How to Get The Most Out of On The Job Training and Self Instruction
I didn't choose cooking as a career, it chose me. This common phenomenon brings many who answer the call to dive head first into the industry. When you get a taste of the work and the feeling of camaraderie, the experience of making something for someone else to enjoy and getting that immediate feedback is addictive early on, It's the sort of thing you don't experience in other jobs. Culinary becomes more than a job. As you get deeper, it becomes a way of life. Those who get drawn to the industry will usually turn to culinary schooling, buying into the idea that you need to get that classic training in a school environment. This isn't true though. You can become an excellent chef and go far in a career without ever needing to go to culinary school. Don't get me wrong, culinary school has its advantages, which I've detailed here, and expanded on here, but it's not a necessity like they would have you believe. Through independent study and on the job training, you will build the same skills as anyone who's gone to culinary school, with the benefit of having a ton more practical experience in professional kitchens. Where someone coming right out of culinary school and into a kitchen may know their techniques back to front, they may be useless performing under the pressure of a busy service. By learning on the job, you become uniquely attuned to the workings of the kitchen and will perform better than your peers who went through schooling with little practical experience. Even the knowledge part of the schooling, you can do better on your own; with a little effort. For the purpose of these guidelines, we're going to assume that you already work in a kitchen to some degree (dishwasher with culinary aspirations is perfectly fine).
Watch more experienced cooks
Study how they move through the kitchen and how they prepare their stations. Emulate their behaviours to help make sense of them. The experienced cooks will have that deeper understanding of the kitchen that you're looking for. There are things that they'll do naturally, like maximising movement efficiency, or batching prep tasks together, that you can work on to improve. Seeing directly how someone does what you want to do will help you pick up those skills that can go overlooked in culinary school.
Ask questions about techniques and ingredients
If there's something you don't fully understand, then ask. Everyone wants to avoid major screw-ups in the kitchen, and good cooks will be happy to help teach you. Note that while it may seem like another cook is blowing you off at times, they are in fact very busy and likely a little stressed. Offer your help and be active about asking questions. When the cook's mind is racing through prep tasks or service, they won't think about having to explain a task to you. Be proactive about your questioning, but don't become a nuisance. If others are too busy to help you learn at the moment, then ask how you can help them. Save your other questions for later.
Try as many different things as you can in the kitchen. Ask for more work
By trying as many aspects of the kitchen as possible, you gain a broader skill set that will help to make you more valuable as a cook down the road. By always looking to help and do more work in the kitchen, you'll gain respect from your peers and you'll get better at a wider variety of tasks. By trying as much as you can early on, it will help you gain a deeper understanding of the operations of the kitchen as a whole. If you find a task in your work that is especially interesting to you, then you have found something new you can focus on learning at home.
Relying solely on training from work will take a long time for you to progress in your acquisition of knowledge. Instead, use your off time to continue your studies. Books are the best bet. pick a topic that interests you and dive in. There are a ton of books on pretty much any topic of cooking you can think of. See my three book recommendations for new cooks for a good idea of where to start. From there, you should start picking up books on things that you want to learn. By focusing on your interests, you'll be more engaged in your learning and will go through the material with voracity. Look to pick up the books that everyone in the industry seems to own or recommend so you can gain the similar framework as your peers. Ask your colleagues and superiors for book recommendations. From working with and talking to you, they may be able to offer unique suggestions for you. The biggest thing you can do to advance is to take your studies seriously. Make the time for them and follow through.
Specifically when you're studying on your time, but, if you can, take notes when working in the kitchen too. Keep a notebook and write out any questions that come up in your mind during your studies. Go looking for the answers and record those too to help cement them in your mind. Keep a record of any ideas that pop up. Throughout your career, these notes will be an invaluable resource; your secret weapon as you move forward in your career. You will use them to refresh yourself on certain topics like charcuterie or molecular gastronomy. Gathering your ideas over time in your notes will help you come up with more unique ideas at a faster pace when you need them for a new dish or menu.
