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From Dishwasher to Chef in 10 Steps

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From Dishwasher to Chef in 10 Steps

We love the writing of blogger and chef Paul Sorgule, he creates all manner of interesting articles written from his years of experience working in professional kitchens and the advice he creates is true, to the point and useful.

We’ve highlighted a number of works from Sorgule and he’s also produced some original content for FDL. The latest peice we wanted to highlight from the chef is an article on the school of hard knocks within the kitchen and how it is entirely possible, if you work hard enough, to progress from dishwasher to chef.

Below are the 10 steps Sorgule says are required for that journey to take place.

STEP ONE: THE DISHPIT

 
This first course is focused on a diverse skill set that includes understanding the overall mise en place of the kitchen (everything has a place and everything needs to be in place), the value of the most expensive inventory in the restaurant and how to properly care for it, the importance of a clean canvas for cooks and chefs to paint on, organization, sanitation and safety, speed and efficiency, and how to observe the workings of the entire kitchen team. Without this time in the “pit” an appreciation for these important parts of the kitchen operation may never be realized. This is why everyone needs to start with this first course in the curriculum.
 

STEP TWO: FOUNDATIONAL PREP

 
Hard knocks students who have aspirations of growing in the kitchen will seek out “extra credit” by filling in any down time with building those basic food prep skills that seem to fit with the “dishpit” schedule. This would include peeling onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, shallots, chopping and washing parsley, cleaning other vegetables, putting away deliveries and rotating stock, checking for freshness and quality, icing fresh fish, and labeling/dating products received. Those who are serious will look forward to adding these skills and learn to become even more efficient in the dish area so that they can dedicate more time to building confidence with basic food handling. Chefs notice this commitment and always make a mental note of this desire for “extra credit”.

STEP THREE: BREAKFAST LINE COOK ASSISTANT

 
Those hard knock warriors who are blessed with working the early shift will typically find that the dish area is crazy busy in waves and that if they are organized and able to stay ahead there will be opportunities to step in and help the breakfast cook during a rush. The best hard knock warriors don’t wait to be asked, they can sense, through observation, when help is important. Stepping on the line, the dish warrior knows how to set up plates with garnishes, add that rasher of bacon or sausage, pull down a dupe when the eggs, French toast, or pancakes are added by the line cook, and proudly call out “pick up!” Like the extra credit for prep work, the line cook is always grateful and will likely let the chef know about the warriors desire to learn and willingness to be a team player.
 

STEP FOUR: BREAKFAST LINE COOK

 
It is inevitable that at some point there will be a need for another breakfast cook. The hard knocks warrior is ready to take on the challenge and move up from dish warrior to his or her first position as a cook.   After observing technique for months, the eager warrior is prepared to flip eggs, make the batter, cook the bacon, sausage and homefries, and prep the garnishes for a shift. It doesn’t take long to become fairly proficient and win the trust of the service staff. He looks to his left and sees a new dishwasher working his or her way through that first class – willing and able to jump in and help during the rush. What goes around, comes around.
 

STEP FIVE: PREP AND BANQUETS – LEARNING TO COOK

 
The next progression is typically a move to the prep shift. It might begin as one or two of his scheduled days away from the breakfast line, but the hard knocks warrior is anxious to make this transition – this is where he will learn about food, pick up classic cooking methods, begin to build a palate, refine knife skills, and start to truly feel like a cook. Banquets are a rush when and where the new cook learns about large scale organization, advance prep timing, plating techniques, and the speed necessary to serve large groups in the shortest amount if time. As with normal prep, the new cook also learns about controlling waste, full utilization of ingredients, adjusting technique and seasoning to accommodate variations in raw materials, how to follow standardized recipes, and all the food safety issues that are critical during the prep phase. Before long the cooks schedule has shifted to full time prep and banquets and his confidence level is growing exponentially. This is the culmination of the first phase of the curriculum – success, so far passing with flying colors. The chef makes note that this warrior has the passion and the commitment, and is rapidly becoming competent with a wider range of skills. Soon it will be time for the next move.
 

