If there’s anything I’ve learned at Johnson & Wales so far, it’s that you will learn a hell of a lot more in your labs than how to make a few pies or how to bake a few cookies. You will learn life lessons that you will carry with you in your knife kit, to every job, every interview, and every challenge you will ever face.
1. Patience is a virtue…that not everyone has.
There’s a saying that goes, “a watched pot never boils,” and although scientifically it may not be true, there’s something to be said for it. In my first lab, I admit to checking my cookies in the oven every 3 minutes in a desperate fear they would over bake and my chef would cut my head off.
What did that get me? Cookies that took even longer to bake, because I let heat out of the oven every single time I opened it. There are plenty of people in the world who will do the same, and never learn from it. Things take time, and you need to give them that time. I’m sure there a billion other tasks that can be done in the meantime, so do them.
2. Don’t expect everyone to be nice to you.
If you make a mistake, you made a mistake. It’s as simple as that. That’s wasted time and wasted product. If the mistake is made once, you’ll probably get a “free do-over,” but if it happens more than once, you might hear some things you don’t want to.
No chef has to be nice to you, in the same way that no boss has to. You will develop a tougher skin, and you will learn to cope with it and let it push you to do better. It’s all part of the industry.
3. NEVER leave a knife in a dish sink.
I have watched classmates put their hands in the soapy water, cry a little, and pull their now cut hand out of the bloody-water sink. It’s like the scene from Jaws, minus the shark of course. All because someone decided to leave their knife in the sink, no matter how many times they’ve been told not to. Don’t be that guy!
4. If you dirty it, you clean it. If you empty it, you fill it.
I learned very quickly that nothing is more frustrating than when people drop dirty dishes off at the dish sink, or when someone uses that last bit of pastry flour and doesn’t refill the bin. It leaves a giant mess, and now not only do you have to take time away from your work, but you have to clean someone else’s dishes.
Cleaning up is just as much part of the job as making the mess is. When it comes to refilling, it will only take you two or three minutes, and you will save yourself from all the yelling when someone else finds it empty.
5. Class starts when chef says it starts…not when your schedule says it starts.
If you aren’t early, you’re late. If you’re just getting to class, or work, when you’re supposed to be starting the actual tasks, you’re going to be behind. Your apron should be on, knife kit/tools should be prepared, and you should have a full plan on what you need to get done and when it needs to be done before class starts.
Some chefs will want you there ten minutes early, some chefs will want you there an hour early. Whatever they say goes. You aren’t going to complain to your boss that you need your beauty sleep, so you shouldn’t bother complaining to your chefs now.
6. Mise en place. Mise en place. Mise en place.
For those of you who don’t know what this means, it’s a French term for “putting in place” your ingredients and equipment, before you begin, in order to perform tasks more quickly and efficiently.
I’ll be honest, I never did this before coming to culinary school when I was baking at home, but that’s probably just because I didn’t know any better. It’s so unbelievably helpful. You will be more organized, sanitary, and professional and you will definitely carry these skills throughout your future culinary endeavors.
7. You don’t have to like everything you make, but you do have to try it.
Coming from probably one of the most picky pastry students out there—there really is a benefit to tasting what you make. Believe me, it’s not always appetizing—I don’t even like chocolate chip cookies (I know, I know, what’s wrong with me?!)—but you cannot truly critique your work without acquiring the taste both for when it’s correct, and when it’s not.
Texture, color, or consistency may help, but food is about taste. Even if it’s something you don’t make, but it’s made by a fellow chef, you’re doing yourself a favor if you try it. There is no rule saying you have to like it, but at least you can say you tried it. And guess what, you’ll probably have to try it again.
8. You don’t always get to choose who you work with.
This one will follow you for the rest of your life, I promise. I have worked with people I absolutely cannot stand, and I have worked with people who have made my day go by significantly quicker. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting your job done, no matter how frustrated you may be.
There have been people who have literally taken things out of my hands in the kitchen while I was obviously using them, or who have purposely made my job ten times harder, or who have just given me and everyone else attitude the entire lab class, but there have also been people who have helped me overcome challenging tasks or people who take time out of their own work to assist me.
You don’t know who your coworkers will be, and you don’t know who your boss will be, but at the end of the day the job needs to get done, and you need to be the one to do it.
9. Some tasks will kick your booty, and some you can do in your sleep. You will learn from all of them.
Yes, I have spent 3 days in a row learning how to cut apples and carrots. Yes, I hated every moment of it. Yes, I can cut apples and carrots pretty damn well, and yes, I would do it all over again to be even better.
Have I faced tasks that I wanted to just run away from? Hell yeah. Have I faced tasks I probably could have done with my eyes closed? Absolutely. But what I will say about them all is I have learned—how to overcome challenges, power through work I really don’t want to do, and how to find improvement. As long as you learn something, no mistake is a waste, and no task is useless.
10. Love what you do.
You will have bad days, and you will have good days. The good days will make up for the bad, but you have to get through all of them. You have to keep your ultimate goals in mind, inspire yourself daily, and keep yourself surrounded in positive energy.
No matter how many times I came home from lab and called my parents saying this wasn’t what I thought it would be, or that I didn’t want to do it anymore, I still set my alarm for 5:30 AM every night, ironed my uniform, and did it all over again. If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.