Thursday, November 8, 2012

Natalie Karkhoff: Professionally Trained and Bona Fide Cook, but not Chef

One of the things in my life that I did and I am so grateful for is going to culinary school at a community college, and not an expensive private school. I funded my schooling completely out of pocket, didn't take out a single loan, and I'm so glad I did. The harsh reality of the restaurant industry still sends shivers down my spine...well not really, but how would you feel if you had just spent somewhere between $50,000 - $100,000 on school, graduated and got a job making somewhere between $9 - $11 an hour for the first 4 (at the very least) years of your career?
This is the harsh reality I speak of. Oh yeah, and forget any sense of a work/life balance. Work in a restaurant and you belong to it. You may as well sleep there, especially if you were like me and you were crazy enough to commute 60 miles a day to get to and from work! Most of my days were like this: Sleep til 11am, get to work around 1pm, work (hard! physically intense) til about 11pm, sometimes later, get home at about midnight, have a bite to eat and unwind in front of the TV, and then go to sleep at 2 or 3AM.
I burned out fast as most people do. This is the job that isn't for everyone, and I sure was one of those people. I'm the type of person that always wants to do my best in the jobs I am hired to do, but the amount of daily prepwork involved in my station and the stress and anxiety of not having anyone to help me really put a damper on my spirits and made me feel like I wasn't able to put out my best effort.
Enough flashbacks! The reason why I am sharing this is because I wanted to write about the difference between a cook and a chef. A lot of people finish culinary school and think that they're granted the title of chef. Or friends and family members who haven't the slightest clue about the way the food biz works refer to you as a "chef" once you finish school. Think again, my friend! The road to becoming a true chef is a long and windy one. One I couldn't finish.
I'm sure a lot of my old fellow line cooks are chefs now, running their own kitchens and writing menus and such. But for us little guys, who still take orders from those above us and are still honing our knife skills, oh yeah, and we still make somewhere between $9 and $15 and hour, we are cooks.
"Chef" isn't a title that just gets handed to you with the piece of paper when you graduate from Le Cordon Bleu. It's something you work extremely hard for, day in and day out, missing out on time with family and friends, on holidays, on weddings, on birthdays, and funerals (this is a little extreme but my Chef at The Montage said it himself). It's a title you earn and you should be humble about. I can't tell you how many kids I went to culinary school with who had this whole "I'm a badass" attitude on them. I'd like to see where they are now. I wonder if they made it past being the prep cook who gets yelled at by their chef to clean up the spill of corn chowder and marinara sauce that one of the lunch cooks tipped over from their 5-gallon buckets in the walk-in refrigerator (this didn't specifically happen).
Leaving the restaurant industry was one of the best decisions I made. It has given me a lot to be thankful for and makes me think after a hard day at my job now (manager at Peet's) that things could still be worse. It has also given me the opportunity to focus and reflect on things in my life that I really value and want for myself....Like my own food business...that doesn't involve a kitchen brigade...very soon...


  1. Are you starting your own business?
    What are you gonna do?

  2. Hi Ashley! Thanks for reading my blog!

    I'm very very interested in starting my own baking company. I have designed the logo and am trying to settle on a name...It's really hard to decide on a name because it feels so permanent!
    I really would love to have a sweets shop/bakery someday but I can definitely see myself starting out at Farmer's Markets. Stay tuned...