Life as a World Chef Traveling through Kitchen

Kitchen
Working at a heritage event in Napa Valley, California

Working in a kitchen is no easy feat no matter where you work in this world. Along with being one of the least paying job in the world, the hours are irregular, unusual and long, and the working environments are dangerous and stressful. However, if you love working with food and what you do, at the end of the day it’s all worth it. Probably the best part of the profession is that it can be done anywhere in the world. 

Kitchen
In a fine dining restaurant in Chicago

I’ve worked in many different kitchens in the US and Australia. From fine dining to hotel banquet, from molecular gastronomy to down-to-earth Southern cooking, from outdoor barbecue street food vendor to plated gastro pub service. Have had roles from sous chef to station lead to dishwasher. Working in all these different environments and conditions forced me to be more flexible, creative and organized. Here’s an account.  And this is my philosophy on cooking.

There are many types of jobs for the travelling cook/chef in the world. The typical kitchen job in restaurants and hotels, cruise line kitchen, private yachts, school kitchens, street food or food truck vendors, supermarkets and many more.

Kitchen
Meeting Australia’s best chef: Ben Shrewry

Here’s how you get hired for a kitchen job

The Process:

To set up an interview, a cook can go through the various channels. There are many websites out there that advertise available jobs in their company. In the US, craiglist.com is one of the most common places for anyone to look for any job. The larger hotels will have job listings within their HR portals. If you’ve worked in restaurants long enough, connections through the head chefs are definitely a possibility to land an interview. It could also be as simple as sending an email to the restaurant or chef. However, it is not uncommon for them to walk into a restaurant or in the back door of the kitchen, with uniform, knife kit and resume in hand, requesting for an interview. Which is what I’ve done many times before.

Unlike conventional interviews where a CV or resume is everything, the show of skills, communication and working ethics are the most important traits for the kitchen. To test this, interviewees are required to do a stage, where they work in the kitchen for a day or two for free. This way, the candidate can get a feel for the environment he might be working in and the head chef and kitchen staff can vet the potential colleague.

This is a crucial stage as the chef will be throwing various tasks at hand to test your abilities and find out how you can fit into his/her kitchen. Communication is also a major part of the process. The chef wants to find out if you are able to work well under stressful conditions, get along with the crew and act as if you’ve been working there for a while. These will be indications to the chef how much training and time the interviewee needs before being completely part of the team.

Kitchen
It’s important to have fun while working! This was at a festival in San Francisco

Challenges

There are many challenges when it comes to working overseas. The most obvious one is language. Even in a country that speaks a similar language, the accent can cause some inconvenience. For example, in Australia, it took a couple of weeks to fully understand what the crew was saying as I was not use to the accent. Other languages definitely poses a problem, however, having an adequate skill level more than compensates it. The crew might set you up on tasks that do not require much explanation at first, then when you are more comfortable with the language and environment, bigger tasks can be assigned.

Finding accommodation and adjusting to the new city you are in are some overlooked challenges. Securing a place to live in a short notice can be hard, without much time flexibility, choices can be limited and not ideal sometimes. I’ve had to stay in hostels for a week before moving into an apartment, while working at the same time. Settling down and working for a little while, even if just for a couple of months can be a shock to your lifestyle. I find that getting out of the “holiday” mode is particularly difficult, going from full freedom and not having any responsibilities to focusing and getting into a set routine is more difficult than people think.

Ingredients and cooking methods are other challenges. There will be cooking methods in cuisines that you’ve never experienced before and ingredients you’ve never heard of or tasted. It’ll take sometime to learn about it, but that’s the most exciting part as a travel chef, you’re learning something new.

Kitchen
Learning about Cambodian food at a cooking school!

Tips

It helps to have a good amount of experience in kitchens, been in its various roles and good fundamentals before deciding to travel and work around the world. Chefs are generally looking for cooks who are fast, don’t need much guidance and feel comfortable in the kitchen. Your value to kitchens, regardless of level and type, will be high thereby increasing your chances to be hired.

Another important trait to have is humility. Even after working in many different places, having various roles and obtaining a whole wealth of knowledge from travelling, every kitchen is still different, there is something unknown to every culture and there is still something to learn out there. One of the biggest problems with young chefs these days is that they work in world class kitchens and they think they know everything, that’s not what chefs want. Chefs are looking for those they can teach, eager to learn something new and most importantly, work well with others. Attitude is everything. Never stop learning, the world of food is enormous.

Living in a new city means that your circle of friends is really small. Luckily it’s easier for a traveller with stories to make friends. Going for social meetups, such as Couchsurfing or Meetup.com is some of the easiest ways to gain friends quickly as they have weekly or even daily events. Tinder, though a dating site, is also a viable option, not everyone is there to look for a significant other. Joining interest groups is probably the best way; I love swing dance, going for dance events helped me to quickly settle in to a new environment.

Kitchen
Learning from a Prata master in Malaysia

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