Walkin’ On The Line: A Rookie’s First Night on a Restaurant Line

When I started on this whole chef apprentice’s journey, I knew sooner or later the whole unionized job environment was going to have to end. So I went and got a job at real, honest to goodness restaurant.

While it’s true that while working at Co-op, I did learn a fair bit of the basics. However, it was about a week into classes at Chef School that I knew there was so much that I needed to learn, and there was no way I could ever hope to learn them in a kitchen that didn’t even have a stove top. So with much encouragement from more experienced colleagues and the well wishes of my now former co-workers, I set off to find a job in a restaurant kitchen.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What the fuck are you thinking?!” 

Yes, I know. The world of restaurant cooking is for the young twentysomething…yadda yadda yadda, crazy shit, blah blah blah. Trust me, I’ve heard the stories (no, I didn’t bother reading Bourdain’s book). And when I set out to be a chef, I mentally prepared myself for the crap that was to come. But where was I to find this opening to get into a restaurant?

Lucky for me, I have made some connections. While some turned out empty, one of my mentors got me into the door at a recently opened Spanish tapas restaurant in town, where an old co-worker of his was now one of the sous chefs.

I had the standard interview with the executive chef, and less than 48 hours after finishing writing the first year final exam I would be starting my new job. I still don’t know how that connection did it, but well, it somehow miraculously happened. Maybe it’s my sparkling personality and fiery passion that won the chef over? Or rather I had worked at the same market as one of the sous chefs who has seen me in action? I’d like to think it’s a combination of both. Whatever it is, I got in.

Anyway, the night before I was due to start, I sat down for a couple beers with said mentor. He’s someone whom I’ve grown to deeply respect in the short time I’ve known him, and he has helped me immensely in my career so far (plus he’s bailed me out a few times during school when I contemplated throwing my hands in the air!) — plus he was one if the biggest proponents of me getting out there into the big wide world.

“Look,” he told me, as he tool a swig of his beer. “You got to be ready for anything…heck, for all you know they could start you on dish (pit).”

I kinda had a feeling that it could be a distinct possibility, knowing that I would be the lowest on the proverbial totem pole. Most of my classmates did mention they started there when they first worked in professional kitchens. I hoped that it wouldn’t be the case, but girded myself for the possibility anyway.

“Do whatever you can, help out whenever you can, and wherever you can,” He continued, “You’ve got some hard people to impress.”

I nodded, and took a drink. I was more worried about letting myself down by making a stupid, stupid mistake and also getting yelled at on my first night by one of the chefs. That would suck royally, and probably make me even more nervous. No one wants to get fired on the first night, right?

That night, I slept intermittently. Was I really ready for this jump into the world of restaurant cooking? And why on Earth would I choose a Saturday night as my first night?

The worry stayed with me, all the way up until I walked into the restaurant. Before that, I paced around nervously at a rooftop park nearby for a good two hours, while my friends tried their best remotely to keep me from losing my shit.

After a short wait the sous chef came out to greet me, happy to see a familiar face. Well, at least he’s happy to see me.

We went through the motions, and I got to meet most everyone that I’d be working with. I had deliberately gone in a little earlier, so the grand tour per se was a little more leisurely paced. But when you’re nervous, it kinda felt like forever. At the end, I was given my uniform shirt, and was told to change into it immediately before heading to the kitchen. I was already wearing a buff to cover my hair, and brought my own apron along thinking it would bring me a little luck (if not a little style!) — so the change was a snap. I took my trusty knife roll with me downstairs, and headed into the flourescent glow of my destiny.

Immediately, I was paired up with my station partner for the evening. I would be assigned to garde manger (the fancy way of saying “cold kitchen”). That meant plating up salads as well as desserts, but before that could happen we needed to make sure our station was ready to go before the dinner rush.

The first task I was given was to slice some bread for crostini. Sounds simple, right? Try doing it with a slicer that looked older than I was…and it was on a push cart. I won’t bore you with the blow by blow commentary, but let’s just say it caused a bit of a mess, and a few pieces of bread that didn’t end up being crostinis plus a massive amount of crumbs that fell to the floor. And unbeknownest to me, all while I was having a right fight with said slicer, the executive chef was looking at me.

