The working interview is a hallmark of the culinary industry for no other reason than the fact that, simply put, people can say anything they like on a resume and BS their way through interview after interview- but they can’t fake practical skills.
A cook can claim to have worked for years and learned from the greatest cooks of a generation (and thus demand greater pay or authority,) but if that talk doesn’t translate to skills and elan in the kitchen, they will find themselves out with the green potatoes- and blackballed as a liar to boot.
That’s why after an interview or two, promising candidates for a kitchen job will be brought in to work a shift or just a couple of hours with the rest of the team. They might be given a timed challenge, a list of tasks to complete or just asked to help out and keep up while they are observed. This labor is usually unpaid or done in exchange for a shift meal (the ethics and legality of which are regularly disputed,) but ultimately it’s still an interview and thus a two-way street. The restaurant gets to assess the candidate’s demeanor and skills, and the cook gets to see how the kitchen works and decide if they are a good fit.
So short of not being a liar and not injuring yourself and others, what can you do to ace a working interview?
It was a habit I’d gotten used to every Thursday morning. Thursday is Scone Day.
Every Thursday for the last year, I’d start my day in the bakery by double-checking our inventory and getting started mixing giant batches of scone dough. Sometimes three flavors, but lately just the two best ones. Giant masses of sour-sweet short dough, weighed into mounds, then pressed into discs. No real thinking about it, unless something went wrong- the mix too dry, too wet, not the right yield, or whatever. Otherwise, it was automatic- just like most aspects of the position I’ve worked in for the last two years.
Today I made my last batch of scone dough. Next week, I’ll be moving on to a new job. The staff says it won’t be the same and that they’ll miss me, and I know they’re being kind. I’ve trained the people I’m leaving behind well- they almost function better without me hanging around looking for something to do.
“Looking for something to do.” Once upon a time, the position was grueling. I sweated my bones trying to make production lists, meet the needs of a frantic bakeshop, and train a parade of faces and names to bake. Now, the job is almost… easy. It’s scheduled. Practiced. Thoughtless.
I helped make it that way, and now I’m too tired and stressed to enjoy the easy part anymore.
I had been in a depressive slump for a few days. Life for me was less a series of deeds and events than a monochrome shamble from one checkpoint to another. But when I got home to a quiet house with my wife taking an afternoon nap, I knew the fog was lifting- because I wanted to make some pie.
I weighed out the flour and cut the butter. A small measure of iced tea was poured for the liquid. Regardless of my state of mind, my hands still had the skills. The ancient wisdom still flowed through them, and they knew without my correction how to create something good. It was the quiet, meditative serenity of letting my hands move while my mind watched and convalesced- shaking off the lead cloak Depression had thrown over it.
Reconnecting to something simple, delicate, and pure. This is the space where I think people show their true skills.
If you had told me a year and a half ago that I’d be second-in-command in my bakery, I would have asked what the hell went wrong.
Well, obviously COVID did, but that was only part of it.
So far, my current employment has been where I could say my most “traditional” career growth has taken place. I started as a morning baker, became a shift lead, and then Production Lead- the right hand of my manager who runs the kitchen under the auspices of the owner. My usual station is Pastry Prep (previously considered the position for newcomers and students)- but in addition to my actual production work, my other responsibilities include:
Fielding questions to take weight off my manager.
Training, advising, and assisting the other bakers as necessary.
Troubleshooting problems with production or facilities.
Responding to the higher-ups when the manager is indisposed.
Not to toot my own horn, but I handle all of it quite well, and I feel that the responsibilities I have are well-placed. In the meritocratic lore of the kitchen, this is as it should be- employees develop, rise to the level of their capability and talent, and acquire new power, responsibility, and recognition each time.
What is NOT part of that lore, or mentioned in my own ascendancy, is just how many good people I worked with deserved those roles and recognition more than me, but left for a variety of reasons. How much of advancement in the kitchen is actually meritocratic, and how much is “dead man’s boots?”