From Culinary Extern to the Line Cook

I start my first job as a line cook tomorrow.  After completing my culinary training at French Culinary Institute, and a voluntary externship at Bar Boulud, I accepted a position at Dressler Restaurant in Brooklyn.  Even though I waited tables while I was in college, I’m glad I did an externship because the front of house world and back of house world are very different.  Overall, my experience was a positive one, and gave me a real feel for the demands of a busy professional kitchen that culinary school did not.

Even though the externship is unpaid, you still need to trail, which is basically an interview and audition.  I arrived for the trail with my knife kit and uniform. It was around noon and the restaurant was in the middle of lunch service. One of the sous chefs greeted me and showed me to the women’s locker room (which I realize now is an uncommon luxury). Once in uniform, I was assigned my first task.  One of the line cooks set a few cases of broccoli rabe in front of me and demonstrated how to separate the leaves from, and trim the florets of each stalk. The executive chef arrived shortly after and greeted me with a smile and a handshake. That afternoon I peeled a couple cases of asparagus, and cleaned and trimmed a case of baby turnips.

From the prep kitchen I had a good view of the line and could observe dinner service. There was the sous chef, accompanied by a saucier, a saute cook, an entremetier, and hot appetizer cook. There were also two cooks on the garde manger (cold app) station and a pastry cook plating desserts. During service, Chef sent me a couple dishes from the menu to try, and later called me into his office to chat. We agreed that I would come in two evenings after school, and a full day on the weekend for the next three months or so. That meant 8 hours Tuesday and Wednesday after school and 12 hours on Saturday.  For me going to school full time and externing 28 hours a week was often really taxing, but was just enough to be really involved in the restaurant without affecting my performance at school.

During my externship, I prepped a LOT of vegetables. The dining room had over a hundred seats, which on a busy night could turn over up to 4 times. It was summer, and every week, I cleaned and cut endless cases of broccoli rabe, asparagus, baby turnips, radishes, carrots and more. Sometimes line cooks would run out of items during service and I would drop what I was doing to help them.  Both the executive chef and sous chefs there were really supportive and patiently corrected me when I wasn’t getting it quite right. Gradually I was allowed to take on new tasks – rolling dauphines, prepping ratatouille, picking literal bushels of parsley for herb butter, blanching vegetables, poaching eggs, making gazpacho, and flavored oils. Occasionally Chef would just give me a recipe to test, like pissalidiere dough, or squid ink pasta.

I also spent a lot of time helping the garde manger station during service.  The station had a rotating door of externs, but all the cooks were really warm, and made me feel welcome whenever I was there.  After about a month, I became pretty familiar with the plates and became more and more involved in service. By my last few weeks there, the cooks training me were hanging back to allow me to learn the station. After a while I started to get the hang of producing consistent plates, shucking oysters under pressure, and listening to the expediter and sous chef to call orders. Toward the end of service I would find myself working the station alone as the others made prep lists for the next day. As an extern, it was the perfect place to reinforce basic skills like knife work, speed, and consistency. It was also a good place to get exposure to working service at a restaurant that does a considerable amount of volume while making an effort to maintain a high level.  As I neared graduation, I was offered an entry level position there.

I probably would have transitioned happily from my externship to a job, but one of the instructors at school was recruiting for Dressler Restaurant in Brooklyn, and recommended me. It’s a small, alumnus-run restaurant producing was at a very high level, and I trailed there three times before making a decision.  I had already made friends at Bar Boulud and enjoyed the camaraderie, but Dressler has a smaller tightly knit team that works so well together they barely have to speak during service. So this evening I go by Bar Boulud to deliver my news. Chef seems genuinely understanding, wishes me the best, and asks me to keep in touch. It’s the middle of dinner service, so I don’t want to linger too long. I briefly say goodbye to my new friends at garde manger and pastry, but I hope it’s not goodbye for good.

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