When Stuart Irving, chef and co-owner of Cobre Nuevo Latino Cuisine, is asked what he would say to an aspiring chef, he replies, “Have you thought about other career opportunities?”.
Irving’s question echoes Daniel Boulud’s opening words in Letters to a Young Chef (Basic Books, 2006). “Do you really want to be a chef?” Boulud asks, and then lays out what it takes to get there. His book should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in cooking.
The Straight canvassed several local chefs for their advice. Irving, who began as a dishwasher, went to culinary school while cooking at a burger restaurant and followed this with stints at seminal Vancouver restaurants including the now-defunct Raintree, Bin 941, and Wild Rice. “Cooking is hard work,” he says at Cobre. “You’ve really got to love it. Explore and make sure it’s what you really want to do. Otherwise, you might find yourself after 29 years burnt out.”
Two of Vancouver’s youngest executive chefs—both restaurant owners—started their careers early. Boneta’s 27-year-old Jeremie Bastien was 14 when he went to work as a kitchen helper in his father’s Montreal and Laval restaurants. Anthony Sedlak, 26, of Food Network fame and the soon-to-open Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe, began at 13 in Grouse Mountain’s restaurant kitchens. Both went on to further formal education and travelled to Europe to gather all-important work experience.
“Make sure to get in for the real and right reasons,” Bastien counsels at Boneta. “You need passion, and you need to love what you do. They [prospective chefs] don’t know that the hours are hard and long. Fifteen-hour days are standard.”
“Pay your dues,” recommends Sedlak at Corner Suite. “It might be five years. You’ll peel potatoes, wash dishes, and do cleaning before you get to plate dishes. Try to get into a midrange French or Italian restaurant—offer to work free for two days to see if it’s a fit.
“Then go to school,” he continues. “Talk to people, learn from them, and you’ll have a better sense of the business out of the gate,” he says, adding that he likes to “develop a team using people with little experience but good attitudes rather than experienced cooks with not-so-good attitudes. It’s all about who can stand the heat.”
Hired just two days after she graduated from Vancouver Community College’s culinary arts program, Karen Gin has cooked entirely in hotel kitchens and is now restaurant chef at Zin Restaurant & Lounge at the Pacific Palisades Hotel. She enjoys mentoring young chefs and sometimes hires untrained keeners. “I’d take on someone who has the right attitude, starting them as a prep cook doing tasks like cleaning vegetables, and watch to see if they’re taking in everything that’s going on around them, if they have the drive to go further,” she explains at Zin. “You have to love cooking, have a passion for ingredients—let them speak for themselves; you’re the vehicle. You’ve got to love it or you won’t make it.”
DB Bistro Moderne’s chef de cuisine Stephane Istel offers similar advice to fledgling chefs. “Get into cooking [only] if you’re passionate about it, because it’s hard and [the hours are] long,” he says at DB. “Get a classical base—learn sauces and breads. Work in a traditional restaurant, not a modern one, so you learn the basics.” The Alsace-born and -raised chef got his start with a stage (a short, unpaid work term) at age 14 before entering a culinary school in Strasbourg at 15.
Istel has two fresh-out-of-culinary-school cooks working for him right now. He prefers to build on a young person’s training rather than hire a mature cook who may have developed poor work habits. He’s just promoted a young dishwasher, who “has the attitude and vision” to succeed, to garde manger, an entry-level position that involves making salads, soups, and cold dishes.
Julian Bond has worked as a chef at some of Vancouver’s top restaurants and is now program director and executive chef at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. His advice for his grads? “Check your ego at the door. If you go in thinking you know something, you likely don’t, and you won’t get a second day,” he says in a phone interview. “Culinary school gives students an edge, a skill set,” he adds. “But if they haven’t learned the ”˜kitchen tango’ [how to move around a busy kitchen], they’re done.”
“Find a chef willing to teach you,” he advises. “It may take a year and a half to learn from him, but [then] don’t be afraid to move on. The best chefs will help you move so that you can keep learning and growing.”
According to the chefs we talked to, if you’re serious about cooking, passion and attitude will get you places. Pay your dues. Prove yourself. Move around and get experience. Find a mentor. Let go of your ego. Otherwise, as Irving says, you might want to consider another line of work.