Survival Guide


(Banana, piloncillo and buckwheat cake, coconut lime sorbet)

I have a new little helper at work. She has been struggling a little bit, since she is relatively new to this kind of job. As a consequence, I have been putting in extra hours and trying to be more patient. Over time, I hope the patience pays off and that she is able to step up and exceed expectations. With a team consisting of just two people, there is no where to hide and no one to hide behind.

Since I’ve been observing her for the past couple of weeks, I have started to reminisce about what it was like for me when I started out. It hasn’t been a very long travelled road of manning pots and pans or whipping egg whites, because I started cooking later than most. Armed with just a desire to learn how to cook, and knowing nothing at all about the industry, I remember rocking up to my first kitchen trial without any knives or uniform. Pretty naive of me, now that I think about it.

Shuna of Eggbeater has written more comprehensively about such things before. However, it still got me thinking about the things I had learned/realised (mostly in retrospect) along the way.

First and foremost (and as cliched as it sounds), you have to really want the job. I remember the head chef saying just that to me during the interview for my previous job. I also remember thinking at the time, what a ridiculous statement. Of course I want the job! I’m applying to work with one of the most amazing pastry chefs in the country. What’s not to want?

That last job was one of the hardest and best experiences of my life. Every day for the first month or two, I wanted to give up. I saw more people come and go than I could remember faces and names. Some packed up and disappeared in the middle of a busy service. Others just didn’t turn up one day. A few were courteous enough to give notice.

Once I just faced facts and accepted that it’s going to be hard, I kept my head down and worked as hard as I could. Tears might happen and defeat might appear imminent, but know that it is worth it, if you stick with it. Some of the most talented chefs I know are a little cocky and arrogant. A little self confidence helps when you are captain of a big ship, but when you’re starting out with a new crew, you have to be prepared to swallow your pride a little.

You should be the first one in and the last one out. Do more than is expected of you. Ask questions, but know when the right time is to ask them. Invest as much time in the place as the place is investing in you. If you contribute enough, you will find that people around you are more willing to share their knowledge. In a busy kitchen, no one has time for you unless you are useful to them. In a busy kitchen, you are either going to be chewed up and spat out, or you will gain an experience you will treasure for the rest of your life. The outcome, is up to you.

But, you really have to want it.

(Recipe to follow)

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  1. Manggy said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    YES! So true. I hope you see that same passion and determination in your protege’s eyes that you did when you started. I can just imagine how sweet your naivete must have been to your future boss, lol.
    You can keep feeding her your luscious cakes to motivate her, right? πŸ˜‰ I know it would keep me going and going!

  2. the caked crusader said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    True – we all start somewhere sometime!

    God that coconut sorbet looks good and I say that as someone who is generally anti-sorbet (not enough calories in it)

  3. Marija said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    So true. About so many thing in life actually.

  4. Rosa said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    That’s true. If you a re not a 100% dedicated, them it’s going be tough and you are going to drop out very soon…

    A beautiful dessert!



  5. felicia said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    you’re right. you’ll have to love your job to do it well and enjoy it at the same time!
    thats why i wanna bake for a living when i grow up πŸ™‚
    btw your coconut lemon sorbet looks awesome.
    big fan of sorbets!

  6. clumbsycookie said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    You’re so right! Thinking that you want something and really wanting it, it’s quite different…

  7. Angie@Angie's Recipes said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

    The buckwheat cake sounds wonderful…
    The job in hospitality is not easy..actually could be very frustrated. The willingness to learn alone sometimes is just not enough, esp. in Food and Beverage, one has to be sharp, talented, and energetic.
    Angie’s Recipes

  8. FFichiban said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

    How inspirational ^^! Hope your little helper reads this and pulls through hee hee

  9. Reginald @ CeramicCanvas said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:09 am

    What a delicious & beautiful job.

    I recently posted a coconut lime sorbet

    that used cachaca (Brazilian sugar cane liquor).

    And I will definitely give your cake a try.


  10. Aran said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:02 am

    we have talked about this before so you know I couldn’t agree more. you have to want it and you have to sweat it and you have to put in the hours. When you first start, if your feet don’t hurt at the end of the night, don’t have cuts and burns in your forearms and a sweaty face, then you are not doing enough!

