The road to becoming a chef – part two
Becoming an apprentice chef – the list of working conditions doesn’t exactly read like a career you would want to pursue – hot, busy, high pressure, antisocial long hours, standing all day, minimal pay. You must be crazy to go ahead on this path. My Dad certainly thought so – for him education was currency, himself having not had the chance to be educated beyond primary school in rural Italy.
I couldn’t be convinced otherwise though. I had completed some work experience both through school and on school holidays and something about being a chef just felt right. So post school, 2002 I started to look for my first place of employment.
I had a few misses from job trials, my confidence waning as I heard nothing from yet another employer. I did start to question if this career path was perhaps the best choice for me. The tables turned though in my new approach of sending out resumes to city restaurants and just seeing what happened. They didn’t have jobs advertised but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
So began the job offer that shaped who I am as a chef. I still remember my interview – I wasn’t sure if this chef game was for me just yet and I spoke of possibly giving it a year and then looking into study again if it didn’t work out. Here I am over fifteen years later and yes I have done further study but not in the pathway I had envisaged.
The head chef offered me a trial – Monday to Friday 9-5. He was also going to pay me. This was certainly a different trial to the others I had been on. I didn’t realise he was hedging his bets and not signing me up straight away but also giving me the chance to see if I liked it as well. After the first week I was offered an apprenticeship at Il Centro Restaurant and Bar – an Italian restaurant that sat 120 guests and served fine dining Italian cuisine.
At the time my head chef was a formidable French man. Equal parts passionate, talented and intimidating he introduced me to life in professional kitchens. I don’t remember too much of my very early days, I dare say I was too scared to do anything but focus on what I was told!
Stepping into this world was like a baptism of fire. Professional kitchens are hot, busy, exhausting and exhilarating. You are constantly pushed to deliver right now. Time is measured in seconds and minutes not hours and days. You need that eye fillet? Two minutes chef. Risotto? Yours in thirty seconds.
At the beginning I couldn’t imagine getting the hang of any of it let alone being as confident as the older apprentices and chefs. I was lucky though in that my Head Chef saw something in me. He nurtured my interest and guided me to the shortcuts to success. I say shortcuts in that my notebook became my best friend. Garnishes for the plates? Write it down. How many portions I need? Write it down. Running out of an item? Write it down. So all of a sudden it began to make sense. I could do this. I don’t know if it was protocol but I asked him for feedback. How did service go? What did I do wrong? What mistakes did I make? How could I make it better? I don’t know if he knew what to think but he took it in his stride and helped develop my training and skills guiding me – sometimes via a stern word (yelling) and sometimes just with patience and care.
I’m not going to lie, there were moments when I cried. There were moments when I wondered what on earth I was doing becoming a chef. Learning how to cook cuts of meat that customers are paying $35+ for is intimidating. We had three different steaks, three different types of fish and usually 2-3 other meats cook on the menu and they all had to be delivered at the same time for the docket at the right amount of cooking. I never thought I would succeed. Sometimes my chef would swap around what I had put down on his board and ask me to tell him again what was what to test me. You had to be confident in your food. You had to not hesitate in what you were capable of.
My skills though started to flourish. I learnt how to back myself and trust my instincts. There we times though I stumbled and put up items I knew weren’t the best but I was in a hurry, time was ticking and the tables were waiting. Those were the times when I was inevitably pulled up in spectacular fashion. It was nothing to have your meal thrown in the bin told to start again. If I wouldn’t pay for it or wouldn’t be impressed with it why was I putting in front of a customer?
Harsh though these lessons were they taught me so much about myself and what I was capable of. If I could handle this level of pressure everything from here would surely be just another moment in my life. This is not to say it didn’t take its toll. It was hard work; many times I wondered what the hell I was doing. But being a chef is a funny roll of the dice – you almost hate that you love how much you thrive in this environment.
Learning how to transform raw ingredients into beautiful dishes was my passion realised. Service in a busy city restaurant pumps your adrenalin. The docket machines sound indicates another set of dishes is required despite the full docket rack in front of you. Waiters come and collect dishes almost as fast as you can present them. Working in a large team meant communicating in direct, short sharp instructions. Yes Chef is out of your mouth more often than any other sentence during the day.
In kitchens you start your career peeling the potatoes and vegetables, washing lettuces and oysters, portioning pastas and packing away sauces. After three to four years you’re cooking the prime cuts of meat and fish, you’re finishing the sauces, you’re guiding others with your knowledge. You have graduated from the simplest skills to cooking some of the most delicious meals you have ever tried.
(Proud to be a Chef Competition Sydney)
Then there are the culinary competitions. My head chef was a part of the competition scene and took great pride in entering us into these and testing our skills against other establishments. Days off and mornings or afternoons before out shifts became dedicated to perfecting our dishes. Imagine cooking two courses, four plates of each, in an allocated time, by yourself, with the public able to walk past and look and comment. It is intimidating enough being in the kitchen you work in let alone on a public stage. Time and again though I entered competitions and improved my results. I zoned out those looking at me and focused on the dishes I was making. It taught me how to stay calm despite the pressures and how to believe in what I was doing.
The culmination of these experiences was realised in two large competitions. One was a national competition for a chance at a spot in the international competition Bocuse D’Or. The other was a three course, 12 portion competition completed in a pair with a waiter to serve and a table set and decorated. Both had high stakes as the other entrants were from well-established restaurants. Both had different skills at stake. For Bocuse we had to make two dishes – one fish and one meat. The fish required three traditional garnishes for a mirror platter as with the meat. The fish and meats were my Sous Chefs part I was the garnishes. I was fortunate enough to learn how to work with sea urchin and abalone, to be able to cut delicate shapes and learn how to progressively set a jelly. Hours and hours of time went into perfecting these dishes. It was intense, creative and amazing. We didn’t make it past the national level but we certainly did our best.
(Bocuse D’or practice)
The second competition marked the end of my apprenticeship. Newly qualified and only 20 I entered this last competition with another newly qualified chef and we created a delicious three course meal. Our upper hand was that we thought we had three hours to complete the courses so had been training on this time frame. On the competition day we discovered it was actually four. We could breathe. We made sure not to become complacent in this new time frame and used it to execute the dishes with more finesse and attention to detail. Our efforts paid off as we took the trophy and the prize money. What better way to herald the end of my training as an apprentice and transition to qualified chef than to hold that trophy with pride.
(Jimmy Sawyer Trophy Competition)
When I started as a chef I knew how to cook at home. I used to make family meals and it was nothing to bake and create. Becoming an apprentice took me back to the basics and building blocks of cooking. For four years I tested my knowledge, honing the basic cuts to neat perfection, learning how to balance and season dishes, becoming addicted to seeing the glossy shine of a well made sauce. My hands started to produce all manner of dishes and items as if they always knew what to do. Soon it became second nature to cut, whisk, fry and grill. I had done my time. I was truly a chef no longer an apprentice.
Following my nearly four years at Il Centro it was time for a break. I wanted to see the world and relax for a little bit. I was nearly 21 and had spent the last few years working, working and more working. So I packed my backpack and embarked on a Contiki tour which evolved into side countries and a month in Italy with my Dad. In this time I could reflect of all I had achieved, embrace international cuisines and enjoy the fruits of my labour. Life as a chef was just beginning.