Chef Mark Mendez: Open letter to a culinary student
Chef Mark Mendez, Carnivale, River West
I am angry, so forgive me if I rant. You gave notice after only two weeks on the job and then didn’t show up the next day and really screwed me. I know why you quit; it was hard work, harder than you thought it was going to be. The funny thing is, you worked an easy station and never even worked on a busy night, funny right? The sad thing is you don’t even know how hard it really is, or what it truly means to be a line cook.
It’s not all your fault; they didn’t really prepare you for this in cooking school did they? They didn’t warn you that being a great chef requires first being a great cook. They didn’t tell you about the sacrifices you have to make, the hard work, the hours, the dedication, the commitment, the lack of sleep, the constant abuse of the sous chef, they didn’t warn you. You thought you would graduate from school and be like Thomas Keller in a couple years, that’s all it should take right?
I know, I know, learning how to use your knife, make a great stock, or learning how to properly blanch vegetables is boring, it’s cooler to work sauté station or grill. I’m too old school anyway, no immersion circulators, no foams, no cutesy plates, no pacojet, boring really. Who wants to learn how to properly sharpen a knife or butcher a fish, so boring and tedious.
Well, I need to tell you a few things. One day, just maybe, you will be a chef somewhere. You will need to train and motivate the people who work for you, guide them, lead them, teach them, and inspire them. One day, you will spend more time looking at a profit-and-loss statement than you do your station. You will miss prepping your station, making a sauce, butchering a piece of meat, even sharpening your knife. You will spend time in marketing meetings, staff meetings, partners meetings, vendor meetings, all kinds of meetings. You will spend more time in the front of house than you really want to; spend time outside of the kitchen promoting your restaurant, give interviews, agonize over food and labor costs, kiss your wife goodbye while she sleeps because you have to be at the restaurant early for some insane reason, and somewhere in there make sure you are serving tasty food. You will miss weddings, birthday parties, graduations, all kinds of things. You will alienate your friends and family because you don’t write or call enough. There are no sick days, personal days, breaks; this is not like a 9-to-5 job; get over it.
Get ready for years of sacrifice, hard work, and stress. Learn as much as you can, read everything, ask questions, write things down, save your money and eat at other restaurants, show up to work early and offer to stay late, come to work on your day off just to learn how to make pastry or hone butcher skills. Taste everything you can, over and over, and ask the chef so many questions he gets annoyed.
Take care of yourself and sleep as much as you can and skip after-work drug/liquor binging, so you wake up ready and on time. Travel and experience another culture eat their food and learn to speak their language. Learn to appreciate the time you have right now, enjoy the ride, the process, don’t be in a hurry to be a sous chef or make a lot of money. It’s not about that and it never will be unless you are extremely talented and lucky. There is only one Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz, and they all have worked extremely hard to get where they are and continue to do so. Enjoy all the bullshit that comes with this life, embrace it, learn to thrive on it.
One day, when you are an executive chef or chef/owner, there will be an epiphany so powerful you will have to sit down. You will understand everything every chef or sous chef yelled at you; you will understand why we work the way we do; you will understand why our profession is so wonderful, so unique, and it will hit you hard. I can’t tell when or where this will happen but I promise you it will if you work hard and keep your head down and do what your chef tells you.
So keep this in mind when I give you a hard time and push you, criticize you and refuse that day-off request. Maybe the next job you have, you will suck it up instead of leaving them short a line cook on a busy night.
As a culinary student in 1993, Chef Mark Mendez worked at Spiaggia. Before becoming executive chef at Carnivale, he also cooked at Patria in New York and Chicago’s Harvest on Huron, Spruce, Twelve 12 and Gioco.