When I was going into my final year of college, anxious about what the future would hold, I pursued the idea of turning cooking into a career.
I enjoyed cooking enough for myself and friends, so trying it at a professional level seemed like a viable option. In retrospect, I probably should have thought it through a bit more, but I was young. And given that I live in Boston, surrounded by some of the best restaurants and chefs in the city, I began applying to job openings and landed at a top restaurant and food truck in the area. I started to unearth the pros, cons and misconceptions of working within the restaurant industry as quickly as I landed the job.
- It’s an active job. If you’re like me and you are interested in a job that gets you out of a desk chair and on your feet, being a cook is worth considering. You will spend hours on end not just on your feet, but also running through the kitchen, up and down stairs, and often carrying fish, meat, and chicken tubs of various gigantic proportions. Not to mention that working on the line means sweating over hot stoves, all the while wearing long pants and aprons. I know that, to some, that might actually sound like a con, but for people who love physically challenging work, this is actually one of the best parts of the job.
- You’ll never be bored. Many people will admit that they spend a great deal of time at work counting down the minutes until work is over, but in the restaurant industry (and especially on the line) there is rarely time to check the clock unless it’s to determine when service starts. Between food prep, setting up the line, and pushing out orders, you’ll always be busy.
- Free food. Some restaurants are more flexible about this benefit than others, but most at least offer staff meal before each service. Essentially this means that you have some high-quality cooks crafting at least one or two of your meals every day that you work. You’ll save money on groceries, that’s for sure.
- You get to work with your hands. Instead of running numbers or meetings, being a cook lets you get your hands a little dirty. A lot dirty, actually. You get to chop, sauté, plate, and so forth. During a particularly busy shift, it can feel more like a game than work.
- You get “ins” at other top restaurants. It’s an unspoken fact that restaurant owners, chefs, managers and cooks befriend one another. Whether it’s the similar hours or general sense of camaraderie, working in the restaurant industry essentially means joining a club where the benefits are free meals and open tables for you and your friends at some of the best restaurants in the city. If you go out on a Monday night with your fellow cooks, it’s more than likely that you will be seated immediately and given triple of what you actually order and several dishes that you don’t.
- It’s a high stress environment. I know that working in a restaurant might seem unimportant to the general public, but restaurant managers and owners take their job very, very seriously. Every piece of food put out, every word from a servers’ mouth, every plate containing a dish is a reflection on the head chef, owner and restaurant as a whole. That means that cooks are expected to, without fail, put seamless dishes out in a timely manner no matter how busy the restaurant is or how many other tickets come in. That pressure results in a surprising amount of stress to learn, perfect and produce dishes consistently.
- The hours are terrible. Think about where you go for a date night, on the weekend or over the holidays. People who work 9 to 5 jobs eat out when they are not working, which means cooks work almost opposite hours. Cooks should expect to work nights, weekends and holidays, and for ten or more hours at a pop. As you can imagine, that makes maintaining relationships with people outside the restaurant industry difficult. Going into work at noon and finishing up around one or two in the morning doesn’t promote an ideal lifestyle.
- Don’t expect to be paid well. The restaurant industry is rarely where people go to make big money. Even owners of successful restaurants shouldn’t expect to automatically rake in the dough, so you can imagine, a line cook is barely making enough to live off of. Unlike wait staff (who can expect to make more in the form of tips around), cooks don’t make tips. In fact, it’s often that the extent of their earnings is minimum wage or slightly more. Luckily, they work so many hours that spending money isn’t really an option anyway.
- If you’re not getting hurt, you’re probably doing something wrong. Cooks get burnt and cut a lot. Managers will urge employees repeatedly to adhere to a variety of safety rules to avoid such accidents, but they happen anyway. Hopefully and for the most part, they are minor, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt and leave scars. The mark of a well seasoned cook are scars up and down their forearm, hair missing from fingers, and cuts on their hands. Whether it’s being splashed with hot oil, grabbing the handle of a hot pan without a towel, or reaching into the steamer before sufficiently letting the air out, cooks can expect to deal with minor bumps and bruises on a daily basis.
- The on-going battle between front and back of house. As much as both cooks and wait staff try to get along, the two groups often collide. In theory, their priorities are the same – to serve delicious food in a pleasant environment. That said, members of either group are quick to place blame, especially when things aren’t running smoothly. Cooks will often be harangued when food isn’t coming out soon enough, even when it’s beyond their control. At the same time, they are expected to respond to any and all orders that front of house gives regardless of how busy they already are. Trying to please expo, front of house and client simultaneously often adds to the stress of a cook’s daily life.
- Cook and chef are the same. Many people break into the restaurant industry expecting to create their own dishes, have a say in decisions regarding the menu, and with the idea of cooking their food on a daily basis. But, the truth is, a cooks life is primarily preparing and cooking the creations thought up by the head chef. Some restaurants empower their staff to share ideas, but not at the expense of quality. Until a cook moves into the role of head chef, he or she will spend most of the time putting together food that they may or may not be passionate about. It’s more of an assembly line than it is a creative process. The goal of the head chef is to streamline a consistent product, so that every time you order the duck confit tacos they taste the same, every time.
- You need a culinary degree to cook. More and more frequently, chefs are agreeing that spending money on culinary school is a waste. Most of what a cook needs to know can be learned on the job, and without dishing out thousands of dollars for a degree that holds less and less weight. In fact, some of the most important qualities of a cook – efficiency, organizational skills, speed, the ability to listen, etc. – are ones you either have or don’t. That’s not to say that cooks won’t learn interesting or useful tactics in culinary school, it’s just that they can learn much of the same in the industry or online.
- Never trust a skinny chef. This is probably a fairly obvious one, but many of the best chefs and cooks are skinny. Eating a lot without exercising does not make a better cook than someone who practices healthy behaviors. Yes, it is important to taste the food (it’s a requirement, really), but cooks can and should exercise and make healthy choices as frequently as the rest of the general population. And, to be completely honest, working on the line is actually easier the smaller you are. Often kitchens are small and cramped, requiring safe and skilled maneuvering around fellow cooks and appliances.
- Cooks make extravagant meals at home. The truth is, if you are working more than fifty hours a week (usually much more) and getting home at one or two in the morning, you don’t have much time to spend in your own kitchen anyway. Occasionally days off will be spent experimenting in the kitchen, but even that’s not a forgone conclusion. Cooks are as busy, if not more so than other people, and will have a bowl of cereal for breakfast or a quick sandwich for lunch. That is, when they aren’t eating the staff meal.
- Cooking is glamorous. That’s not to say that it’s not a noble or good choice of career, it definitely can be, but it’s not what you see on TV. Cooks smell like food and sweat constantly, and so do their clothes. The kitchen is a loud and chaotic place where people are always moving and things are occasionally being dropped. Much of the time cooks aren’t even cooking, but are cleaning or prepping, both of which are monotonous. We’ve already gone over the hours, which are as hectic and challenging as the rest of it. In general, it’s a dirty, tiring and difficult job that isn’t always pleasant, just like any other job.Photo credit: Felipe Neves / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
So, if you think you might want to be a cook, consult this list. I certainly don’t regret my time on the line and enjoyed the learning experience, but it’s no longer on my list of potential careers. For me, the negatives of cooking professionally out-weighed the positives, enough so that I have since moved on from the restaurant industry. Like with any job, being a cook isn’t for everyone, and it’s helpful to understand the good, the bad and the ugly before putting on your apron and picking up a spatula.