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Culinary School Advice from Chef David Gilbert

What You Won't Learn in Culinary School

This has been the most difficult, yet educational pieces I have ever written.

Becoming a chef is hard work, and many of the more tough situations you'll be forced to deal with are beyond your control. You have to learn to adapt, carry on and-as always-improve your craft.

Lets get started from a same common ground shall we? All people are mammals and therefore bonded in some way, yet there are so many differences that make us unique. Our backgrounds, goals and philosophies differ, and nowhere is that more apparent than when we're all sweating it out in the same high-stress kitchen for ours on end. One of the difficult things you must learn to manage is the difference in people's personalities.

Butting Heads as an Asset

Conflicting personalities exist in all workplaces, but with the type of work we do as chefs, it is critical to be able to deal with every boss or coworker you ever have. It is not hard to recognize who around you shares a different type of personality. The #1 mistake people make is assuming differing personalities will lead to bad working relationships. Naturally, chefs have their own approaches to more or less everything, but we must find a way to communicate with one another on some level.

Young chefs must realize that they not only have to work with these people, but should LEARN from them! When I go into restaurants to help build teams, I don't only look for true leaders-I want chefs with different personalities sharing the same philosophy for success. This creates a team of people that work well together, but can solve problems differently. Learning how to manage our differences is an asset!

3 Rules for Becoming a Great Chef

I believe we all learn lessons along the way. I share a few that impacted me early on.

  1. Get Your Priorities Straight. I knew since I was a very young child I wanted to be a chef. Like most teenagers, I loved to go out, stay up late with friends-you get the idea! I quickly learned that to really be a great chef, I had to adapt my entire lifestyle to suit the kitchen. This job takes focus, dedication and 150 percent commitment each and every day.
  2. Make Hospitality a Lifestyle. Those new to hospitality, especially culinary business, quickly learn that it is never just a job-it's a lifestyle. The hours are long, tough, and at times mentally challenging. Know that you WILL WORK holidays and weekends, though other people are playing. This makes having a regular personal life a challenge. KNOW this going in!
  3. Learn to Multi-Task. My first chef once told me (as I was peeling asparagus) that having a full plate would make me a better chef. In a professional kitchen, multi-tasking is breathing-you must do it at all times to survive. I tell my cooks the sooner they get their mise en place completed, the more I will teach them. It is amazing how quickly they catch on. With a bit of practice, you'll get it to.

Lessons Culinary Schools Can't Teach

Culinary school is an absolute necessity. You not only learn how to cook, but how to work as a team. You learn a bit about working in the industry from your instructors, who will likely share their real life experiences with you. Unfortunately, there are some lessons that an only be learned through real work experience. Here are a few of them:

  1. Learn to Juggle. Staying organized while working on several projects at once is a critical skill only mastered through experience.
  2. Become a Master of Communication. This is the MOST IMPORTANT skill you can learn. Learn how to communicate with your peers, chefs, customers, and business partners.
  3. Understand Kitchen Politics. Let's face it, chefs are politicians. You have to know how to play the game, smile, and be genuine-but be smart. Sometimes others may be jealous of and try to limit your success.
  4. Buff Your Management Skills. Learn how to lead, motivate, and inspire a team. Good leadership encourages good employees.
  5. Manage Your Dough (and I Don't Mean Brioche). When you graduate from culinary school, you'll be eager to land a job-and a paycheck. Be responsible. I see cooks all the time blow their money, then starve until they get their next check. Set a budget.

Do as I Say, Not as I Did

This concludes my "lessons for rookies." I think this is a good start for anyone who is entering the industry or is new to it. I really hope you benefit from these little tidbits of advice. Trust me... I did not always learn them the easy way!