He didn’t have a nice look to his face, so I stopped and tidied up before continuing on, hoping to avoid his steely gaze that seemed to pierce through my soul even deeper than Aprile and Leung combined.

Bullet: dodged. Sort of.

The rest of prep after the bread slicer went relatively smoothly, as my tag team partner and I walked through the remainder of the list. There were a few early tickets, the sound of the buzzing printer almost melodious (it would become background noise throughout the night), but for the first few hours it was a brisk pace.

It was about 6:30pm that the first rush finally began, and my partner duly showed me each dish as they came through. Slowly, and with a little trepidation I managed to get a plate or two done by myself to acclimatize. So far so good, I thought to myself.

And then, it happened. 7pm hit, and the tidal wave arrived. By that time I was feeling a little less stressed, but still nervous. While earlier tickets coming off the printer didn’t always have cold dishes, all of a sudden tickets were coming in hard and fast, with salads, desserts, side salads and appetizers spread across. In retrospect I think it was because many of the early seated diners were finishing their meals, while the later seatings were just starting theirs. On top of this, we were also plating canapés for a party. This convergence caused a massive tsunami that threatened to swallow the rookie and his tag team partner.

We were warned at the beginning of the service that we could potentially be caught under, and my worst fear was unfolding in front of my eyes. Scenes of myself fucking up and getting yelled at and told to leave flashed in front of my eyes, as one of the chefs jumped in to help us clear the tickets. But even as we worked like mad to get the salads and desserts out, the tickets still kept on going, the buzzing of the printer melding with the ticking clock, threatening to pull me asunder.

But then, a voice came through in my head.

This is your moment, Johnny. I told myself. Shut up, keep your head down and do as you’re told, and bang those dishes out like the fucking champion you are.

Like a Red Bull for the mind, something just clicked in my mind and all of a sudden all I heard was the tickets being called out, and like magic my hands just went to the dishes and banged out the dishes. It may have taken a little longer (and sad to say a few plates did come back), but by around 9:30pm we were back under control. The final canapés went out as the dessert orders were still coming in, but by that time we were on a roll.

By 10pm, I finally breathed for the first time in hours. The sous chef came by, and asked how I was doing. By that time I was breathless, and could barely eke a word out. I was working on adrenaline fumes by that time too, so likely words would have made no sense even if I had opened my mouth.

“So, you survived a Saturday night. Well done.” He smiled, as the other cooks nodded in agreement. I had done it. I had survived the first night of many, many more.

As we talked, one of the waitresses called me over. Puzzled, I walked over. She told me two people in the dining room were looking for me, of all people. Not any of the chefs, but me.

Who on Earth could it be? Surely it couldn’t be my folks, or anyone from my class, or any of my fellow food bloggers or even my mentor. So who?

As the waitress led me out, I was surprised by the sight of my friends James and Matt, who had seen my two nervewracked Facebook statuses before I went in, and decided to check out the restaurant (and probably to see if I was okay, most likely!) I was blown away, and thanked them for coming in…again, adrenaline fumes makes tongues tied. If I had let instinct taken over, I probanly would have bawled a little with joy. But I didn’t and I think they understood that I was a bit worse for wear to say the least.

But knowing I couldn’t step away too long, I excused myself, and went back to bang out the rest of the tickets for the evening while cleaning up the station in preparation for shut down, and filling up the mise en place for the crew coming in after us. After all, ’tis better to leave a station filled with mise than to leave it empty for the next guy, and you don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t refill the station with prep!

While I was doing that, I remembered my mentor’s advice: help out anyone who needed a hand, from dishes to prep and a few other places in between.

So being a good cook, I helped the swamped guy in dish put away plates, while running around making sure everything was neat and tidy. Being the new guy, I was keen to make that good first impression, and by and large, I think I did okay there. At least no one yelled at me. Not tonight, anyway.

Once our station was clear, I finished a last sweep of the station, and then bid te rest of the kitchen staff a good evening. Finally, at around 11:35pm I stepped out of the restaurant, and into the chilly night air.

As I crossed the street, I took a deep breath, and allowed myself a small smile. Some of the self-doubt and nerves escaped into the night as I exhaled, lifting a metaphorical weight off my mind.

