What you need to know about working in the food industry
Are you considering applying for a job in the food industry? Be it for a summer job or as a lifelong career choice, here is a little guide about what you can expect from working in a kitchen. As I gained most of my experience from canteen or café work, I will deal mostly with this branch. And being an appalling waitress (I am cursed with bad balance), I leave a description of fronthouse jobs to writers with more relevant experience than I have.
What are your skills?
Passion should be a prerequisite in an industry with a huge turnover rate. A part-time job in a fast-food joint usually means side money for students, easy enough to get and easy enough to leave. It may seem brain-dead for some, but the constant contact with the customers requires your full-attention. Would you cut it in a coffee shop without having the passion to learn about the products you are selling and provide the customer with precise (and as concise as possible) advice? Try brewing coffee while answering a question about how fresh the slices of cake are, while your colleague asks your for help and oooops, that little girl over there just knocked over a display. Coolheadedness is just as worthy as training.
Speaking of training, there are formal ways to learn the tools of the trade from an early age. This article is not country specific so you should check what applies to your homeplace, but some high schools provide classes and placements that will give you a qualification. You could also look out for on-the-job training opportunities. Though you need some formal factual education, practical experience is invaluable. When I registered at a temp agency specialised in hospitality work, I had to sit a test about hygiene in a kitchen: at what temperature should meat be kept? Which fruits go in the fridge? How often should you wash which surface? How to defrost safely? My experience but also readings I had done on the side allowed me to pass with full grades.
Formal education will train you in every aspect of food making, from cutting fish to baking, from coming up with restaurant menus to control nutrients in the food trays sent to hospital patients.
It is your passport to being a cook and hoping to one day run your own kitchen.
Physical and mental strength will be needed when you will face long shifts in hot kitchens, and having to work fast, hygienically and efficiently while the orders keep coming in and stress flares.
What to expect?
- The first thing that is apparent when you are aiming for the top, is that you will find few women there. It may seem contradictory, as social prejudices teach us that cooking at home is traditionally the woman's task. Those traditional gender roles explain why women who have children and want to have time to take care of time will abandon the kitchen. In a world of 12-hour shifts and no sick-leave, it is difficult juggling in family life as well. The nature of the work also requires physical strength and endurance and men may use this to undermine the female chef's position. Though it depends on the mentality of the staff, a woman may have difficulties overcoming the gender prejudices her workforce may still hold and, unfortunately, express.
On the other hand, you will get used to hearing bad language and sexual (if not sexist) jokes all day. Wait for the day there are roastbeef slices on the menu, or slice a cucumber in front of a room full of guys and see what happen. Though it hurt my ears at time, I had to learn to accept that crudes jokes are, and always will be, what cements camaraderie in some workplaces. The kitchen is a good example. So do not take it personally.
- Now that we are talking about food, let's make one point clear: food is for the customers, not for you. Of course, a chef will be required to taste everything they prepare, even things they do not like and are allergic against. I once met a cook who had seafood allergy and had to taste and spit the food out, lest he be sick, and a home economics teacher I shared a kitchen with could not digest flour and we had to wash the equipment spotless clean after baking.
It is highly probable that in a fast-paced environment, with the heat coming from the ovens, the stoves and the steam from the sink and the washing-machine, you will get dehydrated....and pretty much starve. You can be expected to cover a 12 hour shift without being entitled to a break, or even thinking of having time to take one. There is much crouching under equipment or the counter to swallow a bite as fast as you can. The truth is known that restaurant workers eat leftovers or help themselves to your chips. I have never witnessed this attitude myself, but I understand that hunger pangs create desperate acts.
On the other hand, if you work in an establishment that is less busy, or combine a retail section (a chocolate stand, coffee, expensive lemonade), you will discover new tastes and get food for free.
- Another test of your passion is the fact that shifts are extremely long and, as I mentioned early, you will not get a break unless you are a smoker. Work happens at night, early in the morning, on weekends and holidays, when other people, family members, children and friends have free and miss your presence. Being a dedicated restaurant worker is taxing on the social life. As an owner, your commitment must be total and that explains why restaurants are often family businesses.
From a worker's point of view, the workforce is kept as lean as possible, and expected to multitask, come in sick and accept low wages.
On the other hand, I once worked for a company producing food for airlines, and sickness among the workforce was taken extremely serious for fear of contamination. Personal hygiene is important as well, and piercings need to be covered. Some skin conditions can also disqualify you from kitchen work altogether.
- Finally, be aware that when accidents happen, they can be quite bad. Expect to be burnt at some point and learn how to provide first aid. My colleague sprang back me last year while I was pulling a tray out of the pizza oven, I still have a clear burnt line on my forearm. Other types of accident involve fractures, pulled backs and bad cuts. Not often the result of negligence, it happens mostly because of lack of space in the kitchen.
A few articles on the scarcity of female chefs in the industry
- Why Are There No Great Women Chefs? - Gastronomica
- A sociological study of why so few women chefs in restaurant kitchens (from The Feminist Kitchen
- An article from The Telegraph
Women in male-dominated jobs: Viktorija Bernataviciute, a 25 year-old Michelin star trainee chef, talks about her life as a female chef.
Do you still have the passion? There is no better way to test it than to jump into the world of work and try it out. I hope I did not paint too dark a picture. The food industry is a worthy and rewarding one.
Remember those essential three words: endurance, passion, education.