Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Internships

No amount of schooling will leave you even remotely prepared for any sort of leadership position in a professional kitchen; only experience can give you that. After spending more time working at restaurants as a cook than studying for class, I knew that the culinary world is where I wanted to be. I did want formal culinary training, though, so a week after dropping out of St. Olaf College after spending three years procrastinating and changing majors, I was living in Minneapolis and starting classes at Le Cordon Bleu.

The reason I chose to attend Le Cordon Bleu - Minneapolis/St. Paul over any of the other culinary schools in the area, despite the astronomical tuition cost, came down to the 3-month internship at the end of the program. I had worked at five very different restaurants over the the course of the four years between graduating high school and attending culinary school, each giving me different valuable skills and experiences, but none serving the style of food that I found myself drawn to.

When I set out find a restaurant to intern at, I initially looked into all the big names all over the country - Spago, Aquavit, Topolobampo, French Laundry, Jean-Georges, Chez Panisse, etc. After contacting a few and getting similar offers - day prep position, no pay, one free dinner in the dining room - I decided to refocus my search and figure out what I really wanted to get out of my intern experience. I came up with a loose criteria:
1. Stay local
2. Focus on smaller, successful chef-driven restaurants
3. Decide on a style of cooking that appeals to me (Contemporary regional/seasonal American in my case)
My decision to stay local stemmed from the fact that the Twin Cities restaurant scene has been growing enormously over the past 5 years, with a number of chefs and restaurants garnering national attention (including a number of perennial Beard award noms, most notably Tim McKee, this year's Best Chef - Midwest winner). It also would allow me to build a strong network of friends and peers, many of whom are working in the best restaurants in the area, that I could turn to for job leads and any other advice I may need.

There were a number of different restaurants that I had considered, but one really stuck out in my mind - Fugaise. Chef Don Saunders had opened it, three years prior to my arrival, to great reviews and a number of awards. I gravitated towards him and his restaurant partly because he was one of the first local chefs that I could recall reading about when I began reading the Taste section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune religiously. Everything I had read about his food appealed to me, so that became my number one choice. He gave me an unpaid intern position (I was able to work full-time at my job while also completing my internship), and I learned more from him and his sous chef in those three months than the whole previous year of classes. Fugaise closed shortly after I finished there, his sous chef decided to move on, and I must have made one heck of a good impression because that position was then offered to me. I now have the honor of working with, learning from, and collaborating with one of the best chefs in the Midwest, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity that he's given me.

So this has turned out to not be the advice on internships that I was originally intending, but I'll tell my story to whoever will listen, so thank you for humoring me. This is the distillation of what I think one needs to consider when trying to find an internship site.

1. Where do you want to start your career?
This should be a good starting point for your internship search. Moving halfway across the country just to intern at a big-name restaurant can be a really fun experience, many of my friends did it, but those that returned to the Twin Cities to find a job had a harder time doing so than others who stayed local. A fancy resumé looks cool and will get your foot in the door, but solid skills and good local references are what gets you the job.

2. What type of restaurant do you want to work in?
I love the intimacy and personality of the small chef-driven places. I also got to work directly with the chef, sous chef, and their only line cook. I drilled them with questions constantly. I didn't want to go to some hotel or big corporate restaurant to be put back in the pantry, never seeing the chef.

3. Can you afford an unpaid internship?
I got a lot of crap from my friends for taking an unpaid internship, but I was perfectly willing to work full-time at my other (crappy) job to get the opportunity to work with such a talented chef one-on-one. (And it more than paid off in my case) It varies from restaurant to restaurant as far as paid or unpaid, so if you can afford an unpaid internship at a great restaurant, don't count it out. As long as you can stay on top of the long hours, it can only make you look better and more dedicated to your chosen profession.

4. Try to meet some of the line cooks, servers, etc. at the place you're interested in.
They'll likely give you an honest opinion of how they feel about working there...unless they secretly hate working there but take a perverse pleasure in watching interns suffer (it happens).

5. Read as many reviews, profiles, and articles about the restaurant and chef as you can.
Find the one that you can't find anything bad written about. Check out foodie message boards like to see what diners say about the food/service/atmosphere/chef.

6. Don't take an internship at a famous restaurant just because you want the big name on your resumé.
Make sure you actually like the food. You've got the rest of your career to build an awesome resumé. Go somewhere that you know will make you happy, challenge you, and give you a strong opportunity to build your skills.

7. Graduating from culinary school does not make you a chef.
I know I beat this to death, but I had a number of classmates and other acquaintances who were under the impression that, upon their graduation, they would be hired to run some fabulous restaurant or open their own to rave reviews. It's unusual to get even a sous chef position right out of school. When I was offered mine, I said "yes, but I don't think I'm qualified." Don told me he was perfectly confident that I could do it, and would teach me as I go, so I got lucky.

So if you're finding yourself in the position to start seaching for internship sights, put a lot of thought into it. Do research, meet the chef/sous, talk to employees. I really think the smaller, but very successful, restaurants are the way to go. They don't let you stand behind someone and watch, you're expected to be a part of the team, and by the end of your time there, you will likely have been involved in every station of the kitchen. Potential employers will recognize that you have at least basic experience in a number of areas, and if you do well, ask the chef if you can use him/her a a reference on your resumé. People who do hiring for larger operations should know that if a chef from a small restaurant is willing to say a kind word about a former intern, that person is worth looking at.

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