out that the constant derogatory remarks start to wear on them. If you don't have thick skin, you don't belong.

2. You must be able to work up to 14 hours a day and up to 80 hours a week. No, I'm not kidding. And when I say work, I mean WORK. But that also makes the days go by pretty fast.

3. You have to have talent. Culinary schools do a great job at making you think they can teach you how to be a chef. But they can't teach you the passion or the God-given talent required to become a GREAT chef. Either you have "it" or you don't.... plain and simple. That's why they want you to have the experience of working in a kitchen before you apply.

4. Expect to make very little money. Sure, after a few years you can start to make a decent salary, but you have to be good and it takes time.

5. Forget about having a normal relationship with a significant other, unless they are in the business. I met my wife when I was a cook and she was a server. That worked out at first, but when she decided to go to school, things began to change. When my wife was in grad school and I was the Exec Sous Chef at a country club, we went 63 days without having a day off together. It starts to wear down a relationship.

6. Forget about having weekends off. There are M-F corporate chef jobs out there, but they are FEW AND FAR between.

7. Cooking has to be a passion. If it's not a passion for you, you will quickly lose the desire to be in a kitchen.

8. Did I mention you have to be ready to work insane hours for very little pay?

If you think I'm trying to scare you off, I am. There are very few people in the world who can go all the way in the culinary industry. But those that do and find the passion can have an incredibly fufilling life. You just have to know what you are getting yourself into. Don't listen to ANYONE who hasn't been in the business before.

There is another option besides Culinary School. Northern Virginia Community College has a Chef's Apprenticeship program. Basically, you work a full-time job in a professional kitchen, moving from station to station and you take classes one day per week. This is an accredited program (ACF Certified) that gives you the same degree as the culinary schools. It takes almost three years, but you do get paid at your job and you have the experience of actually WORKING for 3 years.

That being said... Culinary Schools like Johnson & Whales and CIA do a great job of preparing you to be a chef. However, if you don't have the $$ and don't qualify for a scholarship, you could spend the next 10 years of your life trying to pay off your student loans when you aren't making a ton of $$ to begin with.

I second the opinions of those who are recommending you trail a chef in a professional kitchen. Be humble, respectful and don't ask too many questions. It should be a pretty cool experience.

Shoot me a PM if you have any additional questions or shoot me an email at chefberg@yahoo.com.

Also, don't poo-poo the jobs at places like Appleby's. Sure, they don't teach you how to be a fine dining chef, but they teach you how to prepare your station before an incredibly busy night and how to deal with being "in the weeds". Some of the best cooks that ever worked under me came from places like Ruby Tuesday and Outback. You have to learn how to be a darn good cook before you can learn the intricacies of becoming a great chef.

Good luck!!!!!!!!!

Blue Ridge

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Thank you for the replies! I'm long past seeing this as a glamorous job -- just a profession that I might really love. My husband is a veterinarian, so the long/weekend hours are more compatible than for many professions, plus he's promised to be my sugar daddy. I'm also remarkably heat tolerant. As for the rest of it, there's only one way to find out. . .

I feel intimidated at the prospect of approaching a chef about this -- but I'll get past it. Should I prepare a resume emphasizing the cooking experience I have, or just talk and explain my situation? If I go to talk with them during the workday, is it okay that I'd be wearing dressy office clothes? I want them to know that I'm serious and will be a hard worker.

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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Good advice so far, but let me add this: a culinary school background might qualify you to be a cook - not a chef. Too many people graduate from these schools thinking that they can start at the top and it just doesn't work that way in this business.

Mark

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Good advice so far, but let me add this: a culinary school background might qualify you to be a cook - not a chef. Too many people graduate from these schools thinking that they can start at the top and it just doesn't work that way in this business.

I've definitely gotten that message. Just like any other field, you have to work your way up.

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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I've arranged to shadow a personal chef in a couple of weeks and asked the chef of one of my favorite restaurants about working there part time. I was absurdly nervous, but as Rochelle said, he didn't bite. I'll hear back next week sometime when his sous chef gets back. . . I'll get back out there tomorrow and ask some other chefs, just in case.

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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Cannot believe that no one has suggested La Academie de Cusine. This is the 30th year anniversary of THE cooking school serving (not just) the DC metro.

Graduates all over the world and more than several that own their own operations.

Four for examples 2741 in Falls Church, Persimmon and Grapeseed in Bethesda.and Zest in Frederick.

Am I predisposed? YUP!, I've been teaching wine classes there for twenty years, and have had the opportunity to watch more than several of the graduates go on to wonderful heights. They cook good too!

Ted Task

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Thanks, Ted. L'Academie de Cuisine is actually my first choice! I've visited, talked a lot with Barbara Cullen, and have been very impressed. I have no doubt that culinary school would be amazing, but I want to make sure that the career after culinary school will be good for me too.

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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  • 1 month later...

Just wanted to give you an update. Your advice really helped me pluck up the courage and start talking to chefs! Those that I spoke to were very nice and helpful.

I ended up spending a weekday lunch and a weekend night at Vidalia, just observing and doing basic prep. I learned a lot just from that, but realized that in order to keep learning, I needed to find a semi-regular job where I'll have real duties. Earlier this afternoon, I went to one of my favorite restaurants, talked to the exec. chef, and now I'm going to start doing prep there two days a week, starting tomorrow. :biggrin:

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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Congratulations on the big step Rebo.  Check out Chef Shogun's blog  - he's recently decided to take a "stab" at prepping too.

Great recommendation! We're exactly in the same spot, except that I plan to go to school locally.

Rebecca Hassell

Cookin' in Brookland

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