My Story, Part 2 1/2, How I Became a Chef

 

I broke up this second piece because there was too much detail to cover in one sitting. I mentioned that I didn't go to any culinary school. For me it was not worth the tens of thousands of dollars. And in hindsight, I still agree with that decision. I've worked with culinary school graduates who had poor work ethic, poor time management, no motivation, and a misplaced sense of entitlement. I've worked with culinary graduates who were all talk and theory, but couldn't perform in a high pressure situation. Culinary school is good, but experience and passion trump everything.

The entire purpose of the last blogwas to explain the "why" I even considered looking for employment in a professional kitchen. Despite my distaste for how the Friendly's corporation handled their employees, there was one very important factor of which I am forever grateful. That is Friendly's taught me, and the cooks I trained, how to deal with a pressure situation. We learned how to deal with a high volume, high pressure, environment. I am glad to say Friendly's produced the finest cooks in the area, or at least our store did. Although I am not in contact with many of them now, I am sure that they are successful having learned the skills necessary to maintain their cool under pressure.

Now to pick up where I left off. I've mentioned while becoming a physiologist, that it was a series of random events which lined up perfectly to produce the person I am today. The exact same thing can be said for my culinary journey. I applied to one, and only one restaurant. Tuckers Restaurant in Southwick, MA.

I applied to this restaurant for only one reason. It was the best food I had eaten in my life. When I turned 16, my family took me out to Tuckers when they moved into their new location. I remember every aspect of that meal. The food, the service, and the atmosphere. I was impressed at how the wait staff conducted themselves. They wore black, with red aprons. When we ordered, they all brought our food together, and knew exactly where to place it without saying a word. I ordered the Tuckers steak Au Poivre. A peppercorn crusted pan seared steak with a dijon brandy sauce. I thought the steak had too many peppercorns, now I don't think it had enough. I didn't like the sound of the herbed mashed potatoes, so I ordered steak fries.  The steak was delicious, and the sauce was amazing. When I returned home I asked the only "chef" I knew how to make the sauce. The only drawback I had was the steak fries. I was expecting some pre-processed crinkle cut steak fries. What I received was wedge-shaped hand cut steak fries, which were bland as my mothers mashed potatoes (we never seasoned much in my family). Fast forward to today, I make sure every steak fry I send out is seasoned adequately.

So when I made the decision to apply to Tuckers, I walked out from class, and on the way to my car bumped into two friends from church. A brother and sister. I haven't seen them in some time so we stuck a conversation. Actually the brother and I were partners for a middle school cooking fair in which we made a dish for the class from our native country "Poland". We made strawberry soup, and I still have that recipe to this day.

I told them I was going to look for another cooking job. They asked me where, and I replied "Tuckers". Her face lit up with astonishment. Apparently she was a waitress there. I now had my in, my reference. So I went to Tuckers andreceived an application, filled it out and brought it back. When I entered the second time, an older gentleman is standing in the bar, looking at me awkwardly. I struggled for words, and simply asked him if he was the owner (I didn't say hello or even introduce myself). Of course he wasn't, but I gave him my application and he passed it on to the owners. He then told me there was a new hire in the kitchen, and all positions were filled. Disappointed, I left and probably went to Friendly's. I don't know what I did after that.

Fast forward to the next day, I leave my calculus class, and look at my phone to see a missed call, and a voicemail. I am walking out the doors of the building, while listening to this voicemail from "Mike at Tuckers Restaurant". I start getting goosebumps...waiting for him to say come in for an interview. And then I heard it. I can only imagine how I looked like, fist pumping and dancing my way to the car. I was so excited, and couldn't believe I had a callback. I immediately call back, and am probably out of breath from jumping to my car, to schedule an interview.

I did not want to screw this up. I mean I went overkill. Normally chefs wear their chef coats to interviews, or just a button up. I held nothing back. I show up wearing a suit and tie. I am freshly shaven and cologned, some of you know I don't shave for anything. Standing at the doorway with my resume and references. I walk up...and the door is locked. I stand there bewildered, and call the kitchen. Apparently there was this thing called halftime, where the restaurant is closed for two hours to prepare for dinner service.

So Mike comes to open the door. I am expecting to see a man in an executive chef coat, what I see is another story. A man wearing a t-shirt and pajamas with a baseball cap greets me at the door, he must have seen my expression because during the interview he said they didn't wear chef coats in the summertime due to the heat of the kitchen. The pajamas I now know were chef pants. We talk for a while, I can't remember our conversation, but it was relatively relaxed. At the end of the interview we talked about scheduling, as if I was already considered an employee. I didn't have to wait for a call back, we set a time then and there for me to start.

