For generations, paranoid parents have blamed television for glorifying sex, violence, criminal activity and a myriad of other factors they consider a moral detriment to their sons and daughters. But even Apache gunship of helicopter parents have no issue with what I consider to be a truly worrying trend — television shows that would have viewers believe being a professional cook is somehow a glamorous profession.
Cooking shows, especially those that feature professional cooks in some sort of competition, would have you believe that all you need is a passion for food and you’ll soon be the hottest head chef in your hometown. You’ll be shown on camera in your spotless kitchen, wearing crisp whites, presenting your creations for the camera while delving into your love of formulating spectacular dishes and the confidence it inspires within you.
It might look sophisticated on the small screen, but before my name was splashed onto newsprint, I spent a decade as a professional cook — from the grungiest of dives to fine dining — and I can absolutely assure you being a cook is not a glamorous career.
There are plenty of kids out there who are watching these shows — and there are now many featuring kids as competitors — who will believe that cooking is an elegant way of creating edible art and that you will be heralded by the community.
I do believe learning to cook well is an invaluable skill and can be a fantastic creative outlet for kids. I am strongly in favor of parents bringing their kids into the kitchen if they develop an interest in cooking. This might even give the youngster a leg-up when they reach working age and still have the desire to pursue a career in kitchens.
And if they do make the plunge into a culinary career, they will quickly realize that things aren’t so rosy in the restaurant industry.
For starters, almost no restaurant worth its salt will ever start an inexperienced cook on the line. No, first you must cut your teeth as a dishwasher, where you will quickly realize that most restaurant staff do not get to take state-mandated breaks, and that’s why everyone smokes.
An aspiring, young cook may be inspired after viewing a television chef skillfully turn plain, dried rice into a creamy, delicious and exquisite risotto. What that young person does not understand is that creating dozens of restaurant portions of risotto involves hours upon hours of constant stirring over a sticky, steamy and bubbly cauldron of rice and stock until your arms are turned into Jell-O.
Once that task it done, it’s time to de-vein shrimp. And no, that’s not a vein, it is shrimp poo, and it is your job to clean it out of hundreds of shrimp over the next hour before dinner service. They definitely don’t show that on TV.
With the exception of “Hell’s Kitchen,” cooking shows also do not highlight the fact that, as a professional cook, you will spend most of your day being scrutinized on every detail from your bosses and customers alike. Besides airline pilots, being a professional cook is one of the few professions in which customers demand absolute perfection.
There is also little these shows do to highlight the fact that, as a cook, you’ll be working 12 to 14 hour shifts on your feet in a cramped, hot and uncomfortable environment for meager pay. Your coworkers will be alcoholics, drug addicts, egocentric, callous and tactless sexual deviants.
This may sound grim for the aspiring professional cook, as it should. The restaurant industry is not glamorous.
But I still loved it.
I loved working with food each day and creating pleasing dishes. I truly enjoyed the creative outlet working in kitchens provided me. I appreciated the sexually charged and politically incorrect atmosphere. I took to waking up in the afternoon and working beyond the time when most people were fast asleep.
I truly enjoyed time spent with the coworkers, forming true bonds built upon working together for 50 or 60 hours a week. Restaurant employees are often viewed as stupid or too lazy to get a “real” job, but I worked with some of the most intelligent and driven people I’ve ever met in restaurant kitchens. One former coworker also became my wife.
The restaurant industry is certainly not for everyone and it is absolutely not glamorous, something not highlighted on cooking shows. But if you truly have the passion and drive, it is an incredibly interesting career.
Either way, definitely learn to cook. It just might land you a spouse.