What Being a Professional Cook Is Really Like

Fresh out of College

Growing up I have always found an interest in cooking. I grew up watching my grandparents cooking or baking various things for the family which led my interest to pursue a career in culinary arts at first.

The Beginning of the End

When I first started out I was in the dish pit at an event center and I started right during grad season and I hated it but stuck through it until eventually I was promoted to cook.

At first, I really loved working at the event center I got to see a lot of shows for free and it's what peaked my interest in cooking as a career. I loved the rush of the different types of service I got to participate in.

I spent some years there before I made mention of attending school in order to upgrade so that I could further my education afterward and I was promptly let go without notice. Just like that, I was off the schedule. That should have been my first clue into the other side of the industry that not a lot of people get to see

After some time bouncing around jobs, I eventually decided to move to Vancouver to attend cooking school and went into it with only about four years cooking experience in total.

I thought I knew quite a bit at the time, but I had no idea how much more to it there actually was. I learned a lot of new concepts through cooking school and gained a vast knowledge of kitchen terminology in both French and English which at first was confusing, but comes with ease as you progress. Like with anything right?

If you have never worked in a kitchen before then expect to be judged the instant you walk in the door. How you look, dress, smell, work, and act are all criticized meticulously no matter what.

Because it was a school, the teachers were always very real to the way a kitchen actually runs in the real world so that the student would have an idea going in.

Most people assume that working in a kitchen is just like on TV where everything is perfect like on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel, but I can assure you the only show it's actually like is Hell's Kitchen

The first job I ever got after I graduated cooking school was in a pub in Vancouver on the famous Granville street, which I always thought of as Canada's strip.

The chef who hired me seemed like a really nice guy and he seemed really excited to have me on board. I worked two days before he ended up walking out and leaving me and the other line cook to finish the day alone.

They began looking for a new manager and had actually asked me if I was interested, which caught me off guard. I mean who in their right mind would want a 20-year-old kid, fresh out of school to run the kitchen in a pub with zero managing experience?

For not having any experience I think I did alright, but the stress got to me and I started drinking every day and then eventually started doing cocaine every day just to deal with the stress.

It's like the second I said yes all the previous managers' problems were now mine and I had no idea how to fix any of them. 

I began pulling away from my friends because I was busy all the time and I eventually had enough and stepped down as manager and waited till they got a new one before quitting.

I spent some time without a job which helped my drug problem a bit because I couldn't afford to party anymore. Eventually, I got another job this time where the nature of the industry would show its true colors. 

The chef at this place had a particular lack of respect for any of his employees. I was hired on the cold side, starting at $14 an hour, the going rate for the most of your time in any kitchen.

Now if you haven't worked in a kitchen before the pay scale goes like this: with school you get $14/hour, no raises and no overtime; if you don't have school, it's 12 dollars, no raises or overtime. 

For most of my time here, I was the brunch lead which was every weekend so my social life went out the window, not that I was paid enough to have one and support myself in Vancouver.

After some time of being underpaid and having loan payments begin to pile up, I was forced to take out payday loans on a consistent basis just to get by. Luckily I didn't have to spend a lot on food working in the food industry.

Eventually, I made up a story to my boss about being $50 thousand in debt in order to get some kind of a raise when we were short staffed and couldn't lose another body. I ended up being told by my manager's boss that I would get a dollar, but once I talked to my chef, I was only given 50 cents.

I immediately looked for another job and was contacted by an even worse human being by the name of Walter. When I told my boss about it, he lost it on me saying, "I just gave you a raise and this is how you repay me,"  which I responded to with, "Had I gotten the dollar I was promised in the first place then I wouldn't need a second job."

At my new job I was only with Walter for a few months of hell, but if anyone would have turned me off from cooking it would have been him. We were prepping for a wedding one day when he and the event manager began speaking in French to each other.

The discussion seemed calm for the most part before Walter switched gears before coming over to where I was standing and admiring my work and whipping my entire tray of 100 plus shrimp cocktails into the wall and shouting, "I'm fucking done!" 

Once again I had another Head Chef opportunity thrown at me that I would not take because of the last time. I always kept telling myself that it would all pay off in the end or I'll make it work somehow and be able to make a good living. Once again I could not be more wrong.

While still working two jobs, at my new job the event manager told me about a big holiday event that they put on every year and that I would need to take a week off from my other job.

They even hired a chef to help me with the prep and getting through the event. The event manager had exaggerated the time I would need to take off in her flustered way of thinking and when I relayed to my boss the days I needed off, he told me, "I don't know if we'll be able to keep you," and I responded "You're too short staffed to get rid of anyone." Nothing else was said and I showed up for a shift I wasn't going to be there for initially, only to find that I had been taken off the schedule without notice or severance.

I worked my ass off for that piece of garbage and did everything there. I did more work than he did so I lost it and threatened to sue him and the company. He promptly paid my severance, but they knew my wage, they probably could have called my bluff.

The last chef I worked for was the best, he was a British man named Benedict and I only worked with him for six months but he completely changed my outlook on cooking entirely. He was very patient with me and actually worked to help improve my skills and knowledge.

If I ever went back into cooking professionally it would be because of what Benedict taught me.

It's really disappointing that the industry takes such advantage of people with a passion. There really is no benefit to working in the food and beverage industry.

Sure you might get to travel abroad for a year or train under a Michelin star chef, but in order to make it in the industry, you have to marry it and sacrifice all of your free time to work for next to nothing for the rest of your life. 

My biggest takeaways are probably my work ethic and self-discipline are hardened to near Batman-levels... I'm just not jacked or loaded... yet! I also don't fight crime.

Overall if cooks could actually get paid living wages and work basic 9-5 (HA!) work days and get time off (time off?) regularly, weekends, holidays, sick days etc... as well as actually get paid the overtime they work, which is 80 percent of the job, then a lot of people might be more willing to stick in the industry. 

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What Being a Professional Cook Is Really Like