My Story, Part Two: How I became a Chef

Now that midterms are finished I find I have an abundance of time to get back to writing. Here is the second part to my story of how I became a chef. The definition of chef is variable for sure. I often speak with my professors, and one always asks me how the cooking is going. One day he asked me what the difference is between a chef and a cook, and I had no answer. Some people say you are not a chef until another chef calls you a chef. Others say you must run a kitchen. I found the proper definition of a chef to be a professional cook working in a kitchen, who has the knowledge and skill to visualize, plan, and implement a menu. This includes a well rounded knowledge of ingredients, the ability to manage time well, and to manage cooks working along side you. I say well rounded knowledge because it is my belief that it is impossible for any one person to know everything there is to know about cooking. There are too many cultures, foods, techniques, and cuisines to know let alone master them all. This is really what drew me in to cooking in the first place, the never ending book of knowledge surrounding the culinary world.

Most people think I went to culinary school, this couldn't be farther from the truth. I spend countless hours working in kitchens learning the tools of the trade. Here is how it all began.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am the youngest child in a Polish immigrant family. If there is one thing the Polish are known for...it's food. We have so much food. Pierogies, golumpkis, kotlety, potatoes, stuffed peppers, the list goes on and on. So we ate lots of food in my family, and worked outside doing things to make it by. Burning wood to save money on oil, remodeling apartments, raising chickens, etc.

So growing up I had this connection, or lack thereof, with good food. Our family made it by, but we were never "rich". We saved money by buying cheap ingredients and living meagerly. Part of this included one pot/pan meals that were either hit or miss, but we ate because we needed to eat. Me being the youngest, I was always very picky with my food. You could ask any member of my family, getting me to eat healthy foods was near impossible. I remember one week we had potato and kielbasa soup for a week because it was all I wanted to eat, and it was worth every bite.

But never did my family make a special meal just for me. I ate what what the family ate end of story. There was no "feed the kids first, then make something for us". We ate what was prepared, and we ate as a family. Now I see families making separate meals for their children, which quite frankly aren't always healthy, and then preparing meals for themselves. I get it children come first, but that takes so much time out of your day.

Anyway rant over, that is how my connection with food started. I would always try to help make pierogies, eggs, and french toast. Really simple things. I didn't know I enjoyed cooking then. I just liked to help. So by 3rd grad I started making breakfast for myself, burning eggs and spilling cereal. In fourth grade my teacher gave us a recipe for some egg dish. In hindsight I think it was a giant "Danish" omelette. I decided to make it for my family. Of course my mother helped. It had potatoes, bacon, eggs, and cheese layered in a pan. With all that fat of course it tasted great, but the process was a mess. At one point we had to flip the "omelette" into another pan and it broke. That is all I remember about the first time I fed my family.

From there I continued to make breakfasts: french toast, pancakes from box mix,eggs, etc. I would make breakfast for my brothers son occasion. One day I was making french toast, and I was under the impression that soaking the bread in the egg mixture for longer would make it taste better, hint not really. When it was all set and done, my brother cuts into one, and egg wash starts coming out. That was an embarrassing moment, but a learning experience none the less.

Our family often times housed missionaries or pastors from other states and countries because my father was a pastor. We would have visitors for a weekend who would visit the church. One of my favorites was Gusthaf, a missionary from Congo. I decide to make breakfast on a Saturday morning for my father and Gusthaf. I am in fifth grade, so about 10 years old. My newest invention was a "fritatta" which isn't new by any sense of the meal. I would whisk eggs and fry them in a pan like an omelette. During the cooking I would season with everything I could find, because more seasoning is better right? So I made three "fritattas", which took more time than it should. The first two were fine, and the last one was a disaster. The top of the salt shaker fell off, and salt poured into the last one. That one being mine, I scooped the salt out the best I could, and traded it for my fathers eggs. Then I called them to eat and it started out well. Halfway through my father says "it's way too salty", he then takes another bite and spits it back onto his plate. That must have been where the shaker fell. I felt like an ant, so embarrassed that I failed. Gusthaf noticed this and said "it tastes really good". But of course coming from his background where there is no food and people are starving every day, anything edible is worth savoring.

So come middle school I was now left to fend for my own breakfasts, most of the time eating sugary cereals any time they were available. My family never bought sugary cereals, but when they did, it lasted for maybe 2 days. Come 7th grade we were required to take a foods and sewing class, to learn the basics of cooking and sewing. We made smoothies after a few weeks. So guess what everybody drank at home? Yes smoothies for weeks. Then we made english muffin pizzas...so guess what we all ate next. Notice a pattern yet? We made cookies, guess what I did next. So...many...snicker-doodles. I couldn't stop, it was an epidemic. And then...came the stir fry.  We learned how to cut some veggies and make rice. Ultimately making a stir fry. Guess what I made for the next six years?

My specialty had become making stir fries, and my family enjoyed it. Come high school, I had begun playing football and lost a lot of fat. I took a foods class, which taught us the basics of food prep. Such as mashed potatoes, turkey dinners, sandwiches, meatballs, etc. We had one woman come in and perform a food demonstration. She made steamed turkey wontons. The next day I buy wonton wrappers and spend all of my time making wontons. The younger of my two older brothers would help and we made so many wontons. Of course it was a tedious process because I had no skill, but they were delicious none the less. So now I'm making stir fries and wontons religiously by the age of 15.

