Thoughts on life in the culinary world

For the better part of 3 months now since the filming of MasterChef concluded, I have been working in professional kitchens. Sometimes I’m paid, sometimes I’m not. Throughout these past couple of months, there are some things that I’ve taken mental note of, that have caused me to really look at the culinary world in a different light. Here are some points about things I’ve learned about life in the back of the house, and a few more detailed thoughts about each.

Full Disclaimer: These are just bits of information/thoughts about MY own personal experiences. Don’t let what I say below scare you away from doing what I’m doing, and I do not claim that every kitchen environment follows this pattern. Once could say that these are my opinions. In a way, they are, but I think a more accurate assessment is that these are the pieces of knowledge I’ve picked up from MY own personal experiences.

Full Disclaimer #2: This post will probably be LONG. Hopefully it will be an insightful read though. It’s also for my benefit to sort through a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having/struggling with.

Upon coming back from filming MasterChef, the biggest questions I had to ask myself were “How do I want to make the most of my MasterChef experience?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” I had pretty much figured out that a job sitting behind a computer screen all day, working with numbers and equations and computer models would not be a place where I would truly enjoy work. Trying out work in a kitchen was the logical next step for me, having just come off of MC3, and so I made the bold (and some might say rash) decision of not going back to school for the time being and just trying to dive head first into the professional world by trying to get my foot in the door of the culinary scene and attempting to make a career out of it.

One thing that I quickly realized is that experience is key to being taken seriously. Nobody gives a crap that you’ve just been on a TV show or whatever (and TBH, they shouldn’t!). Besides a (small) increase in marketability, telling a chef that you were on a TV show in hopes of getting hired gives you about as much credibility as saying that you cooked dinner for your family last night, they liked it, and therefore you are a great chef.

I walked into some of the best restaurants in Austin, hoping to start as a stage and quickly transition into a paying job. Financially I was in the process of completely becoming independent from my parents, but a key component of that independence is, well, income. However, upon entering the kitchen I quickly realized one thing. Stages are treated like free labor. First getting “hired” as a stage instantly brought elation, a sense of hey, this chef values me, sees something in me, and probably wants to hire me soon! I’m going to bust my ass and prove myself to him, and I’ll have a job in no time! Adding to that feeling is  how well everybody treats you when you first walk in. Everybody is really nice to you, they try to teach you how to do things correctly, during service the chef will often order free dishes from the kitchen for you to try and learn about. That bubble soon bursts though, as you start settling down and have a set list of duties. Oftentimes the most least interesting and most tedious tasks get given to the stages, whether that be peeling and thinly slicing a quart of garlic, peeling and deseeding shishito peppers, quartering between 50-100 lbs of brussels sprouts, etc since they are the tasks that nobody else wants to do, so it makes sense to give it to the volunteer. Oftentimes, while there at the kitchen I will feel like a part of the staff, with my own prep list, joking around and having fun with the kitchen, and feeling motivated to work as hard and as fast as I can. Coming home after a 15 hour shift and then realizing that you spent a whole day working hard and got exactly $0.00 while bills need to be paid, your car needs gas, and you need food is HUGELY demoralizing.

While we are on the topic of pay, it’s becoming apparent to me that most kitchen staff is underpaid. The executive and sous chefs might be the exception. Working in a kitchen is one of the most physically demanding and emotionally draining jobs out there. Often times you will need to either be there extremely early in the morning (I get to work at 6:50 AM, the pastry chef gets there at 4:00 AM) or stay extremely late (anytime between midnight and 2AM is common), if not BOTH. Once there, you face pressure from a variety of different sources, try to bust out a long list of prep duties, try to multitask with 3 things going on at once, trying to recover from inevitable mistakes being made, etc. You need to do everything on your list, do it perfectly, do it neatly, and do it in world record pace. Then once service starts, you need to serve customers as quickly as possible while maintaining high quality product, need to remember 15 tickets at a time, keep track of the cook times/progress of each dish (don’t overcook/undercook the pasta! check the doneness of that steak, don’t overreduce the sauce, are all 15 components on the final plate? how long as the pizza been in the oven? etc), making sure that all your mise en place is accounted for and fully stocked. Then after service ends there is often a complete scrubdown of the kitchen, a cleaning/organizing of the walk-in, and if you’re lucky, family meal. I’m fairly lucky in that the job I started at paid me 10$/hour. At most other place, prep/line cooks get paid closer to minimum wage. That equates to an annual salary of less than $20K a year. And yet, all the time when we go out to eat I hear complaints about how expensive it is and how the restaurants are ripping people off by charging way too much for way too little food. The amount of labor/labor costs it takes to run a restaurant is exhausting. The high cost of securing high-quality ingredient and having it delivered is exhausting. The overhead costs of actually leasing a place, paying the ridiculous utilities (AC works overtime in a kitchen, and the rate we use water would make a conservationist cry) are exhausting. It’s a sad fact that despite the high price a restaurant may charge for something as simple as pasta, the restaurant business is one where it’s extremely difficult to actually turn a profit. Most owners would be happy to just break even.

