Good evening, friends and neighbors!
In recent years, there has been much debate about the idea of internships, particularly the unpaid variety. The concept has always been that a young person (usually a student) would work for free in order to build knowledge and experience. Various other intangible benefits tend to be mentioned as well- "looks good on a resume," "foot in the door for a paying job," "building connections/ networking opportunities," and so on.
In cooking, an unpaid internship is sometimes called “doing a stage” (pronouced ‘staj.’) For a young culinarian, staging can be rewarding, or even life-changing, offering opportunities to learn from experienced chefs, travel, and get a feeling for the kitchen life from another point of view.
Although staging still happens in parts of America and Europe, today’s economic realties sadly make it impractical for most students, or even chefs who would host them. In some cases, a staging student might be paid in room and board, or even stay for a while under the chef’s roof. Unfortunately, everyone has bills to pay, the need to support themselves, and places that will offer room and board for labor are very much the exception, not the rule.
No matter what you do, you’ve gotta feed the monkey.
Despite all this, there are those who keep offering low/non-paying kitchen jobs in exchange for experience and a few lines on a resume CV. There is a litany that usually accompanies these offers as well:
“It’s how we all started back in the day!”
“Everyone starts at the bottom.”
“You should consider yourself lucky you HAVE a job! Lots of unemployed out there, you know!”
What it does NOT mean is accepting brutality, cruelty, and exploitation.
Those who support the older, “traditional” way sometimes make mention that the environment is made intentionally cruel and unbearable so that the student will acquire a “thick skin” and will endure the punishment and seek out opportunities to learn on their own, thereby displaying grit, determination, and self-motivation.
But there is a big difference between building someone up and crushing their soul.
Obviously, a student should be endowed with a good sense of humility. It doesn't matter how well you did in school, or WHERE you went to school- you are NOT too good for washing dishes, mopping floors, and peeling potatoes. In some of the very best kitchens in the world, the ones that crank out people that become the worlds great chefs, the only words a student needs to know are "Oui, Chef!”
This means that student must learn to take and accept criticism. A student must learn that, in a kitchen, they are only as good as what they can produce. They must understand that listening and watching will teach you more than running your mouth.
It means learning to deal with people who may or may not like you.
It means learning the razor-thin line between success and failure, between Pride and Shame.
These statements ARE technically true, but there are good reasons to hesitate when deciding whether or not (and where) to do a stage.
You don’t have to look far in books or on the internet to find older chefs reminiscing about their days as stagers. There are recurrent themes that sadly tend to fall in to the vein of negative kitchen culture I had described in a previous post- absurdly long hours, drudge work, physical/sexual harassment, hazing, bullying, physical/verbal/emotional abuse, and so on.
Some people defend these practices, insisting it’s “part of the life,” “traditional,” or necessary to “building a thick skin.” There is a notion that you can’t become a great chef unless you have starved, been whipped with towels dipped in hot fat, or had a chef scream in your face and berate you in front of the whole kitchen for screwing up a sauce.
I agree that the ability to tolerate and endure unpleasant tasks is an absolute necessity. I also agree that self-motivation, eagerness to learn, and determination are vital, and demonstrate the unconquerable spirit needed to lead and manage well.
Implicit in this statement, however, is that such opportunities will be available in the first place, and that the student will be able to access them- even if it’s watching and learning how someone else sets up their station, or the grillardin pulling the student aside to show him how to clean and maintain the grill. Successful learning is accomplished only when you have a student willing to learn, and a teacher willing to teach. A boy who spends month after month in a room peeling potatoes will learn little about working in a restaurant, and EVERYTHING about the fastest way to peel a potato.
If you are in a position where you can afford to do a stage or internship, find someone you admire and work under them. Failing that, find a place making a cuisine you love and work there. Don’t settle for just anyone that’ll offer you “experience.” If you really want to learn something, you can acquire experience virtually anywhere. Make it worth your time and effort- the first steps on the road are tough already. You don’t need to make them tough, long, and fruitless on top of it.