All employees entered through the back kitchen door. I walk in on my first day and see a group of chefs/cooks. Mike the head chef/owner, Brad the sou chef, and some other cooks wearing pajamas. I remember walking by and seeing some people really didn't have the passion. Their whole demeanor was off. Needless to say they didn't last too long after I started. At first I only worked one or two days per week. I was started working the "middle", or in most kitchens "expediting". As an expediter my responsibility was to call out table orders, organize said orders, prepare the starch or vegetable, and heat some small menu items.  Starting me in the middle allowed me to see every menu item and learn where everything belonged, how each plate looked like.

At Friendly's, if we made a dinner, each ingredient had a specific place on the plate. Here we had autonomy to build and present a dish. This was what I was looking for. Now there was a huge difference between the two kitchens. At Friendly's we had a flat top electric grill, two fryers, and a cold station. At Tuckers we actually worked with real fire. Pots, pans, and a real gas grill. This was a foreign language to me. Bad pun, I'm Polish. This was like rocket science to me. I don't know how to saute veggies, or how to season anything. How do I use a pan? Everything we did required so much skill.

Now being the young Friendly's trainer, believing I was hot stuff, thought I could do everything. I was so scared to do well, that I pretended I knew what I was doing, when in fact I knew nothing at all. For the first two weeks, I had migraines after every shift from the stress of acting like a proper cook. I could deal with a pressure packed situation, but lacked the skills to cook real food. For a few weeks I remained on the middle. The low volume, high quality model was so new to me. Friendly's made me fast, but I couldn't execute. I was reserved, being the newest and youngest cook on the line. It felt awkward ordering my superiors around. After a few weeks, we were busy one night. And I am reserved again, waiting for direction to put out orders. Mike yells out "your not training anymore!". And he was right. I needed to light a fire and get moving, but I was so out of my element with this new style of cooking. There comes a time in all of our lives where we are not training anymore. We have to grow and assume responsibility over our lives, thoughts, and actions.

 

img950989.jpg

This was one of the first food pictures I took after working at Tuckers, I had a long way to go.

Fast forward 3 months, still not any better by any means. I mean I can only imagine what Gordon Ramsay would say.

After some time, they started training me on the grill. A real grill, not a flat top. This was like brain surgery for me. The cook times were so different from on a flat top. I would burn my arm hair and callous my fingers. I did everything incorrectly, believing that I was right. After a few more weeks, Mike approached me on a Friday night and asked "where do you want to work tonight?". Implying either middle or grill. I still wanted to maintain that confidence, or arrogance, that I could compete with the big boys. Dinner service starts and we begin getting busy. I'm grilling vegetables incorrectly, breaking salmon fillets, burning bread, and undercooking burgers. The straw that broke the camel's back was my ignorance. I still wanted to portray my confidence (arrogance), and in my ignorance didn't know the cuts of meat. Brad had called off a sirloin steak, and I cooked a filet Mignon.

It was at this moment they knew, I was inexperienced. After that night, I was kicked off the line, banished to the salad and desert counter for close to a year. My only saving grace was my work ethic. I wanted to be there, and I wanted to learn. I was fast, and put effort into learning the trade. Were it not for that one concept, I would not be working there anymore. So I get kicked off and work salads for close to a year. Now I am not happy. And just like in Friendly's. my goal was to be the best. Thank you Coach Moore for inspiring me to get better every day. I was going to show them that I deserved to be on the line.

For my entire duration on the salad counter, I gave every dish my all. Every desert looked amazing, every salad was delicious. I went above and beyond what was asked to prove I belonged on the line. Every spare moment I had was spent observing the line. How the orders were called, how the foods were made, what the communication was like, and how the timing was performed.

 

I needed to practice making the deserts at home as well. Peach Creme Brule.

I observed and absorbed everything from the kitchen to YouTube. I studied Marco Pierre White's videos, and tried my hardest to be just like him. I spent countess hours learning how to grill meats, how to make deserts, how to cook meats to temperature, and how to make dressings. I studied and printed cheat sheets, and showed the chefs that I deserve to be on the line. After about one year Mike said one of the best things I was doing was observing the line during service. Shortly after sou chef Brad said the salad counter was too easy for me, and he would work me back into the line. Finally.

 

All the learning needed to be put into practice. I needed experience with every kind of food available. After almost a year into Tuckers I began making eggs benedict.

 

And I needed to grill salmon without breaking it apart.

At that point I had soaked in enough to be competent in the middle. I was still concerned about my meats however. I was worked back into the grill, but for about a year I needed to use a meat thermometer to properly cook my steaks. I would cook to a temperature, feel the steak, and let it rest. This process became cumbersome during busy hours, and wasn't very efficient. After about one year back on the line, I was confident enough to cook without a thermometer. And yes mistakes were made. There is also a discrepancy between the customers preference, and their described temperature. For example a customer may order a medium rare sirloin, but in reality likes it medium. They then would send it back, when the problem was really on their end. I'm not absolving myself by any means. I've cooked steaks incorrectly for sure, and had them sent back. The worst is if you let the steak rest too close to the grill, and the ambient temperature continues to cook the steak well done.