Going along that line, success in the kitchen requires a lot of humility. That’s something that’s always been difficult for me for a variety of reasons. I spent a lot of my life questioning my self-worth from being constantly put down by other people. I used to (and still do sometimes) feel unattractive, stupid, unsuccessful, and hopeless. Going through high school, I took a lot of pride and got a lot of self-worth out of my grades. I graduated summa cum laude ranked 6th in my class of 535, went to a great school with TONS of credits from AP testing (enough to be ranked a sophomore coming in), flew through my first semester of honors classes with a 4.0 GPA. I was well on my way to a career where starting salaries average around $60-80k/year. My professors that I interacted with said I would be a “hot commodity” in the field in a few years. I was everything I had been taught growing up that I was supposed to be, and was accustomed to being used as a role model for the kids I grew up around.

It’s like a fall from grace now. When these adults that used to praise me find out about my choice of career, their eyes at once cloud over with judgement. “Michael, have you really thought about this?” Every day at Intel, I come across hundreds of Asians. Whenever we make eye contact, I can almost hear their thoughts aloud. “What’s an Asian doing back there with all the immigrant cooks? Must have flunked out of college, poor thing.” *shakes head*. As I serve them their salad and try to engage them in conversation, I realize that their salary is about 4x as much as mine.

Beyond society’s view of the culinary field as a second-rate career, stepping into a professional kitchen with ZERO experience and ZERO credibility besides being on some TV show requires a ton of humility as well. I’m a passionate person with high expectations for myself, and I truly believe that I have what it takes to be successful as a chef/restaurant owner someday. I love playing the role of a leader, and there are certain things that I think should be done MY way. I want myself to do well, to excel, to rise quickly through the ranks, to stand out. Again, here is my pride standing front and center. I know it will take a lot of time for me to slowly make my way to where I want to be, but I’ve never been known to be super patient.

In terms of interacting with people, a lesson that I have learned is that to be successful in the kitchen, you must be able to deal with assholes and otherwise unpleasant people. Sometimes it can be coworkers; at one kitchen which shall remain nameless, the crew treated each other like frat brothers. When the new guy (me) came in, it was really a bizarre environment where I was treated like family and other times belittled and verbally harassed. After one particularly tough day, I responded to one last jab that came with a cruel smirk with a joking, yet serious “%&#$ you…”. Despite my later apology and insistence that I never intended to offend anyone, soon thereafter I was asked not to return to the kitchen due to a “lack of respect for the guys there.” Since I was the one that felt like I was being treated like crap, that remark stung. To be successful in the kitchen, does an individual really have to subject himself to what amounted to months of emotional hazing? That’s something that I’m not able or willing to put up with, and nor did I think it was a necessary or effective way to develop as a team member or a cook/chef, so ultimately I’ve moved on past that event and realized that it perhaps was good for me to leave, despite the unfortunate circumstances.

