An Apprentice’s Frustrations

Each year the Stratford Chefs School runs a competition for the position of student blogger. The winner this year was James Toenders  – here is his first post as our 2015-16 student blogger:

This is something I started brainstorming at work on a day I was feeling particularly down about my position as an apprentice…

It’s strange to say at the end of October, but a new school year is almost upon us. When asked about how I feel about starting second year, my response all summer has been along the lines of: “too excited” or “it can’t come fast enough”. This is still true, but over the last few months I’ve had a new feeling creeping into my head: doubt.

Instead of sheer excitement, I’ve been thinking more along the lines of: am I good enough? Did I really learn enough this summer to get the most out of my education? Am I going to let my instructors, my friends, my family, my classmates and myself down? It’s a rough mindset to be in while simultaneously working 7 days a week and still struggling to pay tuition.

All summer long I’ve seen my classmates competing in (and winning!) culinary competitions; posting their beautiful plating on Instagram and showing off the stunning wineries and fine-dining havens they work at. I on the other hand kept a pretty low profile; I went to, and continue to go to work every day in the same dark-lit kitchen. I’m even scheduled to work the first day of class. Meanwhile, I use every last ounce of my energy to get a restaurant’s worth of prep done in a few hours, wait at my station for the inevitable crush of service to start, clean up, then do it all over again.

I work garde-manger at Bhima’s Warung in Waterloo, where I largely do vegetable and seafood prep. During service I assemble the salads, desserts, and some appetizers and feature mains. I do A LOT of prep before service, but my job doesn’t entail a lot of “cooking” or physically bringing my prep work to full fruition as some spectacular dish.

I’ve heard it from every person that’s ever worked in the industry: you have to start from the bottom and work your way up; walk before you run; dribble before you can dunk. I understand that, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating or intimidating that in just a few days I’ll be expected to act as the chef of the school restaurant, and work saucier at the French Laundry when really I’ve only baked crème brûlée and deep-fried some quails.

Sorry to sound like an early 2000’s Lindsay Lohan character. In reality I’ve learned a lot of skills and lessons this summer: I can process a pineapple like nobody’s business, I can clean an entire kitchen from top to bottom in the blink of an eye. I’ve learned completely new ways to look at ingredients, and above all else, I’ve begun to develop a unique palette that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my career.

In a few days, we aren’t just staying at our restaurants to continue climbing the ladder of seniority, learning as we go… We’re being thrown into a sea of Michelin Stars, tweezers, and most importantly, lessons. Note to my kitchen group: I’ll see you guys soon, and if your tournedos are burnt, then you and I will both know I have a lot of work to do before March.

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