January 17

The Eight Essential Traits

I’ve always loved the number 8. I feel like it is a powerful number that no one recognizes its relation to ∞ on its end. These next eight traits are ones we as chefs and line cooks must adopt into our lives immediately and represent continually for all of time. Culinary schools won’t educate you on this. Chefs will yell at you for not realizing these things yourself. Co-workers will secretly judge your dense inability to miss these crucial cues of becoming a culinary professional.

Chef Vagabundus’ Eight Essential Traits:

You must realize you suck. We all burn things. We all fuck up a knife cut. We all have way more to learn than any of us will ever realize. Accept that you have a much longer path ahead to grow and you won’t seem like that shithead coming out of culinary school that thinks they know everything and can do any job. We, the already industry-seasoned chefs and cooks, can’t stand that person. Learn humility and how to just say “Yes, Chef.”

Have you ever heard the phrase “fifteen minutes early is thirty minutes late”? It couldn’t be truer in our industry. We don’t aspire to be rich chefs. The idea of “rich chefs” is nearly an oxymoron in the finest of ways. Show up early because you enjoy having a nice workday compared to a full out sprint start to finish. You can set up comfortably; get the tools you need; and be started on the project before you really ever were scheduled. Chefs notice and respect this because it shows that you enjoy being there and strive to be the best in your work that you can.

Look, we all enjoy talking. Sometimes you just need to know when to shut the hell up. If you are the only one talking in the kitchen, you shouldn’t be talking. You probably should just refrain from it in general until at least a few months on the job. Focus on what you are doing. Focus on making your mise en place fucking perfect. Focus on learning what the stations around you are doing once your prep list is banged through because you were early to work. The more you focus the more you will learn.

Staying rested is hard. Professional cooking is damn near an endurance sport done day after day. Our hours are long and strenuous. Our natural tendency is to go close the dive bar across the street with our co-workers after clocking off. More cooks have trouble keeping up on laundry more than most adults. Stay rested enough, avoid hangovers, and maybe throw in some calisthenics, have a nice stretch or a nice brisk jog every few days. Your body will thank you in the long run.

“Yes, Chef.” That’s all that your chef wants to hear. Stop making excuses, stop over explaining things, and stop talking so damn much.

Our industry would be obsolete if it wasn’t the human’s natural tendency for pursuing curiosity. In the beginning, you should ask all applicable questions you can. You are a sponge – so soak it up! Then, as the fundamentals become ingrained, start pushing your boundaries. Try new flavor pairings just to see what you find. Don’t ever question the why; question the why not. Cooking is limitless and you’re blind if you fail to see it.

You are going to get your ass chewed out. One day sooner or later, you will be put in your place because it’s the natural tendency of a kitchen. Embrace this! This criticism may be the harshest things you are ever told, but we tell you this to make you better. Be willing to take the beat down and then stand right back up with the goal to do better. I know it’s fucking cliché but the point is simple: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Unless you really just aren’t cut out for kitchen life.

Not just any type of humor – think Cards Against Humanity™ sickly twisted and absurdly offensive. Never in my life have I been sexually harassed more by both women and men. Never in my life have I wept tears of laughter more. Never in my life have I wanted to vomit in my mouth from what I just heard… except for my life spent working in kitchens. At 16, I think it’s what sold me when that attractive late-20’s waitress could talk about the filth she would do to me if I were two years older. Over a decade later – this industry has ruined me from being able to maintain reasonably appropriate public conversation. Embrace the fact that we say fucked up shit and it’s because we can – chefs are dirty pirate-mouthed scoundrels.

Listen, I know I said you don’t learn this stuff in culinary school – and arguments could be made that you do. You don’t. These are real-world industry concepts you have to absorb over long periods of time and often multiple jobs. Sure they might imply that you need these things, but once you actually have the noon to midnight shifts five days a week you’ll see the amplified expectations I am expressing here. It’s a whole different ballgame when the employer starts paying you (with these expected traits in tow) versus a chef coddling you through the course because you wheeled in buckets of cash for tuition (which they would like to keep by getting you through school).

I still haven’t mastered these myself. That’s the real joy of cooking – constant growth, exploration, education, and maturation that is necessary for such a wild industry as this.


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