Not just coworkers though, but customers can be a pain in the ass as well. At the tossed-to-order salad station that I work at, there are customers that visit my station EVERY day and always ask me about every item we have posted. Every day, we have this conversation. “What’s that?” “Mushrooms :).” “I’ll have a little of that then, what’s that next to it?” “Carrots :).” “I’ll have some of that then, what’s that in front of it?” “….Onions…. :\” “I’ll take a little of that, what’s that on the left?” “This one?” “No that one!” “Oh, that’s bell pepper…. >:|.” “Oh no, no bell pepper…okay what kind of dressings do you have?” “There’s a list posted right up there sir *forced smile*” etc. Never mind that we almost ALWAYS have the same items every day, and these people almost ALWAYS get the same thing, to the point where I pretty much have their orders memorized, but they still want to play their “what’s that?” game, completely ignoring the fact that I’m spending 3x as much time I would like making their salad while a line of impatient customers forms behind him. There was another customer that openly talked shit about my hair to one of my coworkers (who later told me) and refuses to acknowledge me when I ask “may I help you?”, only looking up to acknowledge my coworker when he approaches the station instead while I stand there awkwardly. There’s only one word to describe that: RUDE.

One other thing that I’ve needed to grow more accustomed to (and participating on MasterChef helped a lot with) is that the kitchen is a place where crude language is used CONSTANTLY. My own views on using “curse words” has evolved and relaxed quite a bit since MasterChef. It’s almost a necessity in the kitchen to be able to communicate effectively, plus you’re going to sound foolish if you try to use euphemisms instead. Besides, what is the difference between “crap” (used frequently, even by “Christians”, and not as taboo) vs “shit” (often censored, viewed as foul language) anyways? It’s all a matter of perception in my mind, and in the kitchen where such language is normal, I quickly adapted to hearing and using those words on a regular basis (though I try to limit myself around people whom I know will take offense to these words). It’s not an understatement to say that in many kitchens foul language is used just as frequently as on Hell’s Kitchen (though usually with a bit less venom and intensity). For somebody that grew up in a fairly conservative environment, it takes a bit of getting used to.

Finally, The kitchen is a place of extremes. One minute, you could be freezing to death after spending 5 minutes trying unsuccessfully to find fresh tarragon in the walk-in, and the next minute, your face could be getting roasted to a nice medium-rare as you try and roast 20 poblano peppers on a blazing hot grill at the same time. One day, you might breeze by with minimal prep needing to be done, while the next day you may get 3 last minute catering orders and need to make pasta salad, potato salad, and fruit salad for 1,000 people, fill the 3 catering orders, burn your croutons and need to start over, in addition to all of your regular prep. There are days where I’ve gotten 11 hours of sleep heading into a shift (went to bed at 6:30 pm), other days with less than 5 hours of sleep. There are days where everything is going well, I’m working efficiently, and I feel like I made a great choice to choose this career, and other days where I screw up majorly, oversalt a huge batch of caesar dressing, deal with an overwhelming amount of assholes (see above), get yelled at for being too messy, and have a garbage bag break on me while taking out the trash, leading to a serious question of my sanity in leaving a comfortable, high paying career path for this mess I got myself into. It’s days like these that I get a quick understanding of how some people fall into substance abuse.

Despite what may sound like an angsty post complaining about how I can’t take it anymore, let me assure you that these past few months in the kitchen have proven to be one of the most growing times in my life. No, it hasn’t been easy, but in each and every situation I’ve learned so much, not just about the culinary world and other people but about myself as well. I’m fully appreciative of each person that has given me an opportunity to learn from them, no matter how tough of a teacher they were. In the past 3 months I’ve grown so much as a person and as a chef, and undoubtedly 3 months from now that statement will ring true yet again. However, I would be lying if I said that I’m 100% confident I made the right choice. Some might call me lazy, others might call me weak, but the past 3 months have also been some of the most difficult times in my life. Most of my close friends have slowly drifted away from some reason or another, and starting work has drained me of time and energy to pursue my other passions and interests. Undoubtedly, being successful in the culinary world requires HUGE sacrifices and an overabundance of passion for food, combined with steely resolve and patience to wait for opportunities to come by. Sometimes, I seriously doubt whether I have it in me to push through and persevere. In many ways I don’t feel fully ready or mature enough to take on all these fastballs that life is quickly throwing at me, but I suppose that’s my reward for my boldness and fearlessness in taking these big steps over the past year or so.

The big question for me still remains: is it worth it? Was the sacrifice that you made worth it? In truth, I don’t know yet. Only time will tell.

