Deborah Reid (@dreid63), a professional chef in Toronto responds to last week’s guest post from Tina Dang [http://theskirtsteakfiles.tumblr.com/post/23039172012/cook-interrupted]
Firstly I’d like to commend you on reaching out. This is a vital step in good quality career development.
It’s difficult for me to comment in detail on your situation because I don’t know you - particularly your practical skills, culinary preferences, and your ambitions - but I have helped to guide many budding professionals in the 12 years that I have taught. I will provide general feedback and hope there is someone in your professional circle who you can sit face to face with and discuss the nitty gritty details. If not, then that should be a task of the highest priority, finding a good quality mentor (you mention that in your second sentence). Give this some careful consideration as they should be in a position to actively aid in advancing your career. Refrain from choosing someone who is solely willing to be a sympathetic ear for difficulties. Although that can be quite helpful, a good mentor should ultimately help to promote you. Ideally, it should be someone whose work you admire and someone who can tell you the truth.
While you’re at that, I suggest that you build a very strong professional network. Join culinary organizations that interest you. Attend events when you can. Have coffee with acquaintances with the hope that they may become friends or colleagues. One of the best things about this business is the people. Find your folks and cultivate your professional relationships. With time, that investment will pay great dividends.
After 4 years in the business you should have some idea of what makes you happiest - there should be a style of cooking, type of cuisine that has your name written all over it - pursue that. Your training needs to be progressive and balanced but it should also become increasingly specialized. Find your niche.
I would also encourage you to advocate for yourself. Career advancement should not be left to others. When denied promotion to sous chef you needed to have asked the chef, immediately, about why you were overlooked. If the answer is less than satisfying, then just as quickly look elsewhere for opportunity for advancement. I’m not suggesting that you burn bridges but did wonder why it took you 2 months to leave? That’s a long time to be disappointed in a kitchen. You bear complete responsibility for finding the conditions where your passion can ‘flourish’.
I would also suggest that you not be too hasty to judge. I’ve been a stagiaire in internationally renowned restaurants and know that there is a certain amount of ‘stagiaire fatigue’ that comes over those kitchens. In many cases, they see an endless parade of people asking the same questions, being of minimal help (and skill level), and never staying long enough to form relationships. Putting that kind of experience on a resume can make careers (I made big personal and financial sacrifices early in my career to gain that experience). Loyalty to those chefs can often lead to much bigger and better things. And yes, thankfully, they are generally very, very serious about the work they do.
In 2013 I will have been in the business for 25 years. There have been periods in that time when I have asked myself all the questions that you are asking yourself. But while I was asking the questions, I held steadfast to my professional path. Just like any long term commitment it takes a lot of work, there are a lot of doubts, but the rewards of staying, struggling and building are immense. The passage of time professionally for me has been very kind.
Finally, don’t dog your romanticism. There is much harshness and hard reality in the business but ultimately (and as flaky as this is going to sound) it really comes down to love. Don’t let anyone take away your passion - protect it, treasure it, pursue it.
Wishing you a delicious life,