I spent my summer at La Marmotte, a French fine dining restaurant in Telluride, Colorado for my culinary school externship. This opportunity gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to live and work in a mountain town. The location is a scenic small town with a backdrop of the spectacular San Juan mountains, and there is plenty to do in one’s free time, including hiking and festival-going in the summer, and skiing/snowboarding in the winter. The operation is small. The restaurant itself is beautiful, but not gigantic, and the menu combines traditional French food with American locally-sourced sensibility and special attention to seasonality. But the biggest credit to La Marmotte’s externship program was the phenomenal guidance of the executive team. Executive Chef Stefanie Smith, along with Executive Sous Chef Maggie DeMarco and Sous Chef Santiago Hernandez, put so much time and effort into creating not just job openings for externs, but a robust syllabus with educational goals, technical objectives, and opportunities for creative expression. My skills and talents were fostered in a collaborative environment that valued and prioritized my education. I now have foundational skills and killer recipes in my back pocket that I can practice and tweak for my own uses. I have expanded my understanding of the menu items, but I’ve also gained invaluable insight on how to carry myself expertly in a professional kitchen. Since my externship concluded this week, I thought it appropriate to share some of the top lessons learned during my first four months in a fine dining establishment.
1. Do the Prep
I am a planner. I used to think preparation meant that if I did my homework, bought expensive knives and fancy gadgets, and studied the recipes, that I would be all set for a picture perfect service. What I’ve learned during my externship is that preparation is key, but perfection is not. It’s not a foolproof guarantee that nothing will go wrong. Preparation, if executed right, allows for adaptability without sacrificing quality. Service will not always go well. You will burn product, you will run out of certain ingredients, and you will at times be overwhelmed with the number of tickets. But preparation will save you time and energy when you’re multitasking. The best way for externs and new cooks to look at preparation is to eliminate distractions. What tasks can be done prior to service so that when you have no time to spare, you are not juggling secondary or frivolous tasks? Having your station organized and properly set up with backups, sanitizer water, extra side towels, a clean plating area, and mise en place arranged for easy access and efficient flow of service all go a long way when the kitchen is busy and there’s a hard push to get everything out on-time. All of this can be arranged prior to the dining room opening. Advocate for yourself if you need extra time for setup, halting prep projects as needed. Come in earlier if you need to, but just run it by your chef and get the time approved. You should be compensated for work done to ensure the restaurant’s success.
2. If You Can’t Stand the Heat…
No matter how many times you read Kitchen Confidential or binge-watch The Bear, the machismo of a toxic kitchen has long expired. Anger is not a sustainable conflict-resolution strategy. Yes, anger demands attention and raised voices can elicit fear and an immediate response from your team, but over time, they will lose respect for you, respond in anger, or quit. It is much more beneficial to create a positive workplace that fosters teamwork. If you’re overheated, tired, or overly-stressed, take a moment, compose yourself, and then communicate clearly and respectfully. It will serve you much better in the long run. Also, learn how to apologize. Losing your temper is likely inevitable, but how you handle the follow-up is equally as important. Learn from conflict and discuss ways to course-correct for the future. Practicing self-care off the clock will go a long way to preventing meltdowns.
3. "Hands, Please!"
Learn how and when to ask for and accept help. This is a fine line to walk, because you want to be independent, but not at the expense of the guests. If doing it alone will delay the meal, diminish the quality of the food, or otherwise hinder a positive impression of the restaurant, swallow your pride, and just ask for help, whether it be extra hands on plating, firing the next ticket for you, buying you time to reset your station, grabbing more product for you, or demo-ing a technique. You will not learn if you are not willing to admit that there are things to learn. Conversely, understand when to be confident. Ask questions, but do not ask questions to which you already know the answers. Give yourself time to recall information. If it’s a question of where something is, look with your eyes, then ask. If you’re asking for feedback or validation, do so outright, don’t feign ignorance for praise. Stand by your abilities and know that part of learning is recognizing your own growth. Furthermore, understand the benefits of mentorship. Find mentors wherever you can. People come to this industry with all sorts of lessons to share, so keep an open mind and learn what you can from your team. Don’t ever assume you have nothing to learn from a colleague. Be sure to pass that kindness along in turn to those you mentor or train.
4. Market Yourself
Learn how to network! This industry is smaller than you think, especially in the fine dining world. Make professional friends. Practice your conversational skills within these spaces, know who is active in the community, and get to know people’s strengths. Introduce yourself to wholesalers, vendors, industry leaders, and chefs. Show enthusiasm for the work being done. By doing so, you will form meaningful work relationships while also being in the know about local news, events, trends, innovations, and opportunities for partnerships. Champion each other’s work and collaborate when you can. Take up space and be confident about what you can bring to the table.
5. Set the Table
The Culinary Arts are still fairly new to me. I started as a modest home cook, and really only began to work professionally two years ago, and even that was part time. I’m still paying my dues and working my way up to be a credible presence in this industry. But what I can say thus far is that one’s education truly is what they make of it. This goes for culinary students, line cooks, head chefs, and really anyone else in this industry. The content is endless and you can’t possibly master it all. But you can trust your instincts, follow your passions, and carve out a lane for yourself. For my fellow newcomers, while at work, this means that if there are prep tasks you of which you want to take ownership for the sake of experience, request them. If you want to work towards a particular station, make that known to your team. If you want to learn more about the business workings of a chef, request to be in those meetings or at least get recaps of such decision-making processes. Set up field trips or shadowing opportunities for yourself. Volunteer to prepare family meal. Don’t shy away from responsibility. Come in early and be willing to stay late. I know this can be tough and at times exhausting, but exposure often means being in proximity of the action as much as possible. Create the educational experience you want for yourself. Vocalize your passion and willingness to learn. The skills can be taught; The determination cannot.