Career Advice from the Culinary Institute of America That’ll Work for You

Business Posts July 21, 2018

You don’t have to graduate from the most famous culinary school to take advantage of these tips!

Aspiring chefs and restaurant managers who go to the Culinary Institute of America get a lot of help planning their careers. Besides taking part in a semester-long externship, they get hands-on advice from a career and academic advisor on how to craft resumes and cover letters as well as how to ace job interviews. Even more importantly, says Ronald Hayes, associate director of career services at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY, “we spend a significant amount of time talking about what it means to be a successful employee, not just a successful student worker.”

So what do CIA graduates learn? Here’s a sampling that you can take advantage of too.

Say yes to the chef. If your boss is asking you do to do something, the answer you give is “Yes, chef!” (It’s the on-campus mantra, according to Hayes.) It means you’ll do what it takes to get it done, whether it’s showing up on time or showing up wearing the proper uniform or whatever the job requires. The same goes for following a company or restaurant’s rules—at least at the beginning. “It’s great to come into a job and have ideas, but learn and understand the system first and then work toward applying those ideas,” says Hayes.

Don’t stint on prep work. It’s not easy being asked to do basic tasks if you already have some skills, or, like CIA students, spent quite a lot of money on your education. “But if you give an attitude about doing the basic tasks, you’re not going to grow as a potential leader,” says Hayes. Head chefs probably aren’t doing to do the initial prep work, but they are going to train and motivate you to do it their way, so you’ll learn by doing. The key is using everything you learn to develop so you can go onto the next step—and the better job. “What I talk with students a lot is applying the kitchen concept of mise en place,” explains Hayes. (That’s French for “everything in its place”—the concept of setting things up before starting to cook.) “You do your prep work and your mental prep, and you have your elements there, because all of those things allow you to create something greater later,” Hayes says.

Practice the golden rule. One of the most important things Hayes tells students is to treat others the way they expect to be treated. “You don’t have to go too deep into the news to see all the misconduct and harassment articles on chefs, or the labor disputes among restaurants. As a future leader, you have a choice. You can go in and propagate what’s going on in the kitchen or you can change that. So have that end in mind. You can’t control anyone else but you can control yourself to make your work environment better,” he explains.

Be flexible about the way you promote yourself. Your resume can give employers a sense of your experience, but what you choose to highlight can showcase your value to that particular employer. For example, if you’re interviewing for a position at Blue Hills Stone Barns, a premier farm- to-table restaurant, you want to highlight anything that speaks to your personal connection with food. If you are going to work at Disney World, doing thousands of covers a day, talk specifically about your experience at a chain restaurant, especially during a busy season—how many tables turned over per hour, how much the restaurant made in sales during your shift. “It’s the same bit from the resume but you’re leading with something different to make sure that employers know your skill set and how your skills can be an asset to them,” says Hayes.

Do a deeper dive. If you need to get a job to pay your rent, you need to take the first one that comes. But it pays to take advantage of this current labor market—in which the odds of scoring a good job are in your favor—to take a close look at any offers. Ask yourself if they are going to allow you to grow and meet your goals, suggests Hayes. “Look at the company or restaurant and research what its growth rate is, where its expanding, what the retention rate is: Are people only working there for six months and leaving and what does that say?” he explains.

Speak to everyone you can. When you talk to the recruiter, does that person speak about the restaurant the same way the hiring manager does? And how do the employees talk about it? “Congruency is the top item to look for—if a candidate hears similar, positive things from different team members, that’s good. Likewise, differences can be a red flag,” says Hayes.

Another reason to speak to potential workmates: They can provide you with a better sense of the working environment and the particulars of your job. Ask: “Walk me through a typical day,” so you can see how closely the job description aligns with the actual duties of the job. (This is also a good question to ask the hiring manager, says Hayes.)

Another good question: “What brought you here, and what about your job excites you to come to work every day?” This can provide insight to the environment—if the manager/potential co-worker is positive and motivated to come to work, that’s a good sign, Hayes notes.

So there you have it—stellar career advice without having to go to classes! Did you go to school to learn your skills or did you pick them up on the job? And if you are already a pro, what career advice would you give to someone starting off?

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