 

It was at this time that I had been introduced to risotto. A time consuming and technical dish, that is well worth the effort. Although working the rice really strengthens your forearms. Well I had to keep practicing.

During my first two years working at Tuckers I learned how to cater events. How to plan and organize parties and events. I learned how to order food to minimize waste. When I first started, bruschetta was on the menu. One of my responsibilities was testing it for quality, and making more if it was no longer restaurant quality. Fast forward two months and our church youth group is having a Christmas party.The organizers were busy prepping the snacks and organizing the program. I pop my head in to see what is going on. Keep in mind that nobody outside of my family knows that I have started working in a professional kitchen. I see the girls making bruschetta, and I offer some help. They refused at first, but later accepted after I mentioned that I've made it before. So I finished the bruschetta, put it on the toast, and finished it with parm cheese. Then they asked me to bake the entire thing. I double checked and they insisted "to melt the cheese". A bruschetta is supposed to be fresh, only the bread is baked or toasted. Later that evening, the only chef I knew in the church came up to me and asked why the tomatoes were "old". They werent, we just baked the bruschetta.

 

Wonton soup, one year post initiation at Tuckers, right around the time of the bruschetta incident.

After the bruschetta incident, word spread that I found new work. One year later we had our annual youth new years party. I was asked to spearhead the food portion, to which I quickly accepted. I purchased all the food, and had help prepping it all for new years. We had two meats, potatoes, and two different vegetable dishes. I was definitely over zealous with how much to prepare. I prepared for 300 people. After the dust settled, I realized that I had enough food to feed 600 people. I forgot to account for the fact that if you have more menu options, people are going to take less of each item. We ended up donating the food, but what a learning experience it was for me. Not to mention we don't have a dishwasher at the church, so every sheet tray, pan, and dish was washed by hand...for hours.

 

At this point word spread like wild-fire that I was cooking. Iwould go on church retreats to other states, and people would say "you're the chef right?". Heck I recently learned strangers in Ireland knew who I was. East coast, West coast, and Mid-West knew my story; mostly due to my father being a pastor and then presbyter. I began cooking for more church events. Sometimes choirs would visit from other states, and we would feed them. I catered portions of, or entire weddings. At this point, my catering was on point in terms of food ordering. Experience is so critical in this field, you don't get the whole story just going to school. For the next few years I would spearhead the new years events, but back in the restaurant...

I had begun training on the saute side. The "pit/hole" person was responsible for most of the pan and oven menu items, as well as catered events. Pan seared scallops, salmon, and...the steak au poivre. It was at this point that I actually considered myself an amateur chef, having catered events outside the restaurant, and experiencing every station on the line. It was about this time when I finished my degree in Exercise Science, and decided to get my lifting schedule back on track. I mentioned in my physiology story how I dedicated about a year to food, well I really dedicated a year to "the pit". I continued to practice at home, working in my techniques as well.

 

Stuffed chicken with hand cut mango chutney.Grilled chicken salad with southwestern black bean and corn salsa

By the start of 2014, I had pretty much stopped food photography. And replaced it with healthier meal options. Graduating with a degree in Exercise Science put me in a unique position. I had the knowledge of what to eat for a healthy diet, and the skill to make it taste good. My next goal is to find a way to share some of that knowledge, and teach some skills. That is the purpose of these blogs, but first I needed to lay the foundation: My Story.

This is the story of how I became a chef. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't easy. I didn't go to school. But I had mentors, chefs willing to sacrifice so I may learn, head chef Mike Anderson and sou chef Brad Kline. Without their help, none of this would have been possible.

I want you to realize that life isn't about the money. Maybe it is for many of you. But in this country we have the opportunity to follow our passions, and still not be in need. Mike always says "I've never been stressed a day in my life. Stress is doing something that you don't want to do". So many people I know work in jobs they don't like for the money. Well the Dali Lama said its such a poor decision to sacrifice our health for money, and then sacrifice our money when our health deteriorates.

We can have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food in our bellies while following our passions. In high school I became depressed for so many reasons. I said before how my body image impacted me severely. Well that wasn't all. I was distraught that I had no talents. I was a bad power athlete, I couldn't play music or sing well, I couldn't write well, I didn't know how to work on engines, or snowboard, or do flips. None of the things I saw my friends doing. Now I realize that yes, we may have a disposition to be better at certain skills. But when we work hard at developing a skill, and spend hours upon hours developing ourselves, other people call that "natural talent". We know different. We know the effort it takes to develop skills, learn trades, and grow in any particular area. If you spend the time to work at whatever it is that is your passion, soon enough the people around you will say you too have natural talent. It is worth the sacrifice to invest in your passions, before the opportunity slips us by.

 

 

Steve Czerniejewski