Go show those potatoes.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
This last week has been exciting and stressful for me on a number of different levels- personal and professional, across both my day job and the BHB. It gets so easy sometimes to get "lost in the noise-" become so overwhelmed that you feel like your are doing everything, when you are really doing nothing. Nothing, at least, toward what you really want to do.
Especially during times like this, it's tempting to want to compare yourself to others. It's easier to give in to envy and anger and self-doubt than to confront your challenges sometimes.
Recently, I've been able to pull out of a bit of a slump.
First though, we're going to talk about my friend Carrie.
Carrie is a friend of mine and another baker who graduated culinary school about the same time I did. She is an extremely gifted baker and cake decorator. One of the teachers at the school put in a recommendation for her to work at a well-known local cake studio. She did extremely well, and through another teacher, she is now spending her second spring and summer working in a restaurant in the French Alps, and is currently vacationing in Spain.
Carrie is a good friend of mine. She leaves my decorating skills in the dust.
She works in a fascinating place that I have never been to, surrounded by natural splendor, loves the people she works with, and the work she does.
I envy the HELL out of her.
For someone like Carrie, it's easy to look at her accomplishments, grumble, kick the dirt and mutter that she got a bunch of lucky breaks. She knew her teachers, her teachers knew the right people, they got her an in, etcetera.
This kind of thinking does Carrie, and talented people like her, a MASSIVE disservice. What's more, it demonstrates an incredible consequence of comparing yourself to others- defeatism.
The old saying goes that "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's not so much how the coin lands for you, it's being ready to do what's needed to make EITHER way the coin lands work out best for you- and that takes skill, planning, dedication, and hard work.
Yes, Carrie DID get in her current position through a string of connections. Untold, however, is that Carrie:
- worked several years in a restaurant.
- worked very hard at culinary school, demonstrating impressive skill and knowledge that earned the admiration of her teachers and fellow students.
- showed enough character and determination that her teachers felt that a recommendation for her would not reflect badly on them.
- worked/works long and hard at these jobs to demonstrate that their faith is not unfounded, and making her an asset to her employers.
- made numerous sacrifices and hard decisions in all aspects of her life.
To write all of that off and just say she was "lucky" is insulting and, frankly, bullshit. Carrie was prepared, so when the opportunities came, she could reach out and seize them. She earned what she got.
In comparing ourselves against others, we rarely take into account everything a person has done that we HAVEN'T seen, or isn't obvious. You can't know the stories and motives behind every persons life.
Which is why it's vital, if you are going to succeed in anything, DON'T COMPARE YOURSELF.
You have to follow your own plan and your own motives.
You have to make your own luck.
As I said before, I've been having a tough week. Thoughts and worries about how to move my career forward, how to build and improve on the BHB, what my next steps should be, and so on whizzed around my head like angry hornets.
Plenty of friends, family, and other well-meaning folks offered advice, suggestions, resources, connections, and more, but all of it seemed to be help for Step 3, 4, 5,7, and 12 when I wasn't even sure what Step 1 should be.
I was lost in the noise and burying myself in daily minutiae, stagnating.
I compared myself to other apparently successful people, grumbling and envious.
Then, one night, after a talk with my girlfriend, I realized what my problem was-
Mise en place.
I may or may not have covered this before, but "mise en place" is French for "everything in place." In the kitchen, it is having all of your ingredients right in front of you, in the forms you need them, in the ORDER you need them, before you even think of mixing anything together.
Mise en place is the motto, the creed, and religion of the kitchen.
The mise en place for my life was utter crap.
I didn't know what Step 1 should be because I HAD no steps. Everything seemed so monumental and difficult, because I was looking at it as ONE BIG HONKING THING.
I looked up, saw the whizzing thoughts and worries around my head, and made them line them. I put them in priority order, and just looked at one thing at a time.
