It's A Good Idea To Test The Waters Before Jumping In
The thing I am asked the most by people I’ve just met (other than where I work or my favorite restaurant) is my favorite thing to cook. This question, to me, is like asking a mother her favorite child or a composer his favorite chord. Cooking is less a specific study for me than it is a progressive journey and focusing on one area might mean missing out on many others, so I tend not to limit myself. I'm not sure if it's extreme curiosity or just a short attention span that motivates me, but I've always had more interest in dabbling than putting all of my eggs in one omelette (or however that saying goes.)
In my early days in the restaurant business I worked as a ‘tournant’ or ’roundsman’, a cook who assists in whichever area of the kitchen they are most needed. This allowed me to see the inner workings of a professional kitchen from every angle, giving me the chance to start thinking about what I did and didn’t like doing.
While a student at the Culinary Institute of America in the early 90's, I did my externship at Spago Hollywood, Wolfgang Puck's legendary, and sadly now defunct, flagship restaurant. Although I had worked in restaurants for years prior to cooking school, the Spago kitchen was like nothing I had previously experienced and I absorbed more in my 6 months there than ever before.
I started in the pastry department working nights in the back kitchen, far away from the action, turning and rolling puff pastry dough, and making multi-gallon batches of things such as vanilla ice cream, creme brulee and lemon curd. Admittedly, I was a little bored by the bulk and repetition of the job and, not having much of a sweet tooth, didn’t care much about tasting the desserts. I am grateful for that experience, however, because so much of what I learned from making pastries applies to other areas of cooking. Today, whether I’m playing around with a savory puff pastry tart, or making a curd for key lime pie, I am comfortable in what I’m doing because those skills have stuck with me ever since.
Bread baking, another craft that I learned while working at Spago, is also one that I continue to reap the benefits of today. I hated waking up at 3:30 in the morning so that I could get to the restaurant before everyone else to bake hundreds of loaves of bread. It was tedious and back breaking work and, frankly, all of that flour made me sneeze. I knew immediately that I would not become a professional baker, but have no regrets about putting in my time in the baking department. Today, thanks to everything I learned many years ago, I bake crusty breads, pizza doughs and brioche with confidence, just on a much smaller scale and a bit later in the day.
In addition to my pastry and baking introductions, I also worked the pantry station, the wood burning oven, the charcoal grill and the pasta and saute stations — each experience was beneficial and definitely contributed to the interest I hold today in so many different aspects of cooking.
It is not my intention to bore you with my biography, but rather to show those of you who are just starting out in this business, perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of your choices, that the more broad your experience now the better prepared you’ll be for making career decisions down the line. You may end up like me, a ‘Jill of all trades’ who is perpetually exploring, or you may be just the opposite, wanting to home in on something specific. The only way to be sure is to sample as much as you can now so that you can make better informed choices later.