A new breed of young apprentice chef

Posted in Cookery trade issues with tags , , , , on April 8, 2013 by Simmer Culinary

The chefs of tomorrow and The future of our industry lie in the hands of the apprentices of today. This seems like such a simple and obvious statement but it is extremely pertinent to one of the hottest discussion pieces that resonates in professional kitchens around Australia ” are the apprentices of today as passionate and dedicated as we were?, or are they too hung up on the glamorous side of the industry.

Can I start by saying that when I started as a chef there was no glamour associated with the job. It was widely recognised as a career for high school drop outs, something you did when your options for more promising employment were limited. If you talk to most chefs over 35 they will tell you they started working as a dishwasher to pay the bills and discovered a passion for the kitchen ( not necessarily the food straight away). They discovered there was something about the type of people working in the environment, something about the psychology of the kitchen, at once irreverent and yet extremely disciplined. Perfect for a high school drop out looking for a sense of belonging. The passion for the food is of course a natural progression once someone has found their culinary homeland.

Like I said talk to any chef over 35 and there is a good chance they will tell you a similar story to mine. I was literally homeless, living under a bridge, washing windscreens for small change. I had dropped out of high school at 16. My then girlfriend found me a job washing dishes in a local restaurant. After finishing my first night I was buggered and yet from that moment onwards I have loved the buzz of the kitchen. I worked hard and slowly moved my way up the kitchen brigade ( even though this was only a very small kitchen team) I fondly remember the first night I was asked to help plate the desserts ( as a kitchen hand), and of course the first official night on the salad section. The culinary side of my attraction to the industry was growing I remember discovering how good hummus tasted and olives and of course rare tuna ( up till then tuna had always come from a can!). i was lucky to have grown up with good food, but this was something else.. I remember being yelled at by my chef during service on many occasions and mopping the floor at 2 am in the morning after these difficult services thinking ” one day you prick ill show you I’m not useless”, but I now realise that without the chefs reprimands I would be useless!. it was his FIRM directions that turned me from an unhireable youth with very little education into a productive member of his team. He was extremely supportive of extra curricular activities such as cookery competitions and even gave me the necessary 8 weeks off a year to attend trade school ( although I still had to work some evenings and weekends) When the chef left 6 years later he had instilled enough skills in me that I was asked to write the next menu. Thanks to this amazing industry and a supportive mentor this particular high school drop out now has a career, my own business, and that girlfriend is now my wife ( I doubt she would have hung around if I was still washing windscreens)

Back to the apprentices of today……..They are different!. I have taught apprentice chefs now for 6 years. I have had the pleasure of instructing some amazing young cooks. The fact is that they seldom start in the pot wash anymore, they aren’t high school drop outs, and they could choose any number of other walks of life to follow. And we as chefs need to recognise this. They choose to be chefs!. Some for the right reasons, others for the wrong.

Often when employing apprentices I ask “why this career path?” ” why do you want to be a chef?” and in response to this question the worst answer is a desire to be like their favourite tv chef. Quite often these particular young chefs are not prepared for the reality of working long hours in a hot cramped kitchen completing monotonous tasks. They have an incorrect image that they will be creating masterpieces and wowing people with their culinary prowess. It must be said that usually these wannabe Tv chefs can cook!, they have spent a lot of time trying to replicate dishes from their favourite shows in their home kitchens. My experience is that the majority of these unfortunate souls never last. You see what I want from an 1st year apprentice is not creativity!, their job is to try and soak up as much of what is happening around them as they can. An example might be the 1st year apprentice who came to me 2 weeks into her restaurant placement stating ” im not being challenged enough, the chefs just want me to cut vegetables all day!”. Welcome to the first year of your life in a kitchen, peel, chop, cut, wash, clean, basics, basics basics “yes chef”. What they don’t realise is that these chefs they aspire to emulate on the television have done the hard graft, owned restaurants, seen years of 80 hour weeks honing their craft. And quiet often it is simply dumb luck that lands them in front of a camera, not often do they actually go searching for the fame. As an young cook if your final goal is to be on tv take acting classes instead!.

According to hospitality magazine the retention rates for apprentice chefs are at an abysmal 37%. I have always liked the idea of giving potential apprentices an industry taster. A few weeks working in a kitchen as a stagier can be all it takes for them to decide if this life is right for them, you are there by increasing the Likelihood that they will complete their training and most importantly move on to become a productive cook.

I can say one thing for sure, that the greatest success stories I have witnessed in my time instructing culinary students all have one thing in common. Passionate enthusiastic employers and head chefs! Without fail every one of the outstanding apprentices I have had the privilege of teaching have had chefs who take their role as mentor very seriously. Inspiring them to go above and beyond what is required.These students are easier to engage in the training kitchen. They want to learn and have more passion for the subject matter. On the flip side of the coin I have watched many promising young culinarians leave the industry after being overworked, underpaid, and undervalued by employers, quiet often treated as nothing more than cheap labour.