You know- some of the decisions I'll be making still look really damn worrying and scary, but they are a scary I can manage now.
Once you organize yourself and break things down, things rarely look quite so confused and nerve-wracking as they do at first.
As another old saying goes, "When the 'why' is clear, the 'how' is easy."
Stay clear, and
Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for the week of silence- the reason why will become clear momentarily.
First, a couple of my favorite food quotes:
"What does cookery mean? It means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe, and of Calypso, and Sheba. It means knowledge of all herbs, and fruits, and balms and spices... It means the economy of your great-grandmother and the science of modern chemistry, and French art, and Arabian hospitality. It means, in fine, that you are to see imperatively that everyone has something nice to eat." - John Ruskin
"The fact is, I love to feed other people. I love their pleasure, their comfort, their delight in being cared for. Cooking gives me the means to make other people feel better, which in a very simple equation makes me feel better. I believe that food can be a profound means of communication, allowing me to express myself in a way that seems much deeper and more sincere than words. My Gruyere cheese puffs straight from the oven say 'I'm glad you're here. Sit down, relax. I'll look after everything.'
- Ann Patchett, "Dinner For One, Please, James"
In a previous entry, I discussed (likely at annoying length) my feelings about what hospitality means- the welcoming of guests in one's house, and kindness to the stranger at your door. In a way, I feel that charity is another form of hospitality- perhaps a different definition of the same word: giving of oneself to make others comfortable.
A while back, a friend of my family asked if I would donate some baked goods to a meeting of the Red Door Society, the donors group for Gilda's Club. For those who don't know, Gilda's Club is a support group for people with cancer and their families. This includes meetings and workshops for those with cancer, cancer survivors, caretakers, and even an arts-and-crafts activity group for children. The organization was started by famous Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radner and her husband, Gene Wilder. Gilda was diagnosed with (and eventually succumbed to) cancer, and the couple established the organization on the belief that no one should have to face cancer alone.
Obviously, I said yes. You may have seen the pictures of my creations for that event on the BHB Facebook page (because you've liked the BHB on Facebook, right?)
If not, here they are- Red Velvet Doors, and Mocha Brownie Bites!
After I finished setting up, my friend invited me to hang around and meet some of the donors. All in all, it was a fine little party, and I'm glad they enjoyed the pastries.
That's not what this blog is about though.
Towards the end of the night, a few members of the group were invited up to share their stories. A woman told about how scary it was for her and her young family when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Gilda's Club doesn't ask a penny of any of it's members, and the woman talked about how she no longer felt alone in the fight, her husband learned what to expect in caring for her, and her children could talk about everything and have fun at "Noogieland" (the children's programming.) Every evening, all the programs would break for about 15 minutes, and everyone would convene in the kitchen area to snack, talk, and chat for a bit.
Even in the terrifying face of cancer, the Irish proverb is true: "Laughter is brightest where the food is."
That night, I met the CEO of the local chapter and asked about donations. They are a non-profit organization, and start off each year with a budget of $0. Everything- EVERYTHING- they provide to their members FREE OF CHARGE, is donated or paid for with donated capital.
"...It means, in fine, that you are to see imperatively that everyone has something nice to eat."
"'I'm glad you're here. Sit down, relax. I'll take care of everything.'"
Not being an especially wealthy man, I asked if they accepted donations of baked goods. The answer was an emphatic "YES." Those 15 minute breaks the young woman had mentioned always involve food- usually donated, occasionally cooked in-house.
I asked her if she'd be terribly opposed to a few dozen cookies or a cake appearing on the table every week or so, courtesy of the Black Hat Bakery.
I guess I'll be a little more busy now.
I get to bake and try out new recipes.
The food gets eaten and enjoyed, by people who wouldn't mind having something else to smile about.
That's about as big a win-win as I can think of.
Whatever you can do for something you care about, do it.
Offer your time.
Bake cakes and cookies and give them away.
Hospitality doesn't just happen at home.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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