February 17

My First Job in a Professional Kitchen (We Never Stopped Peeling Shrimp That Summer)


Contributing Writer Ivy Knight Shares Her Story About Working Her First Job in a Professional Kitchen and How the Experience Shaped Her Into the Rock-Solid Chef She Is Today.

Prior to my first job in the kitchen, I had never set foot in a professional kitchen. In fact, I’d only been in a fine-dining restaurant to eat once, and I’m not sure how high-end it was, considering Shania Twain was twanging from the speakers. I hadn’t even been able to enjoy it because I was so nervous about the bill the whole time—not because I was cheap, but because I was in my early twenties, and I was flat broke.

The chef, my soon-to-be lord and master, asked me to come in a week before I was due to start. I sat at the bar to wait for her. When she came downstairs from the second-floor kitchen to meet me, she merely introduced herself and handed me a menu, telling me to study it and that she’d see me in a week. We shook hands.

I took the menu home and studied it. I had never heard of piri piri or skordalia before. The menu was eclectic and had been ever since the restaurant opened in the late 70s by a hippie rock star and his wife. When they opened the restaurant in what had once been a livery stable in the 1800s, they were embraced by the town, who appreciated their eclectic menu that featured influences from all over and offered dishes as diverse as latkes, duck and green peppercorn pâté, nasi goreng, doro wat, cassoulet, chicken mole, ribs…

The extent of my culinary education came from Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living, and the Food Network. There was no Google in those days, so I couldn’t really delve too deeply into what the heck piri piri was. I showed up on my first day a blank slate, and the chef gave me my first job—peeling shrimp. Luckily, no quiz on the menu was forthcoming.

The kitchen in this converted (and rumored to be haunted) stable was 350 square feet, and that included the hotline, garde manger, dish pit, and pastry. Somehow, they’d even squeezed in a walk-in fridge. From that space, we’d serve 125 seats and, in summer, an additional 75-seat patio. I could not have landed in a better first kitchen. To handle service for 200 people on a Sunday brunch in July or a Friday night in August was to be forged by fire into a rock-solid cook. No one left that kitchen without the ability to whip up any number of completely disparate dishes out of practically thin air with nothing more than a sharp knife and a screaming hot cast iron skillet.

By far, the most popular menu item was the Gambas al Ajillo, shrimp cooked very quickly in a hefty glug of oil with chilies and garlic and served with a crusty baguette. We sold so many that it seemed to me that every single table that came in ordered the gambas.

So I peeled shrimp, first taking the headless thing and using kitchen shears to snip along its rudimentary spine. This served two purposes; to open up the shell and make it easier to remove and then slice open its flesh to gain access to the poop chute, so-called because this gritty tube apparently held the shrimp’s last meal. Pull out the poop chute and crack the shell off, leaving the last centimeter in place so the tail would still be attached. My first lesson in haute cuisine: classy joints serve shrimp tail on.

I peeled shrimp endlessly. We all did. Whenever there was a lull (which was practically never), we could always keep busy by peeling shrimp. In the middle of every crazy service, I moved like a high-speed Garde Manger automaton, plating Niçoise salads, frying chà giò, sprinkling peanuts on cold Thai beef salads, and racing back to the walk-in to grab more shrimp whenever the chef screamed, “Gambas!”

We never stopped peeling shrimp that summer. That was my first job in a professional kitchen, and I loved it.

– Ivy Knight


About the author

Poached is the nation's leading hospitality employment platform helping a network of over 1M hospitality professionals and 70K businesses connect over meaningful employment opportunities.

About the author

Poached is the nation's leading hospitality employment platform helping a network of over 1M hospitality professionals and 70K businesses connect over meaningful employment opportunities.