Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Culinary Internship

The Internship: For Normal People

Recently, I was discussing with my friend the concept of the internship. He is a computer science major who recently graduated from UW. I asked him what his internship was like.

His response sounded more like a vacation. He told me about the different "team building exercises" they did. That includes going to sports games for the entire day, having a week or two of purely events and not actual work. Don't get me wrong, I would love that too. The main reason for these internships is to entice these young bright minds to come back, which makes sense. These companies want top talent. So of course you are going to give your interns a good time for three months. In the end, it is worth it for them.

In the end, their internship was only 3 months long. That means, for at least 1/3 of the time, they weren't even working. Often times it takes 3-9 months for an employee to even be useful. Meaning these interns weren't even useful! The only reason companies are willing to really roll out the red carpet for these interns is because they want them back. Not for the "good work" they do up front.

I am not dogging on tech internships at all! The reason tech companies can pay their employees so much and pay their interns so well is because with one product they can easily sell millions of copies. Whereas a restaurant has a 1:1 ratio of work to output. It is a one dish one dollar kind of process. There is a limit to your profit margin.

The Culinary Internship

My culinary internship was very different to that of my friends tech internship. 

Unlike him, day one I was put to work. Day one I was given a flat of peas to shuck, several boxes of scallops to clean, a boat load of porcinis to clean, parsley to pick and so many other tasks that a monkey could probably do. None of which even got close to touching a knife. As a matter a fact, I don't think I did any form of knife work for the first two weeks.

Most kitchens want to first instill a level of understanding of detail before you move forward. For instance, starting out as a Japanese Sushi cook at a very high level establishment, might require you wash and cook rice for the first year or two. So you learn to appreciate the method. I got off lucky with only two weeks of none knife work.

Once you are given your first knife work task, it is often something involving finely mincing shallots. Now I don't mean any of that rapid choppity chopping you see on TV. Where the home cook quickly throws their knife haphazardly over some poor unsuspecting shallots and garlic. No, that just won't do. That leaves your shallots a poor, bruised and watery mess.

First, you must make sure you have a sharp knife. Whether that means finally spend 100$ on a knife, get yours sharpened, or learn  how to do it yourself. The end result is still a sharp knife. From there, you follow proper technique, as shown in the video below. It isn't any of that magic bullet nonsense. No you want small little cubes, way smaller than Gordon's example.

Quick side note: Looks like Gordon needs to sharpen his knife...when I do my horizontal slices, I try to do it in one is just cleaner. I hope you get the general idea though.

I hear some of you asking, wait, why go through all that trouble. Why put so much effort into a shallot. My answer is two fold, and maybe I am wrong.

First, the idea is that increasing the amount of cells you damage in onions and shallots increases the amount of sulfur and compounds released and decreases the shallots sweetness. You can feel shallots chopped with a dull knife. They are often soaked in their own juices and smell terrible.

My chef wouldn't even use day old chopped shallots for the same reason.

Second, I am going back to the sushi rice example. If you learn to take your time on the small details. You will appreciate the bigger details.

When I go into a restaurant and see some technique I know I would never put on a dish because of the sheer time it takes to do it. I am dumbfounded. Don't get me wrong, for a normal person it is amazing. For me or any other cook, it touches something deeper. We appreciate true technique. Not just mind boggling technique, but technique that we know are a labor of love. When we know some poor intern took their time to peel all the grapes on a dish, or some cook made a nine layer Black Forest Cake (like at the Fat Duck). We are just flabbergasted.

All of this starts with the perfectly fine bruionised shallots, the individually picked thyme leaf, the perfectly cleaned chanterelles. All of this disciplines the mind to make food perfect. To look for it, to yearn for it.

There are no team building exercises here, no fun days to go play. Nope, 50-55 hour weeks of standing, running around and learning your technique sucks. You learn that culinary school only got you to the point where you can hold a knife, and that is about it.

The Pay

Oh, guess what the kicker is. Most places of a certain caliber, don't even pay their interns, some do, but a good portion don't.

 Now, before you go to your closest fine dining establishment and demand they pay their interns. I would take a look at their prices. Yes, I know, they are expensive. Guess what, most fine dining places make pennies on the dollar. Oh, you don't believe me do you? You think that if they charge 30 dollars for  a 4oz piece of salmon, and a small bit of puree and vegetable, that they are just banking on you? If all that went into that dish was the salmon, and vegetable, you would be right. However, when you add in labor, overhead, high quality ingredients and just all the crap that goes wrong in a kitchen(like flooding, that happens a lot). Well, it ends up almost being a loss.

For instance, I remember one dish during my internship. There was one dessert that was rarely sold. It required a mousse that was plated using an ISI canister. It is basically a whip cream can. One night, we finally sold one. I got out all the ingredients, and began to plate it. However, for one reason or another the canister wouldn't work. So I had to load another charge of CO2. Then I accidentally released the CO2 before it was charged, twice. It was a crazy night and if you know me, I am jumpy and on edge at all times...Now I had wasted 3 charges

My Chef flipped and charged down from the hot line to where I stood. You might be wondering why. Here is the math. The dessert cost about 8$. Then you take into consideration that the two charges cost about 2-3$. She just lost money on that dessert and then next 4 that came in, if they came in that night.

