Early career path priorities: Should celebrity kitchen top your list?


I just received following request: “I have newly graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu.  I graduated at the top of my class with an associate degree.  I am looking for a cutting edge restaurant or resort that wants a chef who is cooking the kind of food that will put them on the map.

The logical response would be: “You are confusing celebrity with quality and professionalism. The latter will serve you better.”

The sender is indicative of a large number of recent culinary graduates and aspiring chefs who mistakenly believe working in a celebrity kitchen is the key to a successful career. It’s easy enough to understand the source of their confusion – the food media, press as well as television, which propagate the idea that well known equals good and successful, suggesting an inverted cause and effect relationship.

If you get “on the map”, then you will do well and be excellent.

Chefs get on the map because they are talented,   professional and skilled, and have the business acumen to choose a good location.   Unfortunately, being on the map does not guarantee that a chef or restaurant is all of  these things. The map is not what it used to be.

It is only coincidental but still satisfying that “flash in the pan” is a culinary metaphor. A lot of restaurants get “on the map” without the leadership of a rounded chef then sink into the void of flashy ideas and fad food.  The food writers who place some of the short term favorites  in public view rarely look behind the scenes to see if the current enfant terrible oversees a drug addicted “train wreck” of a kitchen or is struggling to keep up appearances without substance. Not all trending restaurants, in other words, provide optimal breeding grounds for the great chefs of tomorrow, and not all great chefs of tomorrow will begin their careers in trending restaurants.

There are many kitchens led by extremely competent culinary professionals who offer as much or more to a future chef  starting out than high visibility locations.  While the celebrity restaurant offers the idea that you have been next to a celebrity, the professional and well managed kitchen, regardless of visibility, can send you on to the next career station with better honed skills, increased kitchen knowledge and attitudes, which are much more important to future employers and eventually to the successful chef’s own ability to manage and perhaps own a successful food operation than Yelp reviews, blogs, and pounds of excited food section and magazine articles.

Working for some well recognized chefs does not mean  you will be working with or under them.  If they have multiple outlets, you may be working with an impressive chef de cuisine, but the location may not make the food at the quality level you imagine.  When Las Vegas took off in the 90’s I received a flood or resumes from highly qualified kitchen staff disappointed by the realization that the demographics of the location rather than the chef owning it determined the quality of the food and the challenge of the position they had accepted. A lot of the customers in casinos, the smart chef owners realized, wanted to have the distinction of dining in the highest quality and most creative locations but wanted food which did not diverge from what they thought fine cuisine at home. The chefs and the casinos complied, but they remained on the map.

It is, furthermore, surprising, how many chefs who began in the best reviewed spots choose or were forced to continue in fields where the kind of food that sets foodies on fire has no importance, even though they began to work “on the map”.

What does matter? A location which will force you to meet your potential and a career path chosen to lead you first to exceptional technique through management skills as you rise through the ranks.

That means a place where you learn – a place which will force you, even when you resent it, to reach and surpass your limits.

A Japanese saying states, “The hardest steel is forged on the hottest fire.” You as a future chef should be seeking that heat. Here is what (I think)  will serve you best.

1)      Professionalism. A professional chef in a professional kitchen. Some professionals are visionaries, but a lot of visionaries are not professional. Professionalism is a broad term which covers everything in the work place including standards of safety and cleanliness, food storage, staff relations, accounting and much more beyond what stands on the menu.

2)      A demanding environment with unflinching standards of excellence in all aspects of production and management which will require of you not only what you know but will force you to rise above your current level of skill and knowledge.

3)      An exacting chef who will not be kind when you do not rise to his expectations and will let you know why and how to improve your performance, preferably without screaming at you.  These chefs usually leave behind a trickle of disgruntled employees who did not make the grade, so be skeptical of anyone who criticizes a chef in a previous position, but years later also show their alumni moving into highly successful careers.

4)      A kitchen located in a  competitive geographic location with a demanding and uncompromising customer base, where you have access to inspiration and comparison nearby. If this is not possible for your first position, choose one whose standards are recognized, so that you can market them when the time to move on  comes.

5)      A “heads down” kitchen culture offering enough challenges to promise at least a minimum of a year of growth, preferably more. Bonus: a kitchen with a history of promoting promising and performing staff up through the ranks.

6)      A restaurant whose ownership and management  are committed to the entirety of their property from  kitchen through the front door. This includes good front of the house management and well integrated production and services models.

7)      A proven track record. Sometimes. It is not a sure thing, but someone who has been around for a while is often an indication of a very desirable working location (with the caveat that time may also bring complacency and a stale component to a kitchen’s culture.)  Some well established kitchens have a custom of assisting their staff in their next jobs.  Some of my past clients have assisted their most promising cooks in finding stages in Europe, Asia or exceptional American restaurants.  Properties belonging to groups like Relais & Chateaux frequently exchange staff.

8)     Rather than “cutting edge”,  a red herring, look for a kitchen that will enforce perfection in the basics, which you will eventually apply to your own cutting edge cuisine after enough practice.  The “latest” cuisine is often not going to mean anything in a few years. Many cooks who hitched their wagons  to “fusion” ten years ago found they had to make a focus shift when that category went from the top of the foodie list to somewhere in the “oh that stuff again” category. Liquid nitrogen is fascinating, and there is surely a course available in it, or you can stage at a kitchen offering it, but we have no idea if the public will give a fox’s ear for frozen wasabi balls when you are ready to be a sous chef. (Note to recent graduates: You are not sous chefs. You are not chefs. You are cooks and journey men now, which will make you great when your time comes.)

9)  A non static environment. That a kitchen requires command of the basics does not mean that them menu is poured in concrete.  The menu should change frequently, new items should be tested and offered.

10)  Culinary integrity/ integrity of product. A location where the chef and ownership, if different, are committed to using top quality product.  It does not have to be organic or local, although dealing with product from dirt to plate is a powerful education,  but the best learning kitchens use local purveyors and choose flawless produce. Working with quality determines your standards.  Any kitchen using premixed product will deprive you of the chance to develop  some skills.

11) A kitchen without prejudices or extreme ideologies: Not racial or sexual or food related. Whatever restricts the adventure of food and recognition of quality limits you.  Some ideologies – sustainable food culture for example – indicate positive work environments. Others are limiting. A vegan or raw restaurant early in your career can paint you somewhat into a corner which will cost you time to escape.  Start broad and narrow your choices as you learn more.

Many of the chefs you want to work for will be recognized or famous. They are well known because they require culinary rigor of their staff, who represent them with the highest performance. If you can secure a position with David Kinch or Daniel Boulud, take it, keep it and never look back. But do not discount those great culinarians who have not expended energy or PR money for media.   Not all of the chefs in the foodie canon are chefs you should want to work for. In other words, the criteria of well known, celebrity and flash miss the point. Celebrity and job desirability are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. Have you heard of Cal Stamenov?  Look him up. You should be so lucky. (sorry Cal). There are more where he came from.

What should the applicant have written? I am a recent graduate and know that what I have learned is only the beginning of my career. I seek a location with standards of quality and professional rigor challenging the kitchen to achieve and surpass what they believe to be the height of their abilities. I know that the next step is the cornerstone of what I hope to be a long and steep climb to a satisfying career.

Quality will get you where you want to go. Not the food section.