  11. betty said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    you are so truley passionate about your job its inspirational xx

    & thank you for the belated 100th post πŸ™‚

  12. Howard said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    So true, and so applicable to anything as well. The timing of this type of advice might be telling me something. I finally started watching Glee last night and they said the same thing basically, life is not worth living if your not doing something passionate .. but to do that you gotta work hard for it. Are you a mind reader and chef too ? πŸ˜‰

  13. Lauren said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    I really liked reading this post =D. I still haven’t figured out what I want to do, but really wanting something sounds like a great starting point.

  14. anna said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:16 am

    Wish I could be your kitchen helper! I’ve definitely learned just in class that humility and a willingness to do anything will get you the farthest in a professional kitchen. I set out on this journey with my mind set to learn everything I could – lucky for us we have an outlet to apply what we’ve learned without anyone telling us we’re not doing it to specs πŸ˜‰

  15. Cakelaw said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Hear, hear. I agree entirely. The banana confection looks marvellous – is that a caramel like layer I have spied there …

  16. Hilda said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    And look how far you’ve come… I want that cake, it has banana in it!
    It’s the same with film basically, though maybe a little less physical depending on which aspect of it you’re doing, but I remember the first paid job I had after a year of interning during school (and going in a second time at night after classes were done to do extra stuff), I was out at 2AM and back by 8 so I could get set up for the day and figure out who I was going to be shadowing depending on the workflow to ask those precious questions about things I didn’t know. People are usually happy to impart their knowledge, as long as you don’t abuse that privilege.

  17. Jill said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    Great post! Your description of working in that type of kitchen enviornment takes me back to a few places I’ve worked. It sounds like you are a great boss to your newbie and I hope it goes well for you. LOVE the dessert picture–just beautiful!! πŸ™‚

  18. Arwen from Hoglet K said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I hope your helper manages to cope with the stress and learn some good skills. Your cake sounds lovely. I haven’t done a lot with buckwheat before except pancakes so I’ll be interested to see the recipe.

  19. Taylor said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    This is so inspirational!! I don’t think I’ll ever work in a professional kitchen, but I feel like this applies to every job, and every aspect of life.

    Keep doing your best, and I will do the same! c:

  20. Sophie said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    What a terrific post!! It looks that you are a great boss to the others!

    Your dessert looks stunning,…FABULOUS!!!!

  21. pea and pear said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

    ‘first one in and the last one out’ I remember those days oh too well. Although it was excruciating work at the time, I look back on it fondly now. Working very hard was the best thing I ever did for my career, not for my back but definitely my career πŸ™‚
    PS I hope this girl realises how lucky she is to work on a section with a chef like you!

  22. Caitlin said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

    So true – it’s good sometimes to put those things into words. I’m forever in awe of you for doing this – restaurant service seems so incredibly hard and demanding! My version of it – applying to graduate school – could definitely benefit from some of your thoughts though. Food for thought, eh?

  23. Asha @ FSK said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 2:59 am

    Great post! And so true for all professions. I remember when I started at my last job having to suck up and wake up at 4 am and get back home at 9 pm.. it paid off and I came to NYC ;-))… And now I am not doing that job and discovered my joy of blogging and cooking πŸ™‚ haha.. the ways life work!

    anyway, hope your associate comes upto speed soon and you get a break from picking up for two! :))

  24. Anita said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    I totally agree. I’m sure it will work out, it must be quite a stressful job.
    Love the presentation and photography!

  25. Tartelette said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    IT won’t come to a surprise to you that I am with you 100% on that topic. I am so grateful for my years spent in my restaurant kitchen and I find that it has been the best experience for what happens once you leave. I apply the same discipline and mentality now with starting a business as I did in the kitchen. Good luck with the assistant. I have always worked on my own and my OCD ways probably would not have been compatible with another person in a small and hot space. You have come a long way since our emails when you first took the job. Very proud of you Y!

  26. arfi said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    very precious learning of life, and a lovely dessert to present here.

  27. Darina said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 12:39 am

    How true this is about so many things in life. I don’t think I ever had the stamina to work in a professional kitchen, so I take my hat off to you. But I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been working at becoming a writer my whole life and have faced constant rejection; but the roads to perfecting your craft is a long and difficult one, and this is something I simply have to deal with before I can meet the kind of success I imagine for myself.

    Lovely post and beautiful plating and photography–as usual.

  28. Lael said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:05 am

    As much as I’ve dreamed of learning the art of pastry making through a proper school, I just don’t think the high-pressure/high-stress work environment is for me. Better to recognize that now, rather than later, right? Well, this cake is another work of art on your part, and I’m looking forward to the recipe!

