The Life of a Chef (and it isn’t all truffles and foie gras, baby)

Today, we’re super pleased to publish this guest post from chef Lisa Nakamura of Orcas Island’s Allium Restaurant. Nakamura began as a prep cook “and eventually graduated to some pretty illustrious kitchens, including at The French Laundry and The Herbfarm”,  opening Allium two years ago in the spring of 2010.

Let’s begin with what most chefs are NOT.

Most chefs are not glorified culinary rock stars who sit around all day with sketch pad in hand, coming up with new dishes like the latest haute couture fashions. We do not skip down to the local farmers’ market with baskets on our arms to pick up our daily ingredients.  We do not dine nightly on filet mignon and lobster, listening to Bach whilst sipping a fine Bordeaux.  We do not have minions polishing our shoes, chauffeuring us around in limousines, nice as that may sound.  We do not have home kitchens like the ones you see in glossy food magazines with a milieu of friends gracing our house with wine glasses in hand.

Now, let’s look at what most chefs ARE.

We are dedicated, fanatical, somewhat egotistical creatures who can be fiercely competitive.  We have scrapped our way up the totem pole, spending far too much time in the kitchen, which result in our “unusual” senses of humor and sometimes awkward social skill sets.  We can be a bit insecure about who we are, what we do, and at times overcompensate with blustering and posturing. (Admit it, you do it; get over, move on.)  We view ourselves as on the fringe of the circle of normal folks, the people who work in offices from 9 to 5, and truth be told, we like it like that.  We march to the beat of a different drummer, and sometimes we’re the only ones that can hear that syncopated rhythm in our heads.

(Note: I have been lucky enough to work with a few “rock star” chefs, and they, too, started from the bottom rung. There is NO passing go, collect $200 maneuver in this game.)

There are only a few of us.  There can only be one chief in the kitchen.  Many, if not all, of us aspire to be the Head Honcho, but it takes a certain amount of talent, fortitude, smarts, and yes, luck, to get to the top of the heap.

The really optimistic ones (read: foolish with unending reserves of hope) open our own places.  Suddenly, we have to be good business strategists, human resource managers, bankers, dishwashers, cleaners and, at times, plumbers, in addition to our culinary prowess.

Please remember all this, oh Ye Who Hope To One Day Be Chefs and Open Your Own Restaurant.

It takes years to gain the skills, palate, wisdom and knowledge to be an accomplished chef.  Yes, we start with raw talent, but that talent has to be honed, planed, buffed and polished. Iron is forged from ore with fire; diamond is carbon formed under unfathomable amounts of pressure.

If you have the opportunity to work with someone who can and will teach you, do it.  Don’t quibble about your pay, don’t even bring it up.  To even think you can bargain your wage when you have no skill is insulting to the chef who is willing to mentor you, and disrespectfully false to yourself.  Think of this opportunity as though someone were paying you to go to school.  Your bargaining power and rewards will come later.

Success does not happen overnight.  Most of us have started at the lowest rungs in the best kitchens we could get into, with that darn eternal hope pushing us to keep going when others lose their grip.  And yes, we have swung from ladder to ladder, always trying to get a few rungs higher with each progressive swing.

This race has a heavy price.  In addition to working weekends, evenings, and holidays, thereby excluding “normal” socializing hours, I personally have worked two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet, just to be able to cook when I first started my journey.  I gave up time with friends and family, economic security and launched myself headfirst and alone into foreign countries to round out the sharp edges and add depth to the portrait of the chef I was painting.

Best part is, that portrait will never be done and it is always changing.

If you cannot and will not truly grasp all the sacrifices, hardship, tears and labor you will have to put forth to become a chef, (and again, there is NO guarantee that you will ever make it) then STOP NOW.  You cannot go into this half-assed.  It does not happen this way.  You must stop clinging to your old world and know that you are starting the foundations of a new house, a different house, one with a completely original footprint.  Jump, and have faith in yourself, or stay on that ledge and forever look down and wonder.  And move out of the way.


~Lisa Nakamura, chef/owner of Allium Restaurant




*Photo credit: Stock chef image from Jupiter Images; photo of Lisa Nakamura from Harley Lever

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