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Why I Left My Job as a Teacher to Be a Line Cook

I’m in this food business for life and I would have never figured that out if I hadn’t taken this risk. Opportunities come and go but the ones that really count will never come back.

by Julian Pappas
Jan 30 2016, 12:00am

Foto von Olle Svensson via Flickr

I grew up in the kitchen. My grandparents owned and ran a few different restaurants around Los Angeles, so my love of food and the food industry started as a child, running back and forth between kitchens and dining rooms.

In 11th grade, I naively thought I was ready and mature enough to work in a professional kitchen, so I got an internship at Lucques and tried my hand at it. Unsurprisingly, I hated it. It was hot. It was crazy. I just wasn't down for it at all at that point in my life. I still loved to eat and cook at home, but I lost that spark to cook for a living.

I moved on in life and did what society expected me to do. I graduated from college and eventually got a "real" job being a teacher at an elementary school. I still kept an active food blog and developed a passion for writing about food. And I thought I loved being a teacher, as it is really rewarding to work with kids as a career. Not to mention the ultimate perk: having summer off every single year. However, one day I asked myself, "Do I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life?"

Coincidentally, around the time when I started to think twice about my career, a parent of [one of] the kids that I worked with was Neal Fraser of Top Chef Masters fame. He's had a few restaurants and is a respected chef in LA. Every time he would come by school, we would always talk about food in really profound ways. I think he noticed how passionate I was about food. One time, while he was waiting for his daughter to get out of class, he straight up told me, "You should quit your job and come work for me."

I was responsible before, but not in the same sense when you are working professionally in a kitchen.

Once he threw that out there, I couldn't stop thinking about it. What do I have to lose? I knew that if I wanted to get started in cooking again, I would have to start now, since I was already in my mid-20s and I wasn't getting any younger. A few days after he invited me to work, I put in my two weeks and haven't looked back.

I've been working with him for over a year now.

I was nervous as shit at first, and some of the kitchen tasks kicked my ass, but each day was filled with little victories. These are what got me through each stressful day. It was mostly me not being confident with other hard-working guys in the kitchen. Even simple things like knowing how to move around in a kitchen and learning how to shout "behind you!" was hard at first. I also learned—the hard way—that one simply does not take full breaks during service, and showing up on time means showing up at least half an hour before your assigned shift.

I had some embarrassing moments at first. I don't have to tell you about how hard the staff laughed at me the time I cut up a watermelon on the same cutting board used to cut onions. Or that time that I accidentally sliced the tip of my finger off on the meat slicer and learned that injuring yourself in this industry is one of the most selfish things that you can do for the rest of your staff. For all these hard knocks, there are some invaluable things that I've learned, too.

Perhaps the most empowering thing I've learned is personal responsibility. You can't blame anybody else when something isn't right and it came out of your station. I was responsible before, but not in the same sense when you are working professionally in a kitchen. Little things—like having all of the proper labels on the right bins in the walk-in, and having all of my pieces of vegetables be the same size—have carried over into my everyday life outside the kitchen. I am now a proud, organized person instead of the sloppy mess that I once was.

The other big issue was my pay upon switching to being a line cook; it drastically lowered, to say the least. Fortunately for me, I had the support of my friends and family who understood my passion and helped me out financially whenever I needed it. Then again, I didn't change careers to cook for the money. Also, when you work with some of the guys in this industry and see how hard they bust their ass (some of them work as many as three back-of-the-house jobs at a time), you just learn to shut up and make it work. Working around these guys made me step it up and work even harder.

As a food writer, I would read religiously about food and working in kitchens in the past—and I was already the go-to "food person" between my group of friends, since I have dedicated myself to exploring LA's vast regional food scene. But it's one thing to read all about it and watch videos on cooking, and another thing to actually do everything you read about yourself.

A cold beer after work has never tasted as good as is it does now.

Working in a kitchen also dramatically changed my perspective on dining. Before [I started] cooking for money, dining out sometimes appeared to be a magical experience in a way. It was like: Wow! How did they do this? Who would think to pair this with that? Now that I'm in the thick of it everyday, it is still really fucking cool, but it's more like, eh, I can do that, maybe. It's like I accidentally saw Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed or something. Now it is more about respect. I'm also way more critical about the overall restaurant experience and the dynamics between the front- and back-of-the-house.

Working in the kitchen has also heightened my relationship with cooking food. Take this simple-looking chicken pot pie that we have at the restaurant [for example]. In learning how to make that dish, there were so many little techniques that I didn't know how to do before but picked up while working in a restaurant kitchen. I remember the chef made me redo that dish so many times until he was finally happy and confident that it was ready to be sent out to a customer. Cooking dishes properly is now an even more rewarding experience than it was when I just cooked at home.

This job definitely comes with its personal challenges but you figure it out along the way. I started drinking twice as much coffee as I did before, and a cold beer after work has never tasted as good as is it does now. I would say the biggest drawback is that I'm now grouchy 24-7 because I never get a full night's worth of sleep. It works, though, because everybody else in the kitchen is grouchy, too. We understand each other in a weird, angry way.

Plus, I don't have to put on a professional front anymore or appear to be a certain way. The kitchen is a raw place where I can be me and do my thing. I'm in this food business for life and I would have never figured that out if I hadn't taken this risk. Opportunities come and go but the ones that really count will never come back.

As told to Javier Cabral