i think i haven't been entirely honest with you. i'm leaving things out and only giving you the shiny finished products. what you're not seeing is my face after a long day on the grill station, covered in sweat and glistening, aching for a iced down drink or a roll through a sprinkler. god, anything cold really. this is supposed to be a diary of my life in food and i'm leaving out the fact that i'm currently living and breathing as a prep cook extern right now. that's not really very fair now, is it?
so, how did we get here?
it started with the first day of class. from the first moment we sat around that shiny worktable in our pressed whites, the chef-instructors started talking about trailing. trailing is a working interview. when it came time this past march, i trailed in four kitchens of varying intensity. the first was a renowned bakery and cafe, then a modern american place in the east village, a michelin-starred joint in midtown, and my final and ultimate choice, a vegetarian place on the lower east side.
how do you get a trail?
for me, it was pretty simple. the name of ICE and the fact that this was for externship and not a job (necessarily) definitely helped to grease some wheels. i was realistic about my own preferences and only reached out to restaurants I was a) excited about and b) used email to communicate. god, I hate phone calls.
what if it is for a job?
simple! same basic concept. reach out to the chef in question (or usually a chef de cuisine or sous chef in charge of these things) by either calling, emailing, or stopping by. do your research and come by during a slow time. most restaurants who do lunch and dinner service are pretty relaxed around 2-3 pm. no dinner service? try 11 am.
what do I bring?
ask them! oops, did you forget to ask? then bring everything. this is what you need:
- your knife roll
(at least a chef's knife, paring, bread, and steel. I like to also use my santoku so I make sure it's sharp and packed in.)
- your clothing.
black chef pants (or checkered). white button-down chef's jacket. hat. black non-slip kitchen shoes.
- a sharpie and small pocket notebook.
what should I expect?
expect to arrive 5-10 minutes early and to change in a tiny shared closet (wear underwear). you'll follow to whatever station the chef directs to you and likely they'll have some basic tasks like peeling a case (yes, a case) of carrots, making a salad for family meal, trimming parsnips, or punching out holes in cabbage. these were all tasks i had to do! once family is served and service is about to start, they'll generally position you tight up against a wall in the kitchen and have you watch the show. as it progresses, if they can, you may get to assist with a few of the simpler items. sometimes they'll send you early but expect to be there until the kitchen closes and everyone leaves (around midnight - 1 am).
so, what's the daily life of a prep cook? first - you're going to work more "traditional" hours than a line cook as you're going to be scheduled to come in to offset them and restock everything needed for nightly dinner service. be prepared to come in around 7 and clock out around 4 pm. you won't get weekends off but if you're lucky, you'll get two days off in a row. once you've changed, you'll set up your station with a cutting board, your sharp knives, and pint and quart containers to hold all the things you've prepared. check the board for your prep list. swig your coffee. get moving - time is not your friend.
my very first (serious) kitchen job almost seemed to happen by accident. I had just applied and been accepted to culinary school when I was told there was a culinary internship available. I went for an interview and came in for a trail, feeling simultaneously extremely comfortable and thrown to the wolves. while I was there, I learned a great deal - terms and etiquette, learning how to work in quantity (although nowhere near the quantity I'm dealing with now. did you know that a case of swiss chard cooks down to three quarts? I didn't either.)
but this is what you should take away - talk to people. don't be shy or discouraged (even if that's your gut reaction, it was certainly mine!) - reach out to kitchens around you to see if you can trail. you'll start low - as prep or as a dishwasher, but keep your eyes open and you'll learn so much. do you need experience? not in the least. i certainly didn't! have the right attitude of keeping quiet and focused and clean and that'll take you right where you need to be.