STEP SIX: EVENING LINE COOK – ENTRY LEVEL

 
The new cook is given a shot at the line – this is the “big dance”. He has watched in awe as the evening brigade entered the kitchen every day with a swagger and determination that can only come from confidence in skills. Now he would be part of this team of pirates. To his dismay, this is like starting all over again. The skills and timing are different, and unlike prep, he is now responsible for learning how to bring all the components of a plate together. He is relegated to the fry station with the majority of items battered, breaded and fried. Pommes Frities, onion rings for the grill, a few fried appetizers and quick items for the bar, and service as the gopher for the more important line positions when they need back ups from the cooler. Oh well, this is the price of admission so the cook is determined to be exceptional at a job that he knew could be easily mastered. It doesn’t take long for the rest of the team to recognize his dedication and enthusiasm, so they begin to give him a chance to step in and learn parts of the sauté station and grill. In short time, the new line cook is filling in on other stations during the slower nights of the week. Mission accomplished – he is now a line cook.
 

STEP SEVEN: GRILL AND SAUTE

 
Take a step back – filling in on grill and sauté is different than owning those stations and learning the nuances of organization and timing, and building a palate that allows every dish to taste the same – every time. The cook’s education is only beginning and spending the better part of a year at each of these stations will be necessary before he can proclaim a high level of competence. Learning degrees of doneness, how to stall preparation on an item without losing quality, how to adjust timing during a rush of activity, how to communicate effectively with the expeditor and fellow cooks – all of this will take time.
 

STEP EIGHT: ROUNDSMAN

 
At this point in the curriculum, the cook is gaining confidence and the respect of his peers. He is confident with breakfast, prep, banquets, and each of the evening line stations. The chef, recognizing this portfolio of skills, promotes the cook to Roundsman. This means that the cook can fill in at any position in the kitchen with the exception of bakeshop and as such carries the first inkling of leadership. Other cooks begin to refer to this kitchen warrior for advice and station tips – the new cook is coming of age and ready to move on to the advanced section of the curriculum.
 

STEP NINE: FRONT OF THE HOUSE STAGE

 
At this point the hard knocks warrior knows that his career will be in the kitchen and he begins to have visions of eventually holding a chefs position of his own. He also comes to the realization that there is another whole world to the restaurant – the front of the house. He notes that the chef seems to have a solid understanding of this part of the restaurant and is able to communicate quite effectively with the front manager and service staff. He decides to ask the chef if he can spend some time “out front” to develop an appreciation for the service component. The chef agrees to schedule one of his days each week as a back wait so that the warrior can see the front from the perspective of the importance that service has to the whole dining experience. This is eye opening and very educational. The time spent in the front will help to form the type of chef that this kitchen warrior will become in the future.
 

STEP TEN: SOUS CHEF

 
After a little more than a year as Roundsman, our competent cook/student is ready to move to his final portion of the curriculum – management. The chef is confident that this hard knocks kitchen warrior is nearing graduation, and is ready to become a “bigger picture” leader in the kitchen. The move to sous chef goes way beyond the ability to cook. The sous chef must now play a role in menu planning with the chef, build staff schedules, learn how to take inventories and monitor the financial performance of the kitchen, deal with human resource issues, hire, train, and sometimes discipline employees, determine what and how much to order, and facilitate production and service.
 
During the evening he will step into the role of expeditor serving as the intermediary between front and back of the house and controlling the pace of the line. He jumps in with both feet knowing that this position will be the portal for his career goal. It may take a few years at this level, but our new leader who began as a dishwasher knows that sous chefs become working and executive chefs, and who knows – maybe even a restaurant owner in the future. Just think, less than five years ago he was pushing racks through the machine and stacking dishes for plating on the line. Anything is possible.
 
The school of hard knocks is as fine a curriculum as you are going to find, one that has been the vehicle for many of the world’s greatest chefs. Our job as chefs is to create the environment for this to happen – time and again.
 
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