Kitchens are different places now. I do miss the good old days. But are things really all that different?. In my kitchens we still do extremely long hours, we still run a very tight ship and require fanatical discipline and devotion to the cause. The education and mentoring of my chefs is as important to me as my learning curves were to my first head chef. Just like my chef I expect alot, and just like him I want to see my young cooks turn into successful chefs.

I would finish by saying we still require cooks with the same strength of character as always. Time spent behind a good stove will still eventually develop these desirable attributes of dedication, passion and determination. Although I started off saying how the future of the industry is squarely in the hands of today’s apprentices, their future is in our hands and therefore the industries future. We can either dismiss them as Dispassionate and unenthusiastic or take an active roll as mentors to ensure we eventually leave our beloved industry to an inspired generation of chefs.

“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another”
Gilbert K Chesterton.


Local seasonal movement

Posted in Cookery trade issues with tags on March 7, 2013 by Simmer Culinary

Restaurants Sourcing local productsImage

It’s a much harder option…… But it is an option.

There is a growing movement happening in the culinary world. Chefs are starting to turn to local farmers in order to fill their larders. We as Chefs have always touted the need to use local produce in season, but commitment to the cause in most cases has been purely lip service. However this is changing. More and more customers are interested in the origin of the food they buy, and more and more chefs want to have a positive influence on their immediate epicurean surroundings.

consider these two scenarios:

Scenario no1 – chef 1 finds a local chicken farmer who is happy for him to come and visit the farm. He says he can supply X amount of birds when they reach maturity in 18 weeks. 18 weeks later the chef collects the whole birds plucked and gutted. because he had to order them so far in advance he has ordered substantially more than what is required for one function. The birds are therefore processed into various cuts and products that add value such as confit, terrine etc. because of the effort put in by the farmers these birds cost almost twice the price of their supermarket battery cousins.

Scenario no2 – chef 2 rings the supplier on Monday and orders 8 kg of chicken breast. On Tuesday 8 kg of breast from an untraceable source arrives, these can go straight into a pan to be served to the customers without any further preparation.

Now let me pose 2 questions / statements relating to the above scenarios. Which format do you think sounds like it takes more organisation and effort ( answer is obvious) , do you think ethically you can afford “not” to invest this amount of effort into your food sourcing practices?, considering the effect of good animal husbandry on meat quality. If you are anything like me quality means everything, whether you are preparing a simple charcoal grilled chicken supreme or a more elaborate preparation such as pâté en croute you have more control over the quality if you have the opportunity to be selective over where the product comes from and how it was reared or grown.

It has to be mentioned that buying local does not always guarantee quality. Even battery chicken farms are local to someone, the term local is of course referring to the places who do welcome you with open arms to visit, these are providers who relish in the opportunity to talk to interested people about the way they raise livestock or grow produce. Farmers who grow a diverse range of vegetables and rotate those stocks. Anyone who has a vegetable garden will tell you that planting too much of a particular crop is never as successful as planting smaller plots of many different things. And where possible more than one type of the same variety.

There is a strong demand for food that can be traced paddock to plate or fork to fork. There is a certain facet of the market that is willing to pay the premium that needs to be charged for such food, after all the farmers have invested a lot more effort, the chef has invested more time and all of this comes at a cost.

I remember back in 2001 I asked my employer at the restaurant on Fitzroy street st kilda if he would mind me planting a herb garden on the roof in poly boxes. He not only agreed but paid for new dirt, seeds and paid me to come into work on the days it took to put the garden together. I now realise how forward thinking he was, he could see that anything that encouraged inspiration in his chef was going to inevitably transfer to good food on the plate. I don’t know a single chef worth their salt who doesn’t get all giddy when they see great produce in a garden, the best meals are born this way.

Lets look at a few of the market leaders who are champions for the local seasonal cause.
There is of course alice waters at chez Panise, when I read the chez Panise menu cookbook as a 4th year apprentice It inspired me more than any book has since. The idea that she let the ingredients drive the direction of the menu and everything came from her own garden or people she knew was revolutionary for me. I still read the introduction to this book whenever I need to rejuvenate my creative juices.
Thomas Keller – the French laundry cookbook has whole chapters devoted to the people who supply his kitchen. Holding them up on a pedestal ( and rightfully so)
Noma – where Renee Redzepi has taken the whole local produce concept a step further and integrated foraging for wild ingredients into his restaurant concept.
Locally to Australia The Star Casino has built roof top gardens for one of its restaurants and a pop up garden has been installed on the top floor of a CBD parking lot in Melbourne where some of the cities best restaurants have garden plots to service their kitchens with herbs and simple veg.

“This can’t be done”…………” I already have overbearing costs”………
It can be done!……..and it can be profitable!………. It is just the harder option!


The unfortunate struggles of the bricks and mortar restaurant

Posted in Cookery trade issues on March 5, 2013 by Simmer Culinary