How do you know if you are passionate enough about cooking to make it a career? Today I’m going to share how I decided to go to culinary school.
I started cooking at A&W in Thunder Bay at the tender age of thirteen
My friends always had money. Money to buy skateboards, go to the arcade, or to pick up that cool new album. I was lucky to get ten dollars allowance a week. Scrimping and saving were never my strongest points.
I had to do something, so I started looking for a job. I had a huge problem though; labor laws in Ontario stated that you had to be 15 to work in a kitchen. I managed to find a job at the local A&W, billed “the last Carhop in Ontario.”
I had to do some serious begging to get that job. My mother insisted I uphold my grades. The second they started to suffer the job would have to go. The owner was way easier; he needed a dishwasher – I was in.
Sadly, it didn’t last
It wasn’t long before the paychecks started bouncing. That’s why it was so easy to get in. That place was the underbelly of Thunder Bay. Sex in the stockrooms, kids smoking weed in the back, and the flies!
It didn’t take me long to graduate to the fryer. Fry guy quit because he didn’t get paid. The burger guy followed the next week. I was flipping burgers three weeks into the job, oblivious to the signs of trouble. Hell, a pretty serving girl even told me to get out while I could because the place was in trouble.
I arrived at work one day to a notice from the police. The restaurant’s owner decided to check himself into the psychiatric hospital. My mother came down and coerced someone into paying my final pay from the cash register. Thus my brief career with A&W ended.
I loved the freedom a job gave me. I had more money than my friends, and for the first time in my life, I could afford to buy what I wanted. Temper that with my inability to save money, and you have me blowing my entire paycheck on the arcade machines.
It was always easy for me to get a job cooking
Again my mother continued moving around. I didn’t stay very long in any one place. That meant I needed to learn how to get a job.
Once you get some skill and experience, it’s easy to find work as a cook anywhere, as long as you have a good work history. When you see punks rage-quitting their jobs in those funny movies realize this: do that and your reputation will follow you through your career.
I have worked in a few dumps in my time, but (except for one establishment,) I’ve always made sure to leave a place in good standing.
In the culinary business it’s all about whom you know, who you’ve worked for, and how you did. I know that it’s technically illegal in most places to give a bad reference, but we all do it. It’s all about what’s not said:
“Hey Jack – what’s up brother? Still knee-deep in the shit over there? What ya doing, 400 these days?”
“Bro, you don’t even fucking know! Shit, we were fucked last night. The servers didn’t even control the flow, and we got ass-raped at 10. Fucking didn’t even get out until 2 in the morning man!”
“Damn! Listen, I gotta make this quick – I got my numbers to get in. I’m looking at this CV for Johnny-Fry-Guy and I saw your place on there. You remember him?”
“Yah, he worked here brah.”
“Would you hire him again? Did he have chops?”
“Yah, he worked here.” (The silence here is telling…)
“Thanks Jack! Listen, we’re gonna get fucked tonight, so I gotta cut this short. Let’s get together for some beers man. Catch up on old times!”
“Okay, sorry I couldn’t help you out!”
I wouldn’t hire the guy because Jack isn’t gushing on the guy. “He worked here” is code for “He always called in sick”, “I hated the guy”, “He rage-quit on me”, or “He sucked and I had to fire him.”
I made it a point to work my hardest in the kitchen. When it came time for that obligatory reference call, I’d get in.
I tried other jobs apart from cooking, honest
You know when they ask you in High School what you want to do for the rest of your life. I never understood that. Ask a sixteen-year-old to map out the path to the rest of his or her life?
I tried other jobs over the years. I worked those entry-level jobs like gas stations, arcade attendant. I worked as an apprentice millwright, a junior apprentice glassworker, in an upholstery shop. I even worked as a seismologist. (A person whose job it is to put down
I’d get bored of the tasks in those jobs. I always found myself back in the kitchen. There are so many tasks to complete, and with service, you never know what’s going to happen.