I had survived the first night on a restaurant line. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest night but I survived it nevertheless. But then I was quick to remind myself; this was just night one, there is still a hell of a long road ahead on this path to greatness. But at least, for the first time in a while, I felt like I was on the right path.

So, night one is in the books — what’s next?


#ChefSchool Week 1: The Lightbulb Slowly Illuminates & Other Ironic Happenings

These last few days, frankly, has been hell.

It’s now 2:52am on Saturday morning as I begin to write this, on the first day in almost two weeks I’ve not had to work and/or class…or at least it feels like it. But last night was the first night that I finally got time (and enough lucidity) to do a little homework and go through the self-tests in our module books, and tonight I have time to write a blog post. I’d forgotten what the life of a working student was like; and this past week is a massive re-climatization to say the least.

But things in class are turning for the better — math, while still confusing as hell, is starting to make sense. Things like portion costing and other fun stuff that you wouldn’t normally associate with a chef’s work, is getting to the point where it’s starting to not scare the living daylights out of me. I’m still dreading the point where I will actually have to start remembering the formulas and the applying them in a written exam situation, but that is still a little bit of time away.

As for baking, the one thing that most cooks dread, is starting to come out of the darkness and into the light…and that leads me to today’s Greatest Moment in Irony.

Today was our baking “exam” per se — Chef Warden, for the first time, would be REALLY putting a critical eye to our finished products. In the time we had, we needed to produce an apple pie with a lattice top, a dozen cookies, and a self-created biscuit or scone recipe. Having done biscuits many times before at work, you’d think I’d be okay with biscuits, right?

Not really.

With a lot of caution and a fair bit of patience, what transpired turned out to be an excellent pie with a golden lattice weave top, a perfectly baked dozen of warm, moist chocolate chip cookies and an oversalty, baking soda-instead-of-powder biscuit that ended up falling short of the mark. I still have no clue as to what happened other than the fact that I put far too much salt in the “pinch” that I originally wanted, but still — the one thing I bake regularly, and somehow I mess it up. Now that, kids, is how you spell irony!

And for once, I didn’t overbake anything either. Another irony.

Oh yeah, and I finally started seeing our products from baking class start hitting the bakery case at the SAIT Marketplace. And I have a funny feeling that our pies will on those shelves soon, too — so come and grab one if you want, and see if you can pick out which pie is mine!

Chef School, Day 2: Those Haunting Words

“Is that raw?”

Those haunting words, spoken to me by Claudio Aprile, sneaks out of the fortress that is my subconscious and into my conscious being from time to time — none so more often when I’m cooking chicken. Or breads. Or hell, pretty much anything for that matter when I’m at work. Case in point, today at school.

Baking is NOT and has NEVER been my strongest suit. Anyone who has tasted my baking probably wouldn’t be all that impressed with the look. I’ll be the first to admit that the combination of flour and oven is kinda, sorta my kryptonite.

Of course my day had to begin with…of all things, math. Sure, conversions may LOOK easy. But try remembering formulas. I’ve not done that much math memory since grade school (thank you very much, Mr. Conlin’s Math 30 class…), and let’s be honest, I am a forgetful you-know-what. And that was just the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much more yet to come. So much of the stuff like costing that my sous chef Tino makes it sound so easy, ain’t all dat. That final exam is looming large, too; more things to worry about.

So you can see, my confidence wasn’t all that great already. At least the lunch at the Four Nines was nice, and kinda helped settle my nerves. Nothing cures the hunger quite like salmon with shrimp mousseline, served up by fellow students. But that is only short respite.

Our practical classes consist of a “lecture” portion followed by a “lab” time. While most of the stuff is relatively straightforward in the lecture portion, when the rubber soles of the kitchen clog finally hits the road in the lab, that is when things seem to go a little off the track.

Suddenly, it seemed that I was questioning every step, every move. Even on our opening item, a simple scone — something I had done a thousand times before at work — I kept questioning myself, doubting, worrying…was I going to make a mistake that would make me the Koons of the day? Especially after I had told my classmates that I had experience in not only biscuits, but yeast doughs from naan to steamed bao?

