Kitchen Trails and Industry Fails
When looking for work, restaurant employees, especially cooks and chefs, are normally expected to trail in the restaurant for a day to see the inner workings of the place and to give the employer an idea of their work habits and skills. Trails are a simultaneously smart and tragically stupid way to interview candidates for a job. For a first job, a trail makes sense in the same way the SAT is used to measure learning aptitude.
Does the person take naturally to the work or stand there like an awkward scarecrow? If they are enrolled in or have graduated from a culinary school, do they have anything to show for it, or are they dumb as rocks and have no idea how using a knife in school translates to using one in real life? Do they know how to use salt to their advantage, or do they not even realize its importance in cooking? To verify a new cook’s capability, a trail makes total sense. For those more experienced, however, a trail can be an awkward, backwards, aggravating, and/ or laughable experience. For someone with a proven record of experience, in my opinion, a general trail is a waste of time when an interview and tasting or cooking practical would be more than sufficient.
Beginning the search for a job with a trail often has the “starting from scratch” feeling. None of the cooks are usually informed about the qualifications of the candidate and sometimes don’t know what position he or she is trailing for. In some cases, that’s because it’s for one of the jobs held by the cooks or chefs present. Often, the chef who beholds the information about the candidate is too busy and/or too introverted and/or too socially anxious and/or too hungover and/or has forgotten they scheduled a trail today and/or pretty much anything to brief the staff on the person’s background or goals. And, so, The Trail (as the staff commonly refers to this human who has already introduced their actual name–something I’ve been both guilty and victim of) is guilty of idiocy and ineptitude until proven innocent. And so often, the real trial–line cooking– doesn’t start until after a couple hours of prep work patronization.
In general, you can’t blame the staff for over-explaining the steps of work to The Trail. After all, this alien in the kitchen is going to be responsible for some of the food preparation for the restaurant, and it has to be right to serve. To best prevent any mass destruction, that means that usually the cooks will either play hot potato with The Trail and try not to let it help them by saying things like, “I’m good, do you need it?” I’ve had the distinct honor of being on a trail the same day as someone looking for a culinary school internship and being pawned off to another cook as in, “Are you using both of them right now, or can I have one?
“No, do you need one of them?” No names, of course. The minute things get named, relationships get complicated, after all.
Otherwise, the cooks will give the trail the golden opportunity to chop herbs or go gather all the shit they keep forgetting in their ADHD cooking brains: “Here’s a list of all the things I still need for service, which started five minutes ago. Can you grab them?” And so, after a couple hours, the only discernible qualities this human has is whether they can not cut themselves with their own knife on the first task and whether they are able bodied enough to see shit and carry it in their hands. Having been in the position of both cook and chef administering many trails, I have seen plenty of dumb or green potentials that make a solid argument for the way trails are conducted currently: they cannot be trusted with anything more than the bare minimum.
I’ve seen a guy cook meat on a grill for kebabs and put it on a stick after it was cooked! I’ve seen a girl label a container of zested citrus as “juice meat” instead of “juice me.” I’ve had to tell a guy that salads should be dressed with salt, acid, and oil as opposed to just black pepper and oil. I’ve had a girl triumphantly spilling over with excitement that she knew about the word umami. That same girl slapped my ass when she left her trail even though I was the one who was deciding whether or not to hire her. I’ve seen a man go into the bathroom with gloves on and come out wearing them. For these people, a trail is a kind buffer between them, the potential employer, and their respective and mutual fates.
For people that have years of experience in cooking, though, the time spent dicking around and standing there with a thumb up their asses while waiting for direction (or even watching the cook who owns them for the day do a terrible job and refuse help or advice) is not the most productive way to convince the chef or coworkers of their ability. It’s quite like if instead of taking the SAT to get into college, you had to take a basic addition test where the first section was finding pencils and proving that you knew how to count to ten and no one was really sure if you’d ever made it past the first grade anyway.
Lately, in my own hunt for a job, I’ve been subject to some interesting moments in kitchens around the city. Being young hasn’t done me any good in commanding immediate credence in each new kitchen team. Looking even younger than I am has done me less good. And say what you will about it, being a female has probably done me even less good. I get it. I look more or less like a cherub out of a Michelangelo swathed in chef garb. My looks don’t give off the same aura of strength and badassery as that possessed by tall, lanky men covered in tattoos, often ones who have chosen to grow a beard to suggest wisdom. And no matter the growing quantity of damn amazing female chefs out there, the industry is still dude obsessed.
I’m small. I can’t grow a beard at all. Automatically, nothing much is expected of me, especially physically, and I’m not established enough in the industry to have a reputation that precedes me. Staying at the same acclaimed restaurant and climbing through the ranks is a good answer for that, but I don’t like staying somewhere for four years. So I go back into the culinary playpen every so often. Here is a list of some times I had to reach deep inside myself and not let myself stick my hand in a flame or chop off a digit to get out of the trail or even first days of a new job early:
- When I dropped a microplane on the floor and a cook told me I had to wash it before using it again
- The time no one, not even the chef on duty, was informed that I was trailing for a sous chef position and I was therefore lumped in with the culinary school extern hopefuls. The cook in charge of The Trails was new to cooking and taught us very badly how to make a beurre blanc sauce, wasting expensive cheesecloth as she made her bouquet and including her own variations that she followed based allegedly on her mood any given day (something very scary to hear from a line level employee charged only with keeping up the consistency of the chef’s recipes). Luckily, this was also the time I got pawned off on another cook
- The time that same girl told me it was best to put hot used pots and pans in a separate bus tub from dirty plastic containers. Mind blown.
- When the other cook I was pawned off on asked me if this was my first restaurant but then said he could tell it wasn’t because I did a good job of slicing bread.
- When one cook told the other not to throw away extra jus, because it’s expensive, and she replied, “we don’t buy the jus; we make it in house!”
- At the end of the night when the chef on duty, after paying me no attention during my trail, asked me if I was still in culinary school and whether I was looking for a cooking job there
- The time a cook on the meat roast station at a well known restaurant told me that he only put the garlic and thyme in the roasted mushrooms when he had time. He wasn’t busy all night and only did it right on one pick up. Another very worrisome moment for consistency in New York City
- The time a sous chef, whose job I was previously offered, told me that leaving a sauce on a burner without stirring it would result in scorching
- When that same sous burnt a batch of crackers and threw them all away except for the amount needed for the night’s service instead of making new ones in the ample time left in the day.
- The time a cook asked me if I had heated up the sauce I was spooning over a hot fish entree
It takes a lot of effort on the chef’s end of things to coordinate trails and find suitable employees; the kitchen is such a rotating door of staff members, and a lot of times, potential candidates have a lot of trails lined up and will of course only be choosing one place. So it does seem a little bit to ask of chefs to plan better for trails or interviews with people who are barely invested in taking the job as much as they are just curious about behind the scenes and tasting some fancy food for free. However, it seems to me that with a little extra research into the candidate (calling their references, etc.,) and some kind of premeditated cooking practical, a chef would be able to make a much better informed decision about a new hire and waste less of the The Trail’s time and anguish as they do pairing them with some half baked newbie line cook for Picking Parsley and Getting Salt and Squeeze Bottles of Oil and Water.