I worked at a restaurant that did all-you-can-eat wings, a pub my friend’s father owned, and even found a motel kitchen when I moved to Oxbow, Saskatchewan.
I had to make some money, so off to the oil service rigs
I originally moved to Oxbow so I could work on the oil rigs. It was all about the money. My sister’s boyfriend made a lot of money working, and I wanted in on the action.
I moved into my sister’s place temporarily and looked at getting hired for the job that would print me money.
I weighed around 140 pounds soaking wet, and you bet no one would hire me. My sister wasn’t going to let me bum off her, so I got a job working at the Bow Manor Motor Hotel.
I first realized I was good at cooking working at the Bow Manor Motor Hotel
The restaurant there was scary. I started at 4 AM to make soup. It only took me half an hour to make it, so I just sat around smoking cigarettes. The person training me cautioned me to slow down because otherwise there would be nothing left to do.
Servers cut salad at their salad stations with dollar knives and it surprised me that they didn’t cut their fingers off with the vegetables.
Worse, the favorite up sell for the restaurant known as “snowball.” Take a plate of anything with meat, vegetables, and starch. Now cover everything with gravy. Rachael Ray would say, “Yummers.”
I finally got a job on the rigs
I didn’t stop looking for a rig job. My sister’s boyfriend was pulling in some serious cash, so it made sense that I’d get in on the action. I got an interview with his crew manager and managed to try out.
My first day was an eye-opener. I get to the site, there is a rig there with a pile of black pipe on the ground. My job was simple; lift the pipe to the “floor.” (A deck made of steel over the hole that the pipe went into, a meter off the ground.)
The pipe didn’t look all that thick. I bent down to pick one up. I was lucky if it moved an inch. I strained with all my might. It still didn’t move. The whole crew looked at me like I was retarded. A burly man with swollen muscles came to help me. I think he weighed close to 250 pounds, all swollen muscle.
System D to the rescue!
I did redeem myself though. I got onto the “floor” because I couldn’t lift. I could quickly maneuver pipe to the “tongs,” (the huge hydraulic pipe wrench) close the safety, and operate the machinery to tighten the pipe in the stack.
I wasn’t able to use my strength to complete my task, but my wits to get it done. I learned that ability in various kitchens out there. It’s not just brawn, it’s brains.
Believe me; working on the rigs is hard. Not all the time though. There a\re periods where you sit in the shack waiting for the testing to be complete. Worse, when you move the rig at 30 Km/h with no one in the truck but you, there is nothing to do but smoke cigarettes, and think.
Out in the middle of nowhere, you can’t escape your thoughts. I kept coming back to what I wanted to do for a living. I knew there was no future in rig work for me, it was just money. I didn’t know what my passion was. What was I supposed to do?
I remember the conversation came up one day. What to do for a living? Every single one of the guys laughed and told me I should cook. That’s all I ever talked about. I didn’t want to work in kitchens like I worked in before. Little pay, and not too fun.
You should go to school and learn how to be one of those chefs.
Holy shit. They were right.
Getting into a program despite a year-long wait
I had my epiphany, got my last pay, and flew out within two weeks. I started calling around, and found out that the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology offered a program called Professional Cooking. It was expensive, and the waiting list was a year long.
I started calling in the end of November. I called daily to see if there was a spot open. I met with the headmaster. Then I called some more.
December 12, 1998 was when I received a call to tell me that I was accepted into the program.
What are the lessons here?
You have to work with integrity in your job. It will follow you through your kitchen career because everyone knows everyone here.
If you find that something is too difficult to pull off, or seemingly impossible, search for alternative ways of getting it done. It’s called System D.
I’m not going to lie; the career of a Culinarian is not an easy one. If you find yourself always talking, thinking, reading, experimenting about cooking, then it’s time to give the career a serious look.
Tune in Next Week…
Next week I’ll get into my experience with culinary school while working a full-time job and how I became an apprentice chef.