At this point my focus was on football and weightlifting. My goal was to bulk up, so I started making breakfast sandwiches with eggs, bacon, cold cuts, veggies and ALL the condiments. From this point my cooking didn't change for a few years because my only goal was to become a footballer. This included managing my time effectively to lift and do homework.

Two years later in April 2008 , I had just turned 17, my father, brother, and a few others are sitting at Friendly's. My father asks to speak to the manager, who proceeds to arrive. My father explains how he had worked for the Friendly's corporation for many years as an engineer. He asks for an application for me, and I fill it out.  After a few days I call back and schedule an interview. I met with the assistant manager, because they were in the process of hiring a new general manager. I applied as a cook, but was put on fountain making ice cream.

This was awesome for me, I got to actually make money. What was this some kind of scam? You mean I get a paycheck, and can cash it, AND can buy whatever I want? I didn't open a bank account for weeks. I bought everything I needed/wanted including but not limited to: clothes, work boots, video games, pizza, protein powder, and some other things I can't remember. I was so excited to make money.

Now playing football under coach Bill Moore taught me the importance of getting better, growing stronger, always improving, and being better than the person I was yesterday. So now my aspirations were to be the best fountain worker at Friendly's. I wanted to be the fastest, the best, and the smartest. within only a few months I was training other people how to work the fountain. Then there was "K". K was hired to work the fountain, and I trained her. After a month or two K gets transferred to the grill. Now keep in mind that at the time I was not a Christian, and I was furious. My desire to work the grill, my adolescence, and football training combined to a boiling rage over my circumstance. I immediately confront my general manager "P". telling P how angry I am that K was promoted before me. P had no knowledge that I wanted to work the grill, remember P was not hired until I had just started.

 

Fast forward 3 months and I begin training on the grill. The dirty, greasy, french fry covered floors didn't deter me from keeping the same mentality, be the best person here. Get better every day. Little did I know, those dirty floors, and greasy walls would be my home, my comfort place for the next four years. After only one week of training, I was allowed to work by myself on the second station, handling only a few tables at a time. As it so happened we were getting slammed, as per usual, and I was given a table of 20. The first station cooks couldn't hep because they were swamped. P comes back to tell me after the front is settled P will help me. By the time P comes back I had finished the table with only a small quesadilla left. That was the beginning of a successful Friendly's employment. By the years end I was training new cooks, and was only 17. By 18 I had accomplished my goal of being the best cook at our Friendly's, and possibly the best in the district. At times I would help other stores, and I was amazed at how poor performance was. At our location we had a very high volume, so naturally our cooks were better at dealing with the pressure of a high volume situation.

                   

I never took many photos at work, this was just our freezer. Yes everything was prepackaged. The most intricate things the cooks made was tuna salad.

So now sandwiches and chicken dinners are my thing. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna salad were my new favorite at home. I was 18,  training cooks and fountain workers at Friendly's, playing football, and going to high school. Now my brother had to go and get engaged. Parties are expensive. To defray the cost of the party, my brother jokingly asked me to make a giant stir fry. And I made a giant stir fry. So much that our family didn't have to cook for a week after the event. That was officially my first catering experience.

I took a catering class in high school, after I had begun working at Friendly's. There we learned how to make garnishes, make and decorate cakes, pizzas, and cater for events. We did small things like sandwiches and salads. I learned how to make pasta salad. We made lobster once. Obviously lobster is not in the budget. BUT the teacher got an amazing deal through a contact which allowed us to make lobster on such a small budget. Although the class taught me so much, it didn't compare to the knowledge I received in the real world. That is the issue with education, there is too much impractical knowledge.

Upon graduation I decided that I would do one of two things, I would become an engineer or a chef. I enrolled in as an undeclared major to Westfield State University, and worked at Friendly's to pay my way. I explained in Part One how Friendly's impacted my career choice. The summer before my sophomore year, Friendly's was not doing well financially. Our GM was transferred and the store was doing poorly. In an attempt to save money, corporate decided to use our restaurant as a trial for a new program. We were renovated, and implemented a new "retro' menu. As a part of this, corporate also demanded we only schedule X number of employees per "projected sales". So if sales were down, employees were sent home. And if sales were high, we were understaffed and up the creek without a paddle, literally left to our own devices. Now I was good enough to handle myself, but the quality of food went down, and the employee morale was shot.

 

There were times when we were so busy that the trash would just pile endlessly. We weren't allowed to open the back door to take the trash out, except for certain times under the managers approval.

 

I had implemented a few shortcuts which would decrease cook time, thereby serving better quality food, to impatient costumers. This included building sandwiches as the bread toasted, so that they wouldn't get cold as they were built on the cold side of the line. The corporate trainers put an end to this. At one point one woman stopped our busy dinner service to show me how to put dressing on a sandwich. We were already behind in orders, and she holds everybody up. Now nervous system was in the habit of pouring dressing in a circular fashion. It was rhythmic, automatic, and I didn't have to think about it. The entire sandwich was covered in dressing. She stopped us to say I was incorrect, and I MUST apply dressing in a "zig-zag" fashion...or else. It was at this moment that I realized corporate did not care about the employees. They did not care about their costumers. They only cared about pinching pennies from their hard working employees, trying to scrape by with whatever they had. That was the turning point of my culinary life. I was done with slaving for a company that didn't care. I was done working for a company that didn't value my effort, and input. It was then, October, 2010 that I searched for a new job. Lo and behold, the best was yet to come...

Steve Czerniejewski