Work hard to gain respect. Put in the time
The kitchen is a tough, gritty place. If you want to be accepted into the fold as a newbie, you better work your damn ass off. Everyone else has, they expect you to do the same. You need to spend your time doing the grunt work and doing it well before you can be invited into more interesting and prestigious positions. Peel those potatoes. Chop those carrots and do it the best you can. Others will notice the passion and dedication to the work.
Talk about food with your colleagues, especially those in a higher position than you.
By talking about ideas you've had or dishes you've read about, you show your interest in food as a whole and your passion shines through. This sort of communication tells others that you're serious about making a career out of this - you're not just there for a cheque. Plus, everyone wins from sharing ideas and information. By talking about ideas with your peers, you will all make new connections and generate ideas that you couldn't alone.
Invest in your training
Wages in the industry tend to be rather low for the amount of dedication and mastery one needs, but when you're starting out, they'll be even lower. After covering your basic expenses, dedicate a portion of your pay for buying books, tools and practice materials. Even though you're not paying for culinary school, doesn't mean you shouldn't spend money on your growth and learning. Keep a list of books that you want to get and learn from. Look at buying your own cooking equipment to try out new techniques at home. Buy ingredients to practice on. Regular spending for your training will help keep you invested and excited by your learning. You get to look forward to getting that new cooking book to learn from, or that new knife to add to your arsenal.
Look into organised accredited apprenticeships, internships, and journeyman programs.
Later in your career, many hiring managers will be looking for certification from a recognised journeyman program. Put in the time early and get going on it. It takes time to meet those working hour counts. These programs will differ by region, so you will have to do some research on the topic to see what you need to do. You should be able to find this information on a state or provincial government website. On a related note, many larger kitchens will offer apprenticeships and internships. Prestigious hotel chains offer paid internships that are meant to train you with a mentor to become management in your field later in your career. Programs like these can catapult your career. With certifications like these, you can surpass your peers who've only gone to culinary school. The format of these programs will be helpful for people who need a bit more guidance in their learning. By having a list of abilities to prove your capability in, you have a concrete checklist of your progress that will help lead your learning.
Develop a mentor relationship
Setting out with the intention of making a mentor relationship is a little difficult - they tend to kind of just happen. Your mentor will likely be the chef who's in charge of the kitchen you're working in. A mentor will be interested in helping train you and pushing you further in your career. Working hard, showing a desire to learn, and being a pleasant person will help you find a mentor interested in helping you. It is, after all, supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Getting a mentor early in your career will be helpful forever. By helping each other along the way, you will only form a stronger relationship. A mentor will help guide you on your learning journey and help present you with career opportunities. Read more about my thoughts on mentorship here.
You don't need to go to culinary school to have a successful career in the culinary industry. In fact, by leading your own growth and learning, you're more invested in it. You care about the time you're putting into your career and you are going to make every bit of it count. With the dedication to improving, you can surpass your peers who have squandered their time and money in culinary school. It's not always easy though to lead your own learning. You will get distracted. You will put it off at times. However, if you stay dedicated over the long haul and make time for your learning, then you can go as far as you want to. One of the major benefits to learning on the job is that you come out with a lot more practical experience than those who have only gone to culinary school and are looking for work right out of it. In the culinary industry, it all comes down to experience. Do you know what you're doing? Have you done it before? For how many years? You gain a serious advantage by starting your practical experience early on. You will be more versatile in the kitchen and better able to combat problems as they inevitably arise. Start your learning by getting a job in a restaurant. Any job. Get in and start to prove yourself. Learn as much as you can and work your way up. Get books and learn about the things that interest you most. Keep building upon what you're learned and, with time and dedication, you will get to where you want to be.
I will be releasing more detailed information on leading your own learning. Keep an eye out for The Commis Curriculum for a detailed guide on leading your own learning in the culinary industry.