The Commis Chef

What makes a good? Commis chef

Big ears, big eyes, small mouth – The Perfect Commis chef.
Well I guess we should really start by looking at what a commis chef’s job entails before getting into what makes a good one, and to be honest, this is not going to be a glamorous list. Peeling and blanching vegetables, prepping shellfish, prepping salad leaves, picking herbs, peeling potatoes (no really, I mean a lot of potatoes), making salad dressings and simple sauces, cleaning and scrubbing of fridges and walk ins and generally just attending to the needs of……well everyone really.

In larger kitchens where the brigade is say, six chefs or more, a commis will be immediately answerable to a chef de partie (or perhaps a demi chef de partie). This chef de partie will usually be in charge of a section in the kitchen, like pastry or larder, and they will be allocated a commis to utilise how they see fit throughout the day. However in smaller operations the commis chef will more than likely be utilised by everyone in the kitchen for assisting with mise en place and taking care of the jobs that no one else wants to do.

So ultimately what we’re looking at here is the most servile of positions in the industry, and when chefs are looking to recruit at this level, there are a few things that they will be looking out for. Firstly, why does this person want to be a chef? This is soooooo important because their answer to this question will very quickly determine the interview’s outcome. The following answers will guarantee that you won’t be picking up a knife in a decent kitchen for the foreseeable future:

Candidate: “I’d love the chance to be creative at work”
Chef’s brain: “no one is going to be paying you to be creative for at least six years my friend.”

Candidate: “I cook at home for my parent’s dinner parties and they all think I’m great”
Chef’s brain: “I think you’re deluded”

Candidate: “I love watching Jamie Oliver”
Chef’s brain: “there is no way we can spend time in the same room with knives around”

Candidate: “I want my own cookery program on TV”
Chef’s brain: “for the love of god please just shoot me”

However, if the answer is along the lines of “I’ve spent the last two summer’s pot washing in the holidays, I know how hard it is, I hate school and I really want this job”, then you will more than likely be welcomed with open arms. The reason for this is that the chef would have seen countless bright eyed, enthusiastic young things full of ambition come bounding into their kitchens only to leave within weeks when they realise that they aren’t going to be writing menus any time soon.

Most chefs will take on a commis that already understands what it’s like to be in a professional kitchen over any eager new entrant to the trade, no matter how passionate. And then there’s the topic of qualifications and a commis chef coming into a kitchen fresh out of college. This is a mixed bag, as the college students who have put in no time in professional kitchens are also viewed with a similar level of concern as the unqualified “enthusiastic” applicants, as they are yet to glimpse a real kitchen at full tilt on a Saturday night. They might have some time under their belts in the college’s training kitchen, but unfortunately that doesn’t cut it in the eyes of the employer.

There is however another route that matches the best of both worlds, and that’s learning in the work place. In essence, an employer takes on an apprentice who is assessed for their catering qualifications while they are working. This benefits the candidates immensely when it comes to securing future employment as they have both the qualifications and the real world experience. Assuming they make it through the training period and haven’t become disillusioned with the industry, they are now well placed to start approaching kitchens and furthering their knowledge.

So what makes the ideal commis chef?

  1. A long term view on their career is essential. They must understand what it takes to achieve their goals, and with this in mind they should know to endure the early years as the rewards will come later.
  2. They turn up on time, every time.
  3. They listen a lot more than they talk.
  4. The chef is always right. Sounds archaic but this isn’t about whether chef is right or wrong, it’s about attitude. Arguing the toss will get you nowhere in any kitchen, take it on the chin. You can learn a lot from watching how not to do it.
  5. They are constantly trying to improve. This goes for all chefs, but still worth pointing out that you are only as good as your last dish. For the commis chef it might be trying to get faster or more efficient, even with something as banal as peeling veg, but these skills and more importantly, this attitude will determine what you achieve in the industry.

To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain,

“skills can be taught, but you are born with character”.

Next time round: What makes a good…….chef de partie.

chef job, chef jobs, commis chef