Toronto has a vibrant and exciting restaurant scene that rivals any major city. There are thousands of restaurants in the city and hundreds of new ones opening each year. If you are looking for a career in “the back of the house”, there is no shortage of jobs, but moving up the line takes hard work and passion.
Are you ready to call your boss ‘Chef’? Chef Graham Pratt started out washing dishes in a restaurant when he was a teenager. I know this because he is my son. He was also washing dishes at home and cooking delicious meals for our family.
Graham is the executive chef and chef de cuisine at The Gabardine in Toronto. The restaurant serves the financial district from its location at Bay and Richmond. He’s 30 years old now, and Graham has put thousands of hours into hot kitchens around Toronto. He appeared on You Gotta Eat Here this season, his dishes have been on many of Toronto’s “best of” lists, including Now Magazine and Toronto Life, and he’s fiercely passionate about food.
Even when he isn’t at the restaurant, he’s usually working on new recipes or cooking for his friends and family. That’s what it takes to become a chef. I asked Graham what he looks for when hiring staff in his kitchen: “When I’m hiring someone, I don’t necessarily look for a lot of experience. It helps if they have relevant experience or just finished culinary school. If they are keen to learn, responsible, and passionate about what they do, anything in the restaurant is trainable. If you aren’t serious about it, you won’t go very far.”
Working the line: We’re not talking fast food
There is no such thing as an overnight success in the gourmet restaurant industry. You will have to start on the lower end of the chain and work your way up. “An apprentice usually doesn’t get paid; it’s like an internship or a culinary school placement,” Graham explains. “I also recommend people do stages as much as possible before they find a place they want to work in.”
A stage, which is pronounced stazhje, is an unpaid internship. “Get experience in many different kinds of restaurant kitchens. You can do a stage for a day, a month, or longer. You can travel all around the world doing stages, but there are plenty of opportunities in Toronto.” “You work your way up from garde manger (preparing appetizers) to entremetier (preparing entrées).
Some kitchens have a tournant, who is someone who helps all around. The next step is saucier. After that, you would move up to junior sous chef, if a restaurant has that position, then sous chef.” Graham is an executive chef. That means a large part of his day is spent preparing menus and doing scheduling, cost analysis, inventory, and training.
He manages the back of the house. And there is a lot of paperwork. The restaurant managers take care of the front, which is the wait staff, customers, and the bar. Because the Gabardine is a small restaurant, he is also chef de cuisine, meaning he is a cook chef and creates his vision in the kitchen. In larger hotels or corporate kitchens, the executive chef rarely touches the food.
In the past, most executive chefs were male, but more women are working in professional kitchens than ever before. Kyla Rajkumar is one of Graham’s two sous chefs and an amazing chef in her own right. She often runs the kitchen when Graham isn’t there.
Culinary school vs. on-the-job training
“Some people started out as dishwashers and worked their way up in the kitchen. Some go to one of the many culinary schools like George Brown College, Humber College, or Niagara College,” Graham mentions. “They usually have pretty good job placements through the schools, but those placements are usually at bigger hotels and corporate restaurants.”
“The best suggestion I can give someone is to start working while they are in college or before they even go to college to learn the fundamental stuff. A diploma isn’t really going to get you anywhere; you need to work and know what it is like to work in a restaurant.”
Low pay and long days Graham reiterates that you don’t go into the chef business to make some quick cash. “The pay rate starting out varies depending on where you work – anywhere from minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The problem with Toronto having so many restaurants? It is very competitive, but cooks don’t get paid much, unfortunately. The usual kitchen shift is a minimum 10 hours, sometimes 12, five days a week. You don’t always get your days off together, and you often have to work weekends and evenings.” It’s not an easy career path.
Scraping plates and doing dishes isn’t glamourous. There are customers who complain about the food, conflicts, some Gordon Ramsey-type bosses, and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous working conditions.
You can spot a chef by the scars on their inner forearms. They all have burn marks from quickly pulling those hot dishes out of the oven. I’ll let the chef of the family have the final word: “The kitchen takes up the majority of your life and you have to be fully committed to it – it’s a lifestyle, it’s not just a job.”