Somehow, though, I didn’t make a mistake — until it came time to bake. Using an unfamiliar commercial rotating oven, shared with 11 others, meant that even the best guesses could be wildly inaccurate. Three times, I looked at my products and thought, “maybe another rotation won’t hurt, just in case it’s still a little raw…”

And three times, that extra rotation meant overcooked baked goods. The biscuits were dry, and the bran muffin slightly too brown on the edge. Sure, there were no tunnels and the mixes were perfect, but that one last bit. That overcooking…it got me. Chef Warden isn’t Gordon Ramsay or Alvin Leung, but inside my mind, I was kicking myself as if she was both of them combined.

In the end, a few of my products were good enough to send to the Marketplace for sale. I gave myself an iota of credit, but deep down I knew I had to not try to screw up again especially come Friday, when our own modified and enhanced creations will be marked. Like the dreaded poli-sci essay in university all over again!

But tomorrow is another day. A clean slate, a fresh start, all that jazz. Fingers crossed I can do better tomorrow. For now, I’ve got some homework to do and modules to read…and perchance a good night’s sleep afterward.

Assuming I can sleep, of course.

Chef School: The Next Frontier

Well, here we are…it’s Monday night, and I’m writing this after my first day of technical training at SAIT. It wasn’t a long one and probably not the most memorable, but it feels like a new beginning nevertheless. It marks a shift from working in kitchens, to a educational kitchen setting.

But before I go on and tell you about my “exciting” first day, I want to clarify one thing about the difference between culinary school and the provincial- and federal government-funded apprenticeship program.

The apprenticeship program (the one that I’m doing now) combines working in your trade of choice (which for me is cooking) with classroom training; 10 months working with 2 months of school, each year for three years. This will culminate with two exams: one for a “journeyman” certificate, and a second for the big prize: the Red Seal, which is like the eighth badge in every Pokémon game, makes sure all bow down to your might ensures that you are recognized as a chef all across Canada, from sea to sea to sea. It’s a pretty cool prize, and plus apprentices get experience on their resume right away.

Plus for an old fart like me, it means actually WORKING and GAINING SKILLS and LEARNING HANDS-ON, not sitting in classrooms for weeks and months on end listening to lectures, labs and whatnot, and taking optional classes that for me seems like a rehash. After going through university AND broadcasting school, I can’t takes no more.

Anyway, enough of my old fart ramblings.

But my first day at SAIT certaininly brought back some memories, of waiting in line at the bookstore waiting to pay for a stack of modules (we didn’t have to get the textbook On Cooking, which was a relief since I picked up the CIA’s Professional Cooking over the holidays, a book that SAIT is going back to anyway), getting my ID card, and finding my way around the maze of buildings. It was like I was that fresh, wide-eyed UofC student, almost 15 years ago. Ah, the memories!

The moment I walked into the kitchen classroom, though, was awesome. The instructors for all three years were there (including the notorious Chef Michael Allemeier, who teaches second year), and surprise! They had cooked us breakfast! Of course, curse my luck that I decided to stop off for a latte at the Odyssey Coffeehouse after stepping off the train. But hey, when master chefs are making breakfast for you, it’s like ole Don Corleone says, “it’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

Walking around, I chatted with some of my soon-to-be classmates. It was a bit nervewracking at first (those of you who know me, know I tend to need a bit of time to find my voice in front of strangers), but what I found was am incredibly diverse group. There were folks working in chain steakhouses, chain pizza joints, and gourmet grocery stores (oh wait, that’s me!), some from the city proper and some from outside of town, with one who came all the way down from a Yellowknife bed and breakfast to do his technical training. Yes, YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES.

The chefs at work told me last week to be on the lookout for the one who doesn’t seem to know what s/he’s doing, and avoid them at all costs when it came to labs. While it’s hard to judge on Day 1, I found a passionate group of chefs who wanted to learn. Maybe they don’t have the experience as some of the second or the third years, or have worked in the calibre of restaurants one would expect (I think I caught a second/third year sporting a CHARCUT t-shirt), but still…we’re all going to be learning, and it will be a process. To borrow from Lady Gaga, “One day someone will be the Koons, but suddenly that Koons could be me.” and no, no one is living for THAT applause.

With breakfast out of the way, we were given a welcome speech from the department head, giving a general 411 on what is happening, and why one should be on time, and so on and so forth. More speeches, and it was finally time to break off into our respective classes. For the other years it meant hitting the ground running, but for us it meant a tour of the facilities with our instructors, Chef Volke and Chef Warden.

