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Matt Eversman on what it takes to make it as a chef

Matt Eversman's restaurant OON opens mid-November 802 W. Randolph.

Matt Eversman's restaurant OON opens in mid-November at 802 W. Randolph.

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Updated: November 30, 2012 6:12AM

I believe those wanting to be a chef fall into two categories. The first group has a sincere and passionate desire to cook for others, and understands the commitment and sacrifices that come with this career path. The second (much larger) group includes those without clearly defined professional goals. They’re taken in by the supposed glamour and get-rich-quick possibilities they wrongly perceive my line of work will provide. They also believe that one or two years of post-high school education are a “cheap ‘n’ easy” path to making a great living without the expense of going to a four-year school.

Put another way, the following list of too-good-to-be-true opportunities just doesn’t happen. Upon graduation, you encounter:

† A top restaurant dying to hire you as executive chef.

† A cable television producer offering you a cooking series.

† A publisher, with a big bag of money, ready to ink a book deal.

The illusion created by celebrity chefs neglects to show the reality of working in a professional kitchen. To be a kitchen staff member means starting at the bottom, working 15-hour days on your feet in a very hot environment, making minimum wage with no benefits. And as far as having any kind of a social life, get used to not having one. You learn these inconvenient details, as I did in high school, the moment you first set foot in a professional kitchen.

While I had really fun kitchen jobs all through high school and enjoyed cooking shows on TV, my career aspirations were not to be a chef. I went to Iowa State University thinking I was going to become either an aerospace engineer or meteorologist. Freshmen year was another learning experience altogether. First semester there, and as quick as Emeril could say “BAM!” calculus instantly torpedoed my dreams. Fortunately, I still really enjoyed cooking. So I returned to Chicago to enroll in culinary school.

At Le Cordon Bleu, it was pretty obvious the demanding culinary training programs were intended to weed out the passively interested. Fact is, I started out in a class of 40 and wound up graduating with only 20 out of the original group.

My first important job after graduation was a dream come true, a six-month externship at the legendary Charlie Trotter’s. While I’m very thankful for the incredible experience working in Chef Trotter’s kitchen, in many ways it was the previously mentioned reality; I worked essentially for free in a boiling-hot kitchen. It was also the strictest kitchen — as far as how you professionally conducted yourself — where I have ever worked. Case in point: One dinner service after just starting there, the way I put a tray down made too much noise — disrespecting our guests, the equipment, the entire restaurant environment. Chef immediately proceeded, as in the military, to give me a good “dressing down” in front of the entire kitchen team. I thought to myself, “Wow! Charlie Trotter just yelled at me. I think I’ve made it!”

If you are considering a culinary arts career, I have a suggestion: Get a job in any kitchen to see if you can handle the tedious, extremely repetitive, physical and sometimes mental demands of earning a living as a chef. If you have a dedicated passion for food and service and don’t mind paying some serious lifestyle and professional dues to meet your goals, you’re ready to pursue a career as a chef.

But if not, stay out of the kitchen.

Matt Eversman donated his fee for writing this column to the Healthy Schools Campaign.

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