About Michael Chen

A contestant on season 3 of FOX's MasterChef! Tune in on June 4 and 5 at 9/8c to watch me compete in the top 100 home cooks in America!
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10 Responses to Thoughts on life in the culinary world

  1. cooperflatoff says:

    I very much appreciate your honesty in this post. I have debated internally about entering the treacherous world of the kitchen with all said implications in mind, and this account of your first hand experience is very helpful to me. I have also heard many people relay similar experiences and for some it was worth it; others, not so much. Its a crazy world out there and I can definitely relate to your status of not being 100% about what to do as a career. Hope everything works out for you :D

  2. Gregory Wright says:

    I would most likely have forgotten all about you after you were eliminated from MasterChef if you had not made such a positive impression in the short time you were there. To make sure you weren’t just there because you could be good TV because of your backstory I made your dumplings. And they were awesome. Because of your sincerity and willingness to share your complicated life with everyone online, I’ve stuck with you. Joking with you, taking interest in what you are doing. This is the sort of post that proves I was right. You are really THINKING. And it’s sort of painful to realize you have easier and more difficult choices. Trying to decide what is best is so difficult. Especially when you see that comfortable choice in reach, but the passionate choice running faster than you can currently run. I don’t think you are complaining. I think you are just stating the plain truth. The culinary world is TOUGH. Somewhat thankless even. At your age, you have the advantage of being able to take these risks. knowing if it was a mistake, you can start again in another direction and still be young. From your postings, I believe you have far more of what it will take to succeed, wherever you choose, than you think.

    • Michael Chen says:

      Thanks so much Greg. You really are the ultimate MasterChef “fan”. I put fan in quotes because you’ve become more than that, almost a friend. And I say almost because we’ve never actually met in person :P. I bet if we ever did we would get along just fine :)

      • Gregory Wright says:

        Very nice of you to say. I appreciate the quotes, as I don’t really see myself as a fan. Social media allows people to meet in this strange online world who might never have met before. MasterChef has allowed me to meet some very like-minded folks online, some of whom have become very good friends online and in person. Not because they were on some TV show I happened to watch, but because we have that common passion of food and those “conversations” have lead to more significant ones about life. I’ve made some good friends who, like me, are viewers, and are online. I do consider myself a supporter. I know how tough it is to have people judge you based on what they see on TV, or what they read in an interview. So I try to provide positive support, especially since there are so many trolls out there who think it’s hilarious to mock folks who are putting themselves out there. I’ve been online friends with Ben since last year, and he’s helped me with tons of cooking questions, and been fun sparring with on occasion. As you well know he’s a special guy, and when he singled you out before the show aired, I knew you’d be someone I’d get along with.

      • orcasval says:

        I would love to echo what Gregory said. It is exactly how I feel. I have never been one to be a “fan” or get star struck (not Starr Struck, that’s okay, haha) by celebrity, TV, movies, sports…you name it. Masterchef just really struck a cord with me from the get go and I really see the contestants like someone I may know in my own community. I actually care about how they are doing and love to send encouragement as a virtual “friend”. I really appreciate that people like you and Ben are reaching out to the public and having conversations, not just promoting. So Gregory, there is at least one more out there like you.

  3. orcasval says:

