An Open Letter to Brand New Pastry Grads- From Someone Your Age

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

Ok, so I’ve been sucking a bit at updating (except Instagram- that’s annoyingly addictive.) Sorry about that, but part of the reason why? I finally got a job out here.

The job is at a restaurant and caterer, where I was hired to be a “relief baker.” Since their banquet season is in full swing, however, and since I have pretty decent kitchen skills OUTSIDE of baking as well, my job has more or less been catering prep and cooking. All in all, not a bad gig.
The experience of having a non-baking job for the first time in a long time got me thinking. About now, many culinary schools are ending their winter semesters, and some of my colleagues may be graduating, throwing themselves and their fates into the industry. 
It’s practically a staple on social media these days to find open letters to young people just entering the workforce from old hands– people with decades of experience, and a gentle, patronizing humor for the bright-eyed bushy-tailed youngsters eager to take on the world.
I’d be lying if I said these were complete devoid of merit or purpose. The chefs and restauranteurs writing these letters to young chef and throwing them up on news sites or social media can are often full of truisms about the industry: the importance of hard work, being on time, being humble, developing yourself, and so on. In the best circumstances, I imagine these wizened old masters lending stern but necessary advice to the young and inexperienced.
Unfortunately, some of these chefs letters can be boiled down in a young graduates head something like so.

  1. You are going to go through hell, but we had it worse.
  2. You are shit.
  3. Don’t bother thinking, just shut up and do.
  4. Remember the above three, and that I’m the boss, and maybe someday you’ll be worth someone knowing your name.​​
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Slightly less friendly than this.

After reading enough of these letters- laughing at some, wincing at others- I decided I might try my hand at it, but with a slightly different tack.

​So….

Dear New Pastry Graduates,

First of all, congratulations! You just went through quite a bit of hell, and came out in one piece. You’ve got your paper. You can handle yourself well-enough in a kitchen. You know a few recipes and how not to kill yourself 50 different ways. Excellent work- but now the real game begins.

I am by NO ONE’S definition an “old hand.” I have been baking professionally for MAYBE 4 years. I graduated from culinary school 3 years ago. I still feel a little uncomfortable when anyone calls me “chef” even as a joke, as that title holds a specific definition in my mind that I’m not sure I deserve just yet, preferring the simpler title of “baker.”

​I did NOT come up in the bygone era of physical and emotional abuse to “toughen you up.” I did not face quite so much of the vitriol and soul-crushing critique that older chefs reminisce about, during their time in the Kitchen of Hard Knocks.

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THEIR first chef, doing pre-shift.

​I’m coming up in today’s world. YOUR world. The professional world that you are soon to be joining, graduates. I am part of the world of foodies and Food Network. A world where risk-takers can be richly rewarded, and good food is more democratic than it has ever been. One no longer needs to be wealthy or powerful to enjoy some of the most exquisite food on Earth- though it certainly helps.
I’ve been living in this world and these times 3 years longer than you have, and I have enjoyed excellent luck, bad luck, surprises, disappointments, ecstasy and fear on my short but on-going ride.

So, from me to you, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

1. Your degree is good for interviews- not much else.
For real, congratulations. Graduating culinary school is not a simple task. It took hard work, determination, grit, sacrifice, passion, and more to get you through class after class, cake after cake, grading after grading to prove that you could have a place in someone’s kitchen.

Sadly, that’s all it does. Your culinary school degree will look excellent on a resume, and a good resume will get you an interview. THAT’S IT.
Cooking remains, at it’s heart, a meritocracy. Who you know and where you went to school can only get you so far- how far you go in your career, or whether you even find a job, will be determined by your skills and abilities.

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And, in some places, beating the sous chef in hand-to-hand combat- but that’s the old way.

2. Experience and skill speaks loudest.
Before I finally got my current job, I went on 10 interviews and did at least 4 trial shifts/stages/working interviews. Every critique I received followed the same vein, whether I got the job or not: While I lacked lengthy experience in the field, every single employer was impressed with my speed, skill, mise en place, and general elan in the kitchen.
All of these things I was lauded for I learned about in school. They were put into practice, however- honed, pressed, perfected- at my last job- a low-level baker in a casino, a job that I bemoaned and groused over on a fairly regular basis.
Yes, it is a Catch-22. How do you get experience if you can’t get a job, because every job wants someone with more experience?
Unfortunately, that’s another sad truth that you should know by now about the culinary industry- EVERYONE starts at the bottom. Going to culinary school doesn’t mean you magically transform into Emeril the day after graduation. In fact, Le Cordon Bleu is shuttering ALL of its US schools because, frankly, it was charging young folks like us out the neck and claiming that we’d all be superstars upon graduation.
In all likelihood, the first job you get in the field probably won’t be perfect. In fact, it will likely be crap. If you’re smart though, there’s something you can do to make the time mean something. You should…
3. Find a mentor.
What made that casino job worthwhile? The fact that I found a mentor there, and people willing to teach me.

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Icing on, icing off….

If you want to succeed in anything, remember: You are ALWAYS a student. There is ALWAYS something to learn, whether it’s skills from a mentor or ideas on how NOT to manage by an irritating supervisor.

​While it’s not common in American schools (except for the CIA), many European schools REQUIRE a lengthy apprenticeship and a sponsorship from a mentor before acceptance into their program. One chef I met out here distrusts American culinary schools for that exact reason- at the European schools, one has to PROVE THEY DESERVE AND HAVE THE CAPABILITY TO BE THERE.

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“Eh… you still need some work. Maybe a few more months and I’ll write the letter….”

