As promised, here is an entry in relation to the links I posted several days ago about going behind-the-scenes of foodservice. This is meant to be an informative post for both diners and anyone interested in pursuing a career in foodservice. I’ve consulted several of my foodservice friends and former coworkers to help with input on this, as everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. Personally, I’ve worked primarily in small scale, mom-and-pop shops. However, the various areas and atmospheres you can work in foodservice are incredibly diverse. The aim here is to focus on the most common areas worked–franchises; fast food; and small-scale, local restaurants. (You didn’t’ realize that most chefs don’t work in gourmet restaurants? Looks like you’re learning more already!) Let’s get started:
–If you’re looking for a serious career in foodservice, expect to pay a lot for a certification or degree, and make very little in return.
My culinary education cost approximately $25,000 in student loans—and it was only a certification, not a 4-year degree. Eight years later in the field and I’m still making barely above minimum wage (granted, we live in a very rural area, but the majority of places to work in foodservice here are the same as most places—franchises). Another friend who went to the Culinary Institute of America (a 4-year program, I believe) reports having over $50,000 in loans and wage disparity as well. Don’t forget about all the fees for maintaining your ServSafe certification and membership to the American Culinary Federation. It adds up.
While a high cost of education followed by wage disparity is becoming true for a lot of careers, foodservice is an excellent example of this—and here’s why: Employers would much rather hire someone with little to no experience (perhaps a high school kid looking for some summer work who can jump back and forth between dishwashing and helping with prep, or a college student looking to work their way through school?) and train them on the job, justifying starting their employees at minimum wage. Now, don’t be mistaken…there’s really nothing wrong with being trained on the job—everyone has to start somewhere. However, where this becomes a problem is when it drives down the wages of those who are experienced, fully qualified for the job, and require little training. There’s more to this than simply hiring unskilled labor, but you’ll have to read the next point to understand better.
–Don’t be fooled by all the foodservice marketing jargon—you’re food most likely isn’t “fresh” and “homemade.”
I like to blame franchises partially for this one. When you have hundreds of stores across the country and thousands of customers expecting to have the same experience at every restaurant, quality control and consistency become extremely difficult to deal with. So, what’s the solution? Buy or create a generic product that you can consistently obtain and that requires little to no preparation in order to prevent discrepancies in production. In a nutshell: a lot of food is bought already prepared and simply heated before serving—not exactly a task that requires a college degree and extensive skills. Many restaurants which are not franchises have switched to such products as well because it’s more convenient and can help keep labor costs down—it also creates unskilled labor positions that aren’t worthy of much more than minimum wage. Most of us are already capable of using a microwave, and it’s not hard to teach someone how to use a deep fryer. Check out a few examples below:
That delicious Chicken Cordon Bleu? Most likely shipped in frozen from SYSCO and tossed in the deep fryer before ending up on your plate. The sauce very well may have come out of a package, too.
Enjoying that lovely chicken salad with strips of meat with perfect grill marks on them? Most likely a mixture of breast, rib, and dark chicken meat (as well as several additives and preservatives) blended together, induced grill marks, and formed into the shape of a strip of sliced breast meat—all precooked…and available in the freezer section of your local grocery store. Your salad dressing most likely came out of a container as well.
Pasta Primavera? It’s possible that the vegetables came in precooked and frozen, then reheated and tossed on your plate.
Breakfast sausage patties? Even those come in precooked.
Eggs Benedict? The Hollandaise sauce most likely came premade from a jar, in powdered form in a can, or as a paste.
Hot dinner rolls and bread sticks? Pulled from the freezer (premade) and briefly heated before being served.
Pies and Pastries? Premade and frozen unless you go to an actual bakery. But, even then, it’s not a guarantee of a homemade product.
Coconut Shrimp? Premade and frozen. Just drop in the deep fryer and serve with sauce from a container.
The list goes on and on.
–That “Dinner Special” isn’t so special after all.