I won’t bore you with the minute details of each place just yet, but as we go along I’ll have more on those. Let’s just say the facilities are amazing; it’s any home cook’s dream come true, and a veritable playground for the culinary professional. The range of tools, ovens, stoves and the ingredients available almost brought a tear to my eye!

As for our instructors, all I’ll reveal for now is if you have been to Chop Steakhouse and had the steak bites, the person who created them is one of my chef instructors.

That’s all for now…I still kinda wish I had more photos from today, but I promise that as we go along I will have some so you can come along my journey with me.

Why I Chose To Be A Chef’s Apprentice

There is an old Chinese saying, roughly translated, that says, “It’s better to have traveled a thousand miles than to have read a thousand books.”

Not to knock on all you book readers out there, but there is a certain truth to that old statement. And when you apply it to cooking, is it better to have read a thousand recipe books or is it better to have cooked (and learned) from those same books? Surely you’d agree that the latter is probably much more rewarding, and a lot tastier.

While many of my fellow MasterChef Canada contestants have returned to their everyday lives, some have plunged head-long into their culinary dreams. While I have joined the latter group, I’m taking a different route.

I am not afraid to say it: I am not ready for prime time. While folks like Danny have opened his own food truck, Dora opening up her new restaurant, Josh and Carly burning up the Vancouver food scene, they are ready for it. I however, am not.

In my life, I’ve been known to speed through things. From the time I was in elementary school all the way to now, I’ve prided myself on being speedy. Sometimes, that is great. Other times, it’s caused me nothing but grief from teachers, my parents and even friends. Based on that, I knew that jumping headlong into the culinary world would be a disaster of epic proportions. (Plus being broke doesn’t help matters much, either.)

Above all, I have far too much learning, and too much tasting and experimenting left to do. The first thing I needed to do was to learn never to make the same mistake that got me sent home from MasterChef Canada: undercooking chicken. On the plane ride home, I vowed that the next time either of the three judges would taste my food, they will not get a pink piece of chicken (or undercooked anything for that matter). The question then popped up — where would I learn it, if I wanted to be a pro?

And that is where one Chef Troy Raugust stepped in.

When I first met him, he was the Head Chef at the newly built Fresh-to-Go Kitchen inside the Calgary Co-op in Crowfoot. By the time I met him, I was still looking for my way in the door. He hired me on the spot after talking to him, and within a few days was working in a kitchen. It’s not a completely full-fledged restaurant one, but the work involved in running it is no less intense. From preparing a fresh salad bar, to serving the line, cooking rotisserie chickens to the perfect doneness, and finally to preparing the various dishes being served, it was a lot to take in each day at work.

And somehow, after a few months of working there, I impressed him and the other Chefs enough to have him offer me the chance to be his apprentice. But truth be told, I had misgivings at first. It would mean more schooling (having graduated with a university degree and a broadcasting diploma) — but with my broadcasting career going nowhere fast, it was pretty much a no-brainer. For the second time in my life, I enjoyed what I did for work. Broadcasting is great, but it simply didn’t give me the ways to pay the bills. Cooking had always been a passion of mine, and for the first time it offered a way out of the rut.

Spurred on by my friends, I took the chance. And as they say, the rest is history.

And as I near a year working there, I’ve been blessed to have so many teachers that have been incredibly patient with me and my foibles. My time working as an apprentice showed me not just what I still needed to learn to be the culinary star that I will be, but also of what I am capable of. I’ve made mistakes seasoned chefs would consider amateurish, but on the other hands I have also dazzled those same chefs as well with the skills I do have.

But most of all, I am doing things that as recently as two years ago would never have dreamed of being able to do; like stand in front of a crowd at Stampede Park doing a demo with our new Head Chef, go back to my old alma mater William Aberhart High School and teach not one, not two but three Foods Studies classes, and wow crowds with newly acquired noodle-pulling skills at various markets around Calgary (But those are stories best left for another day.)

So in a nutshell, that is why I chose to be an apprentice. To learn, to grow and to evolve into the best chef and human being that I can be. It might sound clichéd, but it is the truth…and I’m sure as hell sticking by it!

Then, and now...the evolution continues.

Then, and now…the evolution continues.