So You Wanna Be a Chef by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is an amazing guy, far from perfect, but still an amazing guy. Below is a portion of “Medium Raw”, his comments on someone wanting to be a chef. I originally found the article on Michael Ruhlman‘s blog as seen here and comes from Tony’s book: Medium Raw. None of which I have any affiliation with. However, I spent a fair amount of time in the food industry and still have friends who are professional chefs and restaurant managers, so it strikes me close to the heart. Further, it gives a good explanation as to my own motivation for going into the medical field, especially at such a late date. I shall now let Tony speak:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you that culinary school is a bad thing. It surely is not. I’m saying that you, reading this, right now, would probably be ill-advised to attend—and are, in all likelihood, unsuited for The Life in any case. Particularly if you’re any kind of normal.

How old are you? Nobody will tell you this, but I will: If you’re thirty-two years old and considering a career in professional kitchens? If you’re wondering if, perhaps, you are too old? Let me answer that question for you: Yes. You are too old.

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen. The restaurant kitchen may indeed be the last, glorious meritocracy—where anybody with the skills and the heart is welcomed. But if you’re old, or out of shape—or were never really certain about your chosen path in the first place—then you will surely and quickly be removed. Like a large organism’s natural antibodies fighting off an invading strain of bacteria, the life will slowly push you out or kill you off. Thus it is. Thus it shall always be.

At this point, having established ahead of time that you are one fucked-up individual—that you’d never be happy in the normal world anyway—culinary school becomes a very good idea. But choose the best one possible. If nothing else, you’ll come out of culinary school with a baseline (knowledge and familiarity with techniques). The most obvious advantage of a culinary education is that from now on, chefs won’t have to take time out of their busy day to explain to you what a fucking “brunoise” is. Presumably, you’ll know what they mean if they shout across the room at you that you should braise those lamb necks. You’ll be able to break down a chicken, open an oyster, filet a fish. Knowing those things when you walk in the door is not absolutely necessary—but it sure fucking helps.

When you do get out of culinary school, try to work for as long as you can possibly afford in the very best kitchens that will have you—as far from home as you can travel. This is the most important and potentially invaluable period of your career. And where I fucked up mine.

I got out of culinary school and the world seemed my oyster. Right away, I got, by the standards of the day, what seemed to be a pretty good paying job. More to the point, I was having fun. I was working with my friends, getting high, getting laid, and, in general, convincing myself that I was quite brilliant and talented enough.

I was neither.

Rather than put in the time or effort—then, when I had the chance, to go work in really good kitchens—I casually and unthinkingly doomed myself to second-and (mostly) third-and fourth-tier restaurant kitchens forever. Soon there was no going back. No possibility of making less money. I got older, and the Beast that needed to be fed got bigger and more demanding—never less.

Suddenly it was ten years later, and I had a résumé that was, on close inspection, unimpressive at best. At worst, it told a story of fucked-up priorities and underachievement. The list of things I never learned to do well is still shocking, in retrospect. The simple fact is that I would be—and have always been—inadequate to the task of working in the kitchens of most of my friends, and it is something I will have to live with. It is also one of my greatest regrets. There’s a gulf the size of an ocean between adequate and finesse. There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon. What limited me forever were the decisions I made immediately after leaving culinary school.

That was my moment as a chef, as a potential adult, and I let it pass. For better or worse, the decisions I made then about what I was going to do, whom I was going to do it with and where, set me on the course I stayed on for the next twenty years. If I hadn’t enjoyed a freakish and unexpected success with Kitchen Confidential, I’d still be standing behind the stove of a good but never great restaurant at the age of fifty-three. I would be years behind in my taxes, still uninsured, with a mouthful of looming dental problems, a mountain of debt, and an ever more rapidly declining value as a cook.

If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go. Use every possible resource you have to work in the very best kitchens that will have you—however little (if anything) they pay—and relentlessly harangue every possible connection, every great chef whose kitchen offers a glimmer of hope of acceptance. Keep at it. A three-star chef friend in Europe reports receiving month after month of faxes from one aspiring apprentice cook—and responding with “no” each time. But finally he broke down, impressed by the kid’s unrelenting, never wavering determination. Money borrowed at this point in your life so that you can afford to travel and gain work experience in really good kitchens will arguably be better invested than any student loan. A culinary degree—while enormously helpful—is only helpful to a point. A year working at Mugaritz or L’Arpège or Arzak can transform your life—become a direct route to other great kitchens. All the great chefs know each other. Do right by one and they tend to hook you up with the others.

Which is to say: if you’re lucky enough to be able to do the above, do not fuck up.

Like I said, all the great chefs know each other.

Let me repeat, by the way, again, that I did none of the things above.

It’s a little sad sometimes when I look out at a bookstore audience and see young fans of Kitchen Confidential, for whom the book was a validation of their worst natures. I understand it, of course. And I’m happy they like me.

But I’m a little more comfortable when the readers are late-career hackers and journeymen, like I was when I wrote the book. I like that they relate to the highs and lows, the frustrations and absurdities, that they, too, can look back—with a mixture of nostalgia and very real regret—on sexual liaisons on cutting boards and flour sacks, late-night coke jags, the crazy camaraderie that seems to come only in the busiest hash-house restaurants—or failing ones. I wrote the book for them in the first place. And it’s too late for them anyway.

But the young culinary students, thousands and thousands of them—new generations of them every year, resplendent in their tattoos and piercings—I worry that some of them might have missed the point.

At no point in Kitchen Confidential, that I can find, does it say that cocaine or heroin were good ideas. In fact, given the book’s many episodes of pain, humiliation, and being constantly broke-ass, one would think it almost a cautionary tale. Yet, at readings and signings, I am frequently the inadvertent recipient of small packets of mysterious white powder; bindles of cocaine; fat, carefully rolled joints of local hydro, pressed into my palm or slipped into my pocket. These inevitably end up in the garbage—or handed over to a media escort. The white powders because I’m a recovered fucking addict—and the weed ’cause all I need is one joint, angel dust–laced by some psycho, to put me on TMZ, running buck-naked down some Milwaukee street with a helmet made from the stretched skin of a butchered terrier pulled down over my ears.  Smoking weed at the end of the day is nearly always a good idea—but I’d advise ambitious young cooks against sneaking a few drags mid-shift at Daniel. If you think smoking dope makes you more responsive to the urgent calls for food from your expeditor, then God bless you, you freak of nature you. If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably only good for a bowl of Crunchberries and a Simpsons rerun.

On the other hand, if you’re stuck heating up breakfast burritos at Chili’s—or dunking deep-fried macaroni at TGI McFuckwad’s? Maybe you need that joint.

Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think. Not to belabor the point, but if you look around you at the people you work with, many of them are—or will eventually be—alcoholics and drug abusers. All I’m saying is you might ask yourself now and again if there’s anything else you wanted to do in your life.

I haven’t done heroin in over twenty years, and it’s been a very long time as well since I found myself sweating and grinding my teeth to the sound of tweeting of birds outside my window.

There was and is nothing heroic about getting off coke and dope.

There’s those who do—and those who don’t.

I had other things I still wanted to do. And I saw that I wasn’t going to be doing shit when I was spending all my time and all my money on coke or dope—except more coke and dope.

I’m extremely skeptical of the “language of addiction.” I never saw heroin or cocaine as “my illness.” I saw them as some very bad choices that I walked knowingly into. I fucked myself—and, eventually, had to work hard to get myself un-fucked.

And I’m not going to tell you here how to live your life.

I’m just saying, I guess, that I got very lucky.

And luck is not a business model.

  • Tony Bourdain

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