Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reflections on Finding Culinary Work in Chicago

Fall 2005: My husband and I moved out to Chicago where he was starting business school at the GSB. I was craving to work with a high end catering company; looking for inspiration and knowledge that I never found at my previous Sous chef position in Boston. Finding a job was much harder than expected, as it always seems to be. Below is an excerpt of an interview I had with a catering company north of Chicago, Food for Thought. http://www.foodforthought-chicago.com/

My next interview was with a company that I found through Chowhounds.com. I had posted an inquiry asking if anyone knew of any high end catering companies in the Chicago area and an administrative assistant from a well-respected company, Food for Thought, responded. She wrote: “We are always looking for good people – once we’ve found them, we figure out where to put them!” Interesting reply, but I took it with a grain of salt and took some time to research the company and lined up a meeting.

This company was large and known for its beautiful artistic culinary creations. I later learned that they did about $13 million in annual sales. The kitchen was located a bit north of downtown Chicago, in a quiet industrial/residential area. I walked in and introduced myself to the receptionist.

“Just have a seat. One of our Sous chefs will be right with you,” she said.

Twenty minutes after the interview was scheduled to start, one of the Sous chefs appeared. Dressed in her whites, she was a little short and stocky, but had a sweet face with short brown hair. She gave me an application and a list of thirteen culinary questions to test my knowledge. Still sitting in the lobby, I filled out the application, attached my resume and moved onto the questions.

If you are making a Farfalle pasta salad, what shape pasta do you need?
What temperature do you cook a stuffed chicken breast to?
What are the ingredients in a bouquet garni?
What are the temperature danger zones?

Another twenty minutes later, the Sous chef reappeared and led me into their kitchen. There was a six foot stainless steel table set up with three different stations. The first had a cutting board, knife, various fruits, a box of gloves, an empty bowl, and a platter. I was instructed to make a fruit salad. The next had another cutting board, an onion, carrot, and two bowls.

“Please brunoise the onion and place it in this bowl,” she said pointed to one of the small Styrofoam bowls, “and julienne the carrot and place it in this bowl,” she continued as she pointed to the other bowl.

“Now I’d like you to make a simple three egg omelet. Cooked to medium with no color. Here are your eggs, some butter, and a spatula.”

Besides the ingredients was a hibachi with a small non-stick pan atop. I went to work while I kept one eye on her grading my “quiz” and mark a “13/13” at the top.

After I completed the three tasks at hand, we walked out of the kitchen and into a small conference room where one of the executive chefs joined us.

I asked about the chef’s background and he said he had come from Artistic Events, but now he wanted to be the “be the best in Chicago.” He repeated this a few times with intense enthusiasm. I got the point. Their events were primarily large and in addition to that, they also provided a handful of corporate lunches each day. There was always a ton of production done each week, but beyond two executive chefs, and three Sous chefs, the work was done by a dozen or so Mexicans who were inexpensive machines in the kitchen. The work at event was primarily done in “caves.”

“Cave cooking” involves using sterno to heat warming racks and cooking the meals inside the warming racks inside the catering trucks. Nothing I had ever seen or heard of in Boston. They were looking for event chefs. My schedule would be Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I would be paid around $12 an hour and tips were not guaranteed.

After two hours, I fled the building and headed home feeling little discouraged. Two interviews and two let downs. Our week in Chicago was almost up and I tried to focus on the next two meetings. The search continues...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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