Over half of the culinary industry is made up of men, and it’s no place for wimps. So, as I surveyed the long, gleaming stainless-steel kitchen in front of me, I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into. All of my coworkers were big tattooed men with mouths like sailors. I was five-foot-two and under 120 pounds. They looked at me as if to say, Are you lost, little girl?
Luckily, I’m a decent cook and I know how to keep my mouth shut. I’ve done just fine in this industry, but it hasn’t been without its share of difficulty. The culinary world is full of searing hot fires and razor sharp knives, but the people in it tell greater stories than you’ll ever find in a book. The characters of the kitchen are richer and more vibrant than any you’ll ever meet, and the food is unreal. It has been exactly a year since I’ve donned my apron and joined the army of white jackets, and I’ve compiled a list of the most valuable things this fast-paced and delicious industry has taught me.
1. Cooking good food is not as hard as you think it is. There’s a saying in the culinary industry: mise en place, mise en place, mise en place. It means setup is everything. If you line up everything you need, from utensils to chopped/marinated/washed ingredients, assembly is quick and easy. It just takes prep work. This is the secret to good entertaining—prep ahead, assemble quickly and impress your in-laws to no end.
2. Clean as you go. I’m the kind of person who saves up all my dishes for the end and then stares at the dirty pile with a helpless expression wondering, where did all these pots and pans come from? If you clean as you go, life is so much easier at the end of the night, and you can give yourself a pat on the back for being super efficient.
3. Ingredients are everything. If you buy tasteless grocery store tomatoes that have been mass-produced, don’t expect that any amount of tinkering can make them taste better than a home-grown, sun-soaked heirloom tomato. It just doesn’t happen. You want to impress people? Buy (or grow!) quality ingredients and prepare them simply. Viola. Instant success.
4. Don’t be afraid of cooking professionally. I know so many people who tell me, “Wow, I wish I could go to culinary school!” But then when I ask why don’t they give it a shot, they respond with, “I don’t think I’d be very good.” A lot of culinary schools require an internship at a restaurant, and that can be a daunting prospect. But kitchen families become so tightly knit, they’re sometimes closer than blood relatives. Sure, it’s a difficult industry, but it is not an impossible task. If I—a tiny, small-town industry newbie—can find a home in the stainless steel ocean, anyone can.
5. Culinarians are awesome. Who else can wax poetic about a sprig of microgreens or a particularly purple beet, then turn and shoot flames six feet in the air like a total badass, knives flying? Who else can stare at a sharp sashimi knife and allow its beauty to move them nearly to tears while simultaneously lifting fifty pounds of flour over their heads?
6. Restaurateurs are magicians. Let me let you in on a little secret: 90% of the time, your twelve dollar specialty dessert can be made for less than three dollars. Flour, eggs, sugar, milk, water, maybe a few berries or a mint leaf. . . all of these things can be bought for cheap. It’s the technique that compels an ignorant bystander to pay eight bucks for a huge, flaky croissant. Culinarians turn a couple of dirt cheap ingredients into profit, and they leave you wanting more. (Admit it: now you want a croissant. I know I do.)
I could spend days talking about the pace and movement of a kitchen, the comradery that occurs after a rough night of service, the smile on my face when I see a good meal well-prepared. Kitchens are not for the faint of heart, but they sure give a person a good appreciation for food. And it’s a great excuse to always be hungry for more!
Erin Burron is a culinary student in Orlando, Florida, with an inextinguishable enthusiasm for cupcakes and other bite-sized desserts. When not watching back to back episodes of British television shows, she lives the dream working in the kitchens of Walt Disney World and blogs about her adventures from Starbucks, where the baristas know her by name.