    Hi Michael,
    You asked for feedback on your blog so I’ll share my thoughts with you. The birth of something new is often painful. I know because I have been through a few of them now (two literally and several figuratively). You may “suffer” from the same affliction I do. You want to know the future right now, and you want to have that future vision, right now. Well, take it from someone who has had a number of years jump on you… it doesn’t work. One of the hardest things I have had to learn is to not try to micromanage the future. Second hardest thing is not looking to the past and second guessing the decisions I made. Now I am not saying don’t learn from your mistakes because that is exactly what they are all about. Just don’t spend time wallowing around in the past or past mistakes. You always start from right where you are and every day is a new start. One of the greatest things I learned is to truly follow my heart. I spent a good deal of my life leading with my head. It wasn’t all bad for sure but every time I let my head talk my heart out of something, I always ended up regretting it. And then how the universe does, it ratcheted up the stakes until I finally “got it”. In other words, I my head got it wrong a few times before I figured it out. It sounds like to me that you followed your heart in to the culinary world. That cannot be wrong. I do believe in the power of manifestation and the power of belief, etc. – pick your positive affirmation. But there is a little secret. Most of the time…you have to do the work! It’s all in the attitude and how you see it. Now I know when you are wondering how you are going to pay the bills it’s pretty hard to think butterflies and sunshine. You might have to fall back on something else temporarily. But that’s not necessarily going backward. Maybe you step back a little bit and re-look at the picture. You may be in the right sports complex, just on the wrong field. Or maybe you are cutting your teeth on one part of the culinary world to see what you don’t want to do. Don’t pigeon hole yourself so soon. There are so many different routes to get “there”, where ever and whatever “there” is. Maybe there is something you could do that might combine some of your already acquired skills with the culinary world. Maybe you would have success in an independent venture. Who knows? You will find your right path if you go with the current rather than swim against it. Then, here is the next no so fun bit of advice. Most things have to be built up in stages. It is rare to go from beginner to rock star without steps along the way. You didn’t get to summa cum laude by simply showing up on time and smiling for the class. You worked hard for that. And for the record, just because you left that field does not negate what you did! Everyone who is accomplished in one thing is a novice in something else. I’m not saying you are a novice to cooking but I am saying that until recently, you have put more of your energy in to school and cooking was your sideline or passion. Now to make your passion your livelihood you will most likely need to do some training. I will agree with you that much of the prep work is tedious and un-imaginative and it’s where most people begin in restaurants. If your desire is to be a restaurant chef or a chef owner, you will most likely have to scrape a lot of potatoes for awhile. Consider other ways of getting that same experience such as culinary school and /or restaurant management. I will admit that some kitchens tend to have a bit of a rough nature about them, foul mouthed, crude and with a school yard mentality. If that’s not you, don’t even waste your time with them. If you must work in that environment, DO NOT let it get under your skin. And certainly don’t let it change you in to something you do not what to be. They do not have to be that way and they are not all like that. When you are in charge of your own kitchen, insist on it being the type of environment that works well for you and the team.
    So there it is. Do your dues and follow your heart. The advice from a woman who is old enough to be your mother (and then some) and has paid some dues, made some mistakes, had successes, but still young enough to venture out to new things. And with new ventures I know that I will have new dues to pay, a lot of hard work but I have the faith that I can do it. You are young, smart, talented, and very cute by the way. You will be brilliant!

  4. Tim says:

    Michael, a job is a job. So many people I know who have gone through school don’t know what they want to do with their lives, and as they take their job search to find the position with the perfect criteria for exactly what they want, they so often leave disappointed.
    Consider yourself lucky that you’ve saved thousands of dollars by starting at the bottom. Moreover, you’ve got an hourly position. If you’re full time, do you have insurance?

    • Michael Chen says:

      i can opt in to insurance for like 80 bucks a month. Considering that I’m a reasonably healthy adult that is budgeting extremely tightly right now, it’s not worth it for me to get it yet (plus I think I’m still technically on my parents’ insurance).

      I’m kind of in the same position of trying to find a position with the perfect criteria and getting disappointed (except I don’t have a degree). But I’m hanging in there, we will see how this turns out!

      • Tim says:

        Either work something out on your own (Create, invent, market yourself and your culinary skills a la Frank. Adjacent), or settle and build from there.
        I guess the word settle is a bit strong, but you know you’ve got to start somewhere. 6 months in any kitchen is good. I have places on my resumé that are real name droppers, but it doesn’t make one bit of difference if you don’t have the time in the kitchen. Network with your chefs, stay on your parents insurance for as long as you can, and find out after you get your line skills up where the chefs see you fitting in.
        Corporate chefs have prime gigs- stability, a guaranteed audience, and money to keep the food cranking out at insane volume. You can make it work there, and the harder you work at the beginning, the easier it will be in the future. Remember, the first time you see a culinary school student ask a chef if they can duck out early, you’ll still be on your feet, laughing at them. Take the job, take it seriously, and learn and invent along the way. Even if you don’t make a name for yourself among those who you serve, keep thinking about how you want your future “Meals By Michael” to be served. Next, make it happen.

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