During my time at the casino, I found a mentor in my friend Karen. She taught me HOW to adopt the cleanliness, speed, finesse, and flow that I was told in school that I would need to succeed. The problem with ANY school, however, is exactly that it’s a school- the stakes are different. Your motivations are different.
 
While I didn’t always enjoy the job, learning everything I did from Karen made it worthwhile. Keep that in mind when you find your first crappy job- there’s always something to learn.

Or, as the current High Lord of Cool Nerdom says:

ySpeaking of which…

4. Develop all the skills you can.
I am a baker. That is the title and label I would apply to what I do, and want to do, for a living.
In today’s world, however, specializing is expensive. To many employers, having a dedicated pastry chef (let alone pastry STAFF) is a pricy luxury. The employers that many of you will want to look for- the intriguing edgy restaurants, the small artsy cafes, the big well-known urban supper clubs- are more interested in finding someone they can throw ANYTHING at and will be productive, or at least able to work.

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Shown: a busy line. Not Shown: people who can only do ONE THING.

For my current job, I asked for a strictly baking position. The owners said that while they COULD use another baker, at the moment they really just need someone capable in the kitchen and would I be ok with doing other kinds of work. I said that I was- I know how to cook well enough, I know how to process ingredients pretty efficiently, and my knife skills are still solid. 

After three weeks on the job, I have baked exactly twice. In the midst of their banquet season, they needed more hands on a range or cutting board than on the bench.

​At first, I was disappointed and angry- I thought I would get to bake, dammit!
After a few days, however, I let go of the anger and started seeing what their was to learn. New recipes. Flavor combinations and concepts. New cooking skills that baking alone didn’t offer me. Supporting all of it was the speed, efficiency, and mise en place I had learned at the casino job I bitched about before- which showed the chef and rest of the crew that, hey- the new kid can hack it.

If you have the will, you can learn the skills-

and if you have the skills, you can name your price.

After a week of trial shifts, I was offered the job. Keep all of your skills sharp, and don’t pass up an opportunity to learn something new just because it’s not in your dream job description.

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Shown here: a kid that wanted to be an architect. Also shown here: Marie Antonin-Carême, the original celebrity chef and founder of the field of culinary arts.

One excellent skill in particular…

5. Learn the language.
The popular saying is that the only language spoken in kitchens is food. This is clever, but idealistic.
If you are looking for a job in a restaurant, and you live in the US, in all likelihood the majority of your coworkers will be Hispanic. Whether an Italian trattoria in New York, a chic French restaurant in Chicago, or a hole-in-the-wall bar and grill in Nevada, hablan español.

I can hear it already, so let’s just drag the elephant out of the corner of the room, shall we?
No, English is not the “national” language of America. The US has no “national” language. It is, and has always been, a melting pot nation.
Learning a new language has been shown to not only be beneficial to reading comprehension and creative thinking, it can improve mental clarity and flexibility. 

English is in fact one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to learn, since American English in particular is an amalgamation of Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, German, and Greek, with smatterings of every other language that washed up here. Additionally, studies have shown that the older a person gets, the more difficult it is for them to learn a new language. Since many kitchen workers arrive in the country as adults, they are fighting a pretty steep uphill battle.

By learning a new language, or even just becoming conversational in one, you expand the number of people you can communicate easily with. It quickly builds rapport with new people, and a person who can communicate quickly and effectively with their co-workers is a valuable asset for an employer- one they are not likely to forget when it’s time for promotions and raise negotiations.

I had had a bit of Spanish language education pretty much every year I was in school, and I am at the very least conversational in what I like to call “kitchen Spanish-” basic vocabulary coupled with important kitchen phrases like, “Where is the ___?” “Behind you!” and “Careful, hot!” Recently I’ve been improving my Spanish with a handy and fun program called Duolingo, which makes learning a new language as simple as playing an iPhone game.

When the predominantly Hispanic crew at my current job found out I could speak and understand what they were saying, the relief and welcome was almost palpable.
There are foreign language courses available all over the place, and some (like Duolingo) are completely free.

So quit your bitching and habla español, puta madre!

6. If you want to be a chef, take business courses.
This one’s a tough one to handle, but it’s the truth. Even if you just want to be a chef and not a chef-owner or restauranteur, you will be spending at LEAST as much time shuffling paper as you will cooking and baking.
​​Many states and community colleges have Small Business Associations that offer cheap or free help with learning how to build and manage a business. Knowing about taxes, licensing, insurances, and how to balance your financial books will become at least as important to you as your recipes and how to use your equipment. 
7. Keep other hobbies and interests alive.
You’re not dissuaded. You want to be a baker. It’s your life’s work, and what you’ve dreamed of doing.
Excellent- but don’t let it be your ENTIRE life.
I love baking. I love it enough that I turned away from a 10-year career in medicine and moved across the country to pursue it. I also love writing, fine whiskeys, homebrewing, gaming, working out, and playing guitar. Even the best and greatest can get burnt out on what they love and need something to escape into. Remember to step away from the bench now and again to enjoy other things, and doing them with other people. Go out sampling beers with your friends. Hike a local nature trail. Read 5 books simultaneously.
Baking can be your life- but don’t let it make you boring.
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Talking shop during post-shift drinks, however- that’s a wonderful thing.

Congratulations, grads. Go get ’em.

Stay Classy,

One thought on “An Open Letter to Brand New Pastry Grads- From Someone Your Age

  1. I love pastries and those are the food the I enjoy the most. I am glad that I have read this and it reminds me of my childhood days when me and my family are eating at the bakery. I will tell this to my family and they will remember that special moment in our lives

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