Now all I could do at that point was awkwardly try to laugh off the situation as she informed me of this math, in a less than cordial manner...

I get it, to the outsider, a 30$ plate seems like it must make the owner a lot of money. Even I go places and think I am being ripped off sometimes...In the end, it is all about the numbers. If your restaurant only serves 200 plates in one night and each of those plates only makes about .20$. It is not looking so good for you. Especially if consider in food loss.

The Treatment

Now I have discussed the basics of a culinary internship. We do very little "technical work" and we do it all for free. I spent about 800 + hours working for free before I was hired at my first restaurant at 17. Often times shucking peas and cleaning mushrooms.

Maybe that is already making you decide to keep your job in CS rather than come to the culinary field(I say that because I know a lot of people who want to go from programming to cooking and I think they are crazy). If that isn't enough, lets talk about how you are treated. This depends kitchen to kitchen of course.

Some places are probably really nice. The W hotel can't yell at you and tell you "You are worthless". Of course not, they would be sued instantly, and it would be all over the TV.

It may not happen at the W, but it has happened to me! Yup, I have had several bad nights. My worst was actually not my internship but the first week when I was getting paid at the place I interned. It was an exciting week. Me, a young cook, getting offered a position at a very nice restaurant. How exciting?

All those thoughts exited my head as I was frantically f****** one night. To put some context to the situation. This particular Saturday, we had a 30 top downstairs from PCC or Whole foods. I don't quite recall. My duty that night was to plate the desserts. A peach Crostata and Olive Oil Gelato with some other garnishes. Along with my typical duties. I was also responsible for helping out everyone else. This is normal in any job I have been at. The new guy always has to help everyone else.

That is all fine and dandy if you don't have a one track mind like mine. Dessert comes around and guess what. Guess what I forgot to do(you might not even know you have to do it). I forgot to temper the olive oil gelato...

Due to the fat content of Olive oil, the gelato becomes rock hard when frozen. Now, most places I have worked demand you do a Quennelle or Rocher. Whatever you want to call it...on every dessert. This was one of those places

That means a football shaped ice cream scoop. It requires a quick wrist movement and soft ice cream. Not rock hard ice cream. Like in the video below. As you can see, with soft ice cream, it works great and is really easy.

Well, here I am, 30 tarts out of the oven and just pulling out my gelato. There is no way to quennelle this puppy. Similar to the story above. My chef comes barrelling down the line. She never really yelled or screamed. Nope, she always just needed to elevate her voice just slightly and then fire her missile.

Tonight, she decided to go deep. All she needed to say was "Why am I even paying you".

Bang, direct hit. My first week of being paid, after almost 1000 hours of free labor. She questioned my value, my worth, my skill.  She didn't stop for the rest of the night. She questioned the Chef de Cuisine why she hired me, and if I was worth it, while I was in ear shot. She never stopped. That was who she was. Once you made a mistake, she wouldn't let it lie for the rest of the night.

I am actually, oddly, thankful. I have never had a hard job since that job. No matter how hard any of my jobs were, they were never that bad. I was never berated to a point that exceeded that.

So sure, it stung my 16 year old self esteem. I also think it strengthened my resolve. I now fight harder because of the tongue lashings I got. Maybe some day I will find someone harder on me than her. But I grew at that place more than most people would know.

The End Result

 It is actually really funny. Two of the last three jobs I have had, I got because of this internship. I am talking about years later. One of them was a cooking job and another was a job as a developer. That might sound like a weird combo. Both the chef at the restaurant I worked at and the director of the department knew the prestige and rigor that my first internship came with. They knew it wasn't easy.

Both of them hired me with the same one liner. "We figured if you could work there, you could work here". Never in a million years would I have thought I would be hired to a developer job because of my culinary experience. Why, what is the correlation?

All I ever was there was a prep cook/pantry(kind of), I only went from being an intern to prep cookish person. That means I never touched a hot pan. I only ever plated desserts and some starters. So maybe you read this whole piece and feel as if all internships should be banned, or that chefs should be nicer. I don't think you are wrong. However, I do think there is an aspect of discipline necessary in kitchens. It is how you get your Marco Pier Whites, your Renee Redzepis, your Grant Achatz.

It takes a little bit of fire, a little bit of grit, some perseverance to become the best. I never got there personally. I chickened out, I finished my degree and decided for a bigger paycheck. Now I am stuck writing a blog that no one reads. I yearn for the day I get to go back. Back to the fire, the creativity. Until then, I will become the master of my current craft. I love it for its own reasons, but it is hard to separate yourself from the original job you were passionate about.

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Tags: What is a culinary Internship like, culinary internship, paid internships, staging, free labor

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