  29. Julia @ MΓ©langer said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 7:20 am

    Great words to live by. I have never experienced life in a professional kitchen, and pretty sure I never will. So I can only imagine the difficulty of making it in such a demanding environment. My observation though – it seems as though the same outcomes play out in other more traditional work environments (e.g. the humble office — me!) but in a slightly different, and possibly more drawn out way. I think those that can’t put in the effort, those that don’t demonstrate the drive, are simply ignored, left behind, not promoted, not given special projects, and on the ‘list’ of unfortunates that are let go during restructures. Words are not direct, you must read between the lines, there is much game playing, but it’s ultimately the same. You have to love what you do.

  30. Erika from The Pastry Chef At Home said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Beautiful photo, and really great advice! Working in a professional kitchen is not for everyone…

  31. Hannah said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 3:06 am

    I sure hope your helper realizes how lucky she is to have you as a mentor…! Few chefs I know would be so patient.

  32. Dana said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    So, true. You really do have to want it. If your heart isn’t into cooking, you just won’t succeed.

    Hope your new protege progresses. She’s lucky to have such a talented person as her boss. : )

  33. Megan@Feasting on Art said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    You desserts are always so gorgeous. I wouldnt think to pair banana and lime but I bet it is delicious.

  34. cathy x. said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    mmm that buckwheat cake was tasty πŸ˜› i was daydreaming about making a sweet/savoury sort of blini with white chocolate mousse, lumpfish roe and sorrel but then realised that i’d eaten it all! NOoo!

  35. peabody said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Look forward to the recipe.

    And yes you have to really want the job. So many people go into pastry and I don’t think they truly know what is involved.

  36. Lorraine @NotQuiteNigella said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

    I want it! The dessert I mean, not the job πŸ˜€

  37. veron said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    What an insightful post into the professional kitchen. You definitely want to want it. It doesn’t look as easy on tv with all the celebrity chefs and all that it is a lot of hard work and standing on your feet. I work in a vacuum right now because of my home bakery but I grew up in the restaurant business and see how hard it could be. lovely dessert!

  38. Sophie said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 3:43 am

    I love how you discuss the whole experience of being a pastry chef. Sounds like you’ve got quite a bit of wisdom to share. If I ever meet anyone who wants to go into the profession, I’ll definitely share your blog with ’em :). I’ve never seen a buckwheat dessert look so pretty!

  39. Kamran Siddiqi said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    You are truly inspirational!! I can’t wait for the recipe!

  40. cakebrain said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    I hear ya, and agree wholeheartedly. Some young people these days talk and act as if they are entitled to things. When life gets rough, they jam out. It drives me crazy. What a gorgeous dessert! Really creative and beautiful!

  41. Foodieguy said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    O what a great post… I’m certainly looking forward to that recipe now. And I guess while I’m here…

    I’m a food science student conducting a research survey on the purchase of specialty food products. Feel free to help me fill out my short 8 min research survey. It’s completely voluntary.


  42. Sunny said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    As someone who just started working in d industry your words give me the hope and strength to go on. Your little helper us lucky to have a mentor like you, usually most chefs have no empathy for apprentices…

  43. Y said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Hi Sunny, that’s true, but honestly sometimes I think a little tough love doesn’t hurt either.

  44. First Year Apprentice said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

    I just started working as an apprentice chef too. I am very lucky to have a very patient and easy going head chef guiding me as well as having friendly co workers.

    I am a bit confused about being a chef, because my more experienced co workers have little or no knowledge about some types of foods and some preparation methods. They cannot even answer most questions I have about some methods of cooking. Is that the case with most younger cooks/chefs? (They’re in their late 20s and early 30s). I would have thought that they would know SO much as they have been in the industry for many years.

    I just want to know what is expected of me. I am very curious and passionate about food and I tend to ask a lot of questions. Are new apprentices meant to be just doing the most menial jobs and not be too interested about the food?

    I’m already getting a taste of the long hours (I never worked 10 hours without a proper break before in my life), I have had one (small) injury a day since I started, not to mention how greasy my face gets by the end of the shift.

    So I thank you for your helpful post and I do hope this is going to work out for me as I do LOVE cooking and I love physical work ( I hated my office job and lectures at uni).

    Cheers πŸ™‚

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