If you have found yourself hoping to work in the culinary arts, then you probably have a few questions in mind about what it’ll really be like when you finally secure a job in a professional kitchen.
One thing we can say outright is that it definitely won’t be all sunshine and daisies once you get there!
This is challenging work, even after you’ve memorized all the relevant recipes of any given kitchen. You’ll be busy most of the time, if not all of the time, while you’re on the clock.
You may not get along with all of your coworkers but will still need to work efficiently with all of them.
Alex Malaise, a renowned pastry chef currently working with restaurant Et Voilà!, alongside Head Chef Claudio Pirollo, following an impressive history of working with renowned restaurants in Europe, recently granted us an interview in the hopes of sharing his culinary story and preparing aspiring culinary artists for the realities of this work.
A whole new industry
Something Malaise wanted to make absolutely clear to all future chefs out there is that the culinary industry has undergone several major transformations over the last 30-odd years, the time during which Malaise began his work.
On the one hand, highlighting these changes can help culinary hopefuls understand just how different things are now for chefs and restaurants.
But beyond that, it also helps all of us understand just how much the culinary arts will continue to change in the years to come.
As Malaise summarizes,
“When I started working, a new generation of chefs came on board and started to find new creative ways to incorporate their own style. When molecular gastronomy came to life, another revolution took place. This allowed us to surprise our customers with all five senses. Then, local cuisine became more important. Talking about geographic indication was the focus. We saw chefs working with local producers.”
A common theme of these changes is the influence of both internal and external pressures.
To elaborate, a change such as the push for more stylistic cooking came from internal sources, namely young chefs hoping to make their mark.
But another change, like the push for more local, organic produce in cuisine of all types, had a lot to do with external forces. More specifically, the general public was starting to be much more conscious of where their foods came from, especially foods they weren’t preparing themselves.
While it may be easy to assume that the culinary industry has now reached a point of stasis, Chefs like Malaise do not only expect more changes in the future, but are in fact excited to see what these changes hold.
Malaise sees these developments as proof that the art form is evolving and expanding. Cuisine, as an art, has a lot farther to go, and that’s good news for anyone hoping to join a proud tradition of innovative chefs and culinary artists.
A successful headspace
In addition to learning and incorporating practical techniques and skills, culinary artists at any level also need to go into the kitchen with a positive and productive headspace.
Psychologists have known for years that the way we think has an immediate impact on our mood and our ability to perform tasks.
This idea doesn’t come as a surprise to Malaise, who has always felt that success is also a state of mind:
“Whenever you enter a kitchen, I truly believe that you decide that you want to learn, but also know how to appreciate good food. This is the key. Then, of course, you must be open, generous, perseverant, brave, and appreciate life and what it brings to you.”
Applying this broader life perspective to culinary work can yield some great results, and it can also help you overcome difficult moments when you make a mistake or feel that you haven’t been living up to expectations.
Again, this all needs to be built on a foundation of genuine knowledge and skill, but we can’t overstate the value of keeping your thoughts and your mood in check.
If you can’t stand the heat …
That management of your state of mind will definitely come in handy when you begin work in your first professional kitchen.
We alluded to this earlier, but the kitchens of renowned gourmet restaurants can be incredibly hectic.
Complex menu items require precise timing, and depending on the seating capacity of the restaurant, there may be tens of guests that need to be served as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.
If an outsider peeked into a professional kitchen, they might only see the frenzy. But for culinary artists like Malaise, there is indeed a pattern and a rhythm.
As Malaise explained, learning to recognize and follow that rhythm is essential to achieving success:
“Like all manual labor, working in such environments is intense. There is a lot of pressure to please. However, I believe that it is organized like an orchestra. There are codes, keywords, and there is a chef d’orchestre who provides you with the tempo.”
The hierarchy of leadership isn’t just for show, it’s a way for the Head Chef to keep everything organized and running at maximum efficiency.
When things are running smoothly, dishes come out of the kitchen perfectly and please guests, giving them a dining experience they’ll remember for a very long time to come.
Adjusting to this workflow and this frantic pacing will be a challenge when you’re still green behind the ears, but there is most definitely a method to the madness.
Finding a focus
So when you get your first job in the culinary industry, it probably won’t be anything too flashy.
You probably won’t be working for a Michelin-starred restaurant, and you probably won’t be doing anything more complicated than prep work or line work.
But the good news here is that you’ll progress over time, climbing your way up that rigid leadership hierarchy, and once you’ve earned yourself some breathing room, you can start looking for your very own specialty.
While many young culinary artists hope to become head chefs or potentially start their own restaurants, this isn’t everyone’s path.
You may even decide, as Malaise did, that you’d like to focus on desserts and pastries.
When you’re looking for your specialty, ask yourself why you were inspired to enter the culinary arts in the first place. What are the roots of your passion for cuisine?
Malaise told us a lovely story about how he came to have such an intricate, heartfelt appreciation for baking and desserts.
“My mother was not a good cook. The only time she would bake would be for a birthday party. I helped her and I had a blast. I could not believe that by mixing different ingredients you would end up with a cake that everyone would love. I went to a catering school at first, but I could not resist the allure of sugar and its creations.”
Everyone has their own set of roots. What are yours?
What is your favorite dish in the whole world? Why is it your favorite? What was the first meal you ever cooked on your own? Do you still enjoy making that same dish today?
Where do your talents lie? In what area of the kitchen do you think you could really excel?
Answering questions like these can go a long way toward helping you choose your very own culinary specialty.
Learning more advanced techniques
Gastronomy is one of those very rare careers where professionals continue to learn new skills throughout their ascent.
The learning doesn’t stop after you leave culinary school. Far from it.
This also means that it may be years before you’re ready to tackle some of the most advanced techniques.
To ambitious young culinary artists, this may sound like bad news. There can be a temptation to try and learn as much as possible, all at once.
But Malaise and many other chefs feel that it takes time to reach the point of true expertise:
“I reckon that young apprentices should concentrate first on learning to better themselves. Techniques take time, especially in gastronomy. You cannot learn these techniques on YouTube or with nonprofessionals.”
If you can focus first on getting your own house in order and mastering the basics of your work, then, with time and patience, you will find opportunities to learn even more about your craft.
Don’t try to rush things. Even if you’re the most talented young chef on the planet, you still need to pay your dues, so to speak, and focus on the work at hand.
Instead of standing in front of a small flower and yelling at it to grow big and tall, give it time. Take care of it, watering as needed and making sure it gets lots of sunlight.
A culinary career is a beautiful thing, but letting it mature naturally is the only way for it to thrive.