This isn’t the case 100% of the time, but typically, “Dinner Special” is a secret term for “transformed leftovers we need to get rid of before they expire.” Soup has its origins in leftovers, and some restaurants still use this technique to sell their excesses. However, most restaurants probably use a frozen, premade soup base…just add water.
–Not everyone who wears a chef coat is a chef!
As already mentioned, it’s very likely that the person cooking your food is not a chef at all, and very well may be a college student working their way through school. Dress code is probably the only reason they have a chef coat.
–Head Chefs don’t always cook.
This may seem shocking, until you realize that an Executive Chef’s main job is to run a kitchen and its staff…along with doing inventory, menu planning, budgeting and scheduling, placing food truck orders, and other administrative-like duties. It’s pretty rough to do all that AND cook for customers.
–Cooks work all the days, times, and hours that everyone else has off.
Holidays and evenings are some of the busiest times for restaurants, so don’t expect to have these times off. I’ve been pretty fortunate in managing to obtain primarily day shifts wherever I’ve worked, but unless the restaurant was closed on a holiday, I was there working a normal schedule. What’s even better is I’ve never received holiday pay.
–Fast-food isn’t a great place to make a career…but it’s a great place to learn to hustle.
Even though you won’t be doing any real cooking at McDonald’s or Burger King, the sink-or-swim fast-paced environment will teach you to multitask at a level you never thought was humanly possible (a good reason to take it a little easier the next time a high school kid screws up your order. You probably couldn’t handle their job well either). A fast-food position could be a great way to learn to pick up the pace.
–If you have a food allergy, notify the restaurant BEFORE you plan on eating there.
While in the land of Food Network cooking shows and Martha Stewart wannabes everyone does their job perfectly and never, ever cross-contaminates anything, this certainly isn’t the case in the real world. So, as a common courtesy to the kitchen and wait staff (and as a favor to yourself), let the restaurant know well in advance about your allergy and what you can and can’t have. This will give them time to set up a sanitized, fresh area with a new, clean cutting board and cookware. If your allergy is serious and could send you to the hospital, you may want to consider not eating out at all. Why? Remember how little you knew about your allergy and what you could and couldn’t have until you were actually diagnosed? This is the position most cooks are in. The majority of them won’t even know where or what to look for, so don’t expect them to be able to figure it out.
–Speaking of cooking shows, most meals really DO take more than 30 minutes to prepare (sorry Rachael Ray).
Ever hear of the term “prep work”? It’s what cooks do in order to help your dinner at a restaurant make it to the table a little faster. We do as much as we can ahead of time (dice and slice, bake and par-cook) so that you’re not waiting forever to eat. Now, this will vary depending on the restaurant (gourmet restaurants take longer because they want your food to be as fresh and unadulterated as possible when it’s served). Oh, and don’t forget about all the items that come in already prepared as mentioned above.
–Hospitality Management sounds great, until you try to put it to use in the real world.
A lot of Hospitality Management majors probably spent years working as a server before they managed to land an actual management position. And some, even if they do obtain a management position, may still have to do a lot of the grunt work they did as a server. Being a manager (especially in foodservice) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you were hoping for a cushiony desk job. If any of your employees call off work and you can’t find a replacement at the last minute, guess who gets to work that shift? You. If your servers get swamped and need a little help serving or cleaning up the dining room, you get to pitch in. So, depending on who you work for, you may land that management position, but you may also be resorting back to your server days quite frequently.
–If you’ve ever watched FoodNetwork’s “Restaurant Impossible,” then you’ve had a pretty good glimpse into most foodservice establishments.
Unfortunately, even the most heinous offenses portrayed on the show are commonplace in most restaurants. A lot of it can be traced back to poorly trained workers, and a lot has to do with laziness. Foodservice is hard work—there’s no doubt about it. And, unfortunately, some people just find it too difficult to maintain higher standards without it completely exhausting them. Thankfully, there are people like Robert Irvine to not only expose but try to fix these issues.
These are most of the major points I can think of for now in relation to foodservice misconceptions. I hope you’ve learned something in reading this, and I’ll be sure to post updates as more ideas come to mind.