Most culinary students have grand ideas and stars in their eyes when it comes to their expectations upon graduation. Some dream of working at Michelin-starred restaurants with 3 year wait lists such as Spago, Chez Panisse or the French Laundry. But unless you are a well-established – and highly skilled – chef, you will only be offered a non-pay position doing prep work or minimum wage dishwashing.
One of the considerations for culinary school selection should be their internship and placement program. What restaurants do they work closely with to place students after graduation? Are these restaurants the style, location and type that will help you along your career path? In order to effectively select a school, you need a firm grasp on your own goals and plans.
Where do you want to begin your career? Keeping in mind that great chefs are made, not born, you should plan a long-term path for yourself that covers all areas of training and expertise you need to accomplish your goals. Obviously it can be modified as you progress, but where do you want to begin? Do you want to start working for a local bakery or do you want to travel or move to a big city and work in a busy restaurant? The three aspects that impact salary the most are skill, location and experience. If you are working in a four star restaurant in upstate Massassachusetts you will be experiencing and making significantly less than if you are working in a three star restaurant in New York City or Miami. By planning ahead and understanding the realities of the job, you will not be blindsided or stuck in a position that can’t help you down your career path.
By selecting a quality culinary school that provides options that parallel your goals, you will benefit greatly. A solid school will not only provide the training you need, but will have the ability to place you at a restaurant post-graduation that matches your goals and needs. They will introduce you to the chef and help you strategically plan your future. A knowledgeable chef is sometimes so beneficial that they have been known to have other cooks and chefs follow them from restaurant to restaurant. The culinary field – the real, down and dirty, five-star culinary field – is much smaller and far more competitive than you can imagine. The difference between someone who longs to be a sous chef and one who becomes one is often who you come to know, as well as skill.
Determine what type of restaurant you want to work. Do you want to work in a smaller restaurant or larger one? Often smaller venues will allow for direct contact with the sous and executive chefs. Larger operations are not always chef-driven either; in some cases they are directed by a corporate office or owner. Small towns may afford more patience for new graduates where big city operations don’t have the time for mistakes and on-the-job training. In addition, larger cities may offer more pay and better hours than smaller, more local restaurants.
When you find a position, meet all the employees. Introduce yourself to everyone and come to understand their role within the restaurant. Don’t necessarily discount an unpaid internship either. If it means it will elevate your skills and shorten your career path, it might be worth working a separate full-time position as well for a short time. Learn all you can about the head chef and the restaurant, learn the menu and the clientele. The more you understand about the restaurant, the better you can perform. The more roles you understand and appreciate, the greater network of peers you will build. Learn as much as they will allow. Ask questions when permitted. Step outside of your comfort zone either working in an area you are weak in or to learn skills for later on. Focus on knife skills, speed and organization. Jump in and help when needed.
At culinary school, you learn the basic techniques of cooking and baking, sanitation and food theory. But it doesn’t compare to working under the pressure of the kitchen brigade in a full-service restaurant on Valentine’s evening. Finding an internship that will work for you is key – whether it’s in a bakery, catering, café or restaurant. An internship of 100-500 hours can help you find your feet in a functional establishment and begin to make contacts in the industry. Make sure you like the food, have opportunities and you are challenged in a positive way. An internship can get you off to a great start in your culinary career, so you should put a lot of thought into it. A well-chosen internship can be fun and exciting, and can absolutely be a powerful starting point for a successful career.