180 Degrees…and I Don’t Mean Fahrenheit

Editor’s Note: Please welcome our newest contributor, the Omaha, Nebraska-based forkitude. A former high-powered businesswoman, forkitude is now trying her hand at the world of culinary school and restaurant work, and we’re excited to hear all the inside details.

Goodbye business suit; hello chef’s coat. After eight years in finance, a few of which literally seemed like Armageddon, I have made the giant leap, the 180-degree spin into the culinary world.  Food has been a passion of mine for quite some time. They say you are doing what you were meant to do when 5 hours have passed and it seemed like 5 minutes.  (This is how I burn the croutons, by the way.)

If one thing is for sure as both a financial advisor and as a chef, your head must be in the game and you need some tough skin. I can still picture a veteran, white-haired financial advisor walking the hallway in the midst of the market crash of 2008, his face a white color to match his hair. That was trial by fire. This is my new trial by fire. I will share some of the translations from the business world to the culinary world as well as some observations I have made in my short time on the line. I hope you can laugh with me, and maybe you will be inspired to follow your passion too. Take a hike, pantyhose and heels. I didn’t really ever need you since I am already 6’0” tall. But thanks anyway for helping me rock the business skirt suit. We had some good times.

So, just a few weeks in, here are some of my most valuable lessons about restaurant work so far:

  • Salt is your best buddy. Sodium chloride has been receiving quite the beat down in the news lately. I completely agree that processed foods should reduce sodium.  Perhaps a bag of potato chips should not make your eyes shrivel and make you feel like the Michelin man. However, salt is a chef’s ally. Proper seasoning is vital or the food tastes bland. Who wants to spend $34 for a plate of bland food? I’m guessing not you. A very small amount of our salt intake comes from the proper seasoning of fresh food. So deal with it. Don’t knock chefs for putting salt in your food. And don’t knock financial advisors when they try their best to give you advice without knowing the future. Everyone needs a little seasoning and bit of advice every now and then.
  • Mise en place is a way of life. Mise en place – French for “put in place”. This means get your shit together BEFORE service.  Prep, arrange, organize, slice what needs to be sliced, peel what needs to be peeled. Prepping during service? Epic fail. You will sink like the Titanic. Much like prepping for the huge prospect meeting, get your shit together before the big show or you will look like a complete idiot. Not only do you need all of the necessary ingredients, but your mind must be ready. Get in the right state of mind. If your mind is somewhere else, you will screw up. Trust me. One more thing: your mise en place is not a snack bar. Don’t eat your work, or other people’s for that matter.

  • Don’t cut yourself. It sucks. You need all ten fingers and there will be times when you need fifteen fingers, so you can’t afford to lose one. If you chop off the tip of your finger, be sure not to bleed all over your mise en place. Also, fryer oil that has been heated to 350 degrees will fry your skin. Just saying. Along these same lines, you have to have the balls to get close to hot and sharp things. Maybes and half efforts don’t exist; you have to commit to what you are saying and doing. “Maybe you should move your money here” does not work too well, and the same rules apply to the kitchen.
  • You need good tools. So don’t be a tool, get a good knife. After your first professional, sharp knife, you will most likely have developed a new cutlery obsession as well. Yes, you have to purchase your own knives in a professional kitchen. Properly sharpened knives make prep work a breeze. Well, maybe not a breeze, but definitely better than hacking at your ingredients with a dull, cheap ass knife.
  • There is no crying in baseball. Don’t whine. It will annoy everyone. If you are in the weeds, ask for help. Whining about it wastes precious time. I can recall a particular Friday in 2008 as a financial advisor when my colleagues and I were not sure if our company would be around on Monday. What sort of prospect would want to do business with a company who may or may not exist past the weekend? The answer to that question is put your head down and work until someone tells you differently. Don’t whine, just do.
  • Don’t screw up or it will likely appear on opentable, urbanspoon, yelp, or the local paper. When people write a restaurant review online they will provide the date of their experience and will normally talk about the specific dishes they ate. If you are the dumbass that forgot to include a vital part of the dish (because your mental mise en place was “out of place” that day) or you did not season properly, it will be out there for everyone to see. Don’t look like an idiot. Everyone wants to know who the idiot was that accidentally sold a quadrillion or so shares of Proctor and Gamble on May 6, 2010 that caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to plunge 998 points. I sure would like to know—I was sitting there watching it while I wet my pants. Don’t be that guy.
  • Celebrate, but not until the sun comes up. I remember some huge wins as a financial advisor. But to be successful, you have to move on from a win just like you have to move on from a loss: consistently. There will be days of glory when everything went right, Chef gave you a pat on the back, and you feel good. Just remember if you celebrate all night, at some point you will have to wake up in the morning and do it all over again. Savor the wins, but don’t belabor the point.

I stepped into the professional kitchen with zero experience. If cooking is not your passion, find what is and do it. You will always regret the risks you never take. Don’t give yourself permission to do less than you know you can do. And just because you have done something you dislike for so long doesn’t mean you can’t do something else. How are you sure you can’t do something unless you give yourself a chance to fail at it? I have gone 180 degrees, but I am wondering if it wasn’t really just a 360…

Previously on ES:
Putting It All On the Line
100 Things a Restaurant Patron Should Never Do

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  • Kerry July 7, 2010  

    Welcome forkitude! Looking forward to your perspective from Homaha

  • Nee Nee July 7, 2010  

    Can’t wait to read more, Forkitude! I think we need more press about the sodium difference between fresh food and processed. Seasoning fresh food, hell yes!

  • Maids July 8, 2010  

    hells yeah on the salt point. I’m trying to cut out more and more of the processed stuff this year, but I salt the hell out of my freshly cooked food. And it tastes damned good. Helps keep my blood pressure high enough so that I don’t pass out. I’ve been told by my doctors to salt my food liberally.

  • erica July 8, 2010  

    i miss cooking for a living so bad 🙁

  • forkitude July 10, 2010  

    thanks for the welcome…and there will definitely be some conversation about ridiculous misunderstandings that are floating around out there about food. cooking for a living works your brain and your body (i am sore from last night’s beating and have to do it again in a couple of hours!) but it is great. 🙂

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