Can a job at Olive Garden help make you a great chef? Ask Stephanie Izard

Posted7/23/2017 7:22 AM
  • Top Chef star and Chicago restaurateur Stephanie Izard learned the nitty-gritty of food service by working the lunch shift for a summer at an Olive Garden. There she learned the importance of consistency -- and therefore, reliability -- for customers.

    Top Chef star and Chicago restaurateur Stephanie Izard learned the nitty-gritty of food service by working the lunch shift for a summer at an Olive Garden. There she learned the importance of consistency -- and therefore, reliability -- for customers. Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett.

Everyone has a summer job story to tell.

Especially, it seems, people in the restaurant business. They didn't all spend teenage summers honing skills in the food industry -- there was a lawn-mowing gig, even stints at a dental office. But for these chefs, restaurateurs, and bartenders, important lessons were learned at the most basic, seemingly unrelated jobs. Whether toiling as a hostess at a California Pizza Kitchen or as a worker running bumper boats at a Florida amusement park while Jimmy Buffett played on repeat, each of these pros learned valuable lessons they still carry, making even the grossest of those tasks worth doing.

Learning consistency at the Olive Garden: Stephanie Izard

The Top Chef star and co-owner of such Chicago restaurants as Girl and the Goat learned the nitty-gritty of food service by working the lunch shift for a summer at an Olive Garden in Tucson, Arizona.

"I still know the birthday song by heart," she bragged. She's also proud of the fact that she was best at dessert presentation during training. "I learned that cream cheese can look like ice cream in a dessert tray.

The job was short-lived, however. "No one eats at Olive Garden for lunch when it's 115 degrees outside, so I always got cut after a few tables," she said.

Take Away: "The Olive Garden mottos are: Hot Food Hot, Cold Food Cold, Money to the Bank, Clean Restrooms," recalled Izard. "And all are true!" Most important, though, Olive Garden taught Izard the importance of consistency- and therefore, reliability-for customers, a lesson she carries.

"There was a chart on how to make the salad: two tomatoes per person, three croutons per person, one pepperoni for every two people. It was very exact. Always the same. And saved on food costs."

There is joy in working with your hands: Isaac Toups

The rambunctious chef and owner of Toups' Meatery in New Orleans, famed for its charcuterie program, had one of the most unconventional summer jobs around: He worked in his father's dental lab in Rayne, La. "The older I got, the more complicated tasks I was given. By the time I left at 18, I was making dentures in the lab with my uncle and other techs." But Toups's father didn't like being a dentist and never expected his son to follow in his footsteps: "There are four of us kids. Two became dentists, and two became chefs. We always joke we are an orally fixated family."

Take Away: "It taught me a great work ethic, and I realized I was really good working with my hands. It's the same as cooking and gave me confidence in that. I liked the science behind it."

A thick skin translates to almost any job: Thomas Chen

It's a scenario straight out of a teen film: Chen, the chef and owner of the modern Asian-American spot Tuome in New York, made a cringe-worthy young adult gig pay off in the long run. "I worked as a concession stand employee at a movie theater during summer break in high school," he recalled. "I had to serve popcorn and hot dogs to my friends and kids in my school while wearing a uniform. It was extremely embarrassing, especially for a teenager."

Take Away: "The job was good for two things though: cheap movie tickets and it helped me to grow thicker skin, which ended up being very beneficial for my career in the kitchen."

Every job has a corporate ladder you can climb: Kevin Boehm

Boehm is a co-founder of the Chicago-centric Boka Restaurant Group, which includes such spots as GT Prime. In the early '90s, he found work at Emerald Falls amusement park in the Florida Panhandle. "I still get flashbacks to Bumper Boats and Kids Kingdom, with boys and girls crying and throwing up-and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville playing 85 times a day," Boehm said, "I can't ever hear that song again." As hard as it was, though, by the end of the summer, he'd made it to the top of the amusement park pyramid. "I was working the Grand Prix race cars section and making more money than people who had been there a lot longer than I had," he remembered proudly. "I was always a competitive guy."

Take Away: "Through hard work and ambition, you can move up pretty quickly and become a leader," he said. "Also, by coming to work sober and on time."

Food service is all about math: Nathan Duensing

Lots of kids set up lemonade stands in the summer. Duensing's enterprise was more serious. The chef at the Thompson Nashville hotel, including the creative Southern Marsh House and rooftop L.A. Jackson, was his mother's assistant at her lemonade kiosks at festivals. "I had to push a cart around the grounds with a crock of lemonade and sell it, a glass at a time. Halfway through the day, everything was incredibly sticky," he remembered, shuddering. "Even the money got sticky. But I still have that recipe; it is my absolute favorite."

Take Away: "Working the lemonade stand taught me logistics regarding prepping food in large quantity. Even at that age, I enjoyed doing the math to figure out how many gallons we could make with each case of lemons. Doing that kind of math comes in handy today."

Learning to sell can help you in almost every business: Neal Bodenheimer

Bodenheimer is both the mixologist and owner of two New Orleans stalwarts, Cure and Cane & Table. Back in college, his summer job was with the popular Texas Hill Country spot, Hudson's on the Bend. But he didn't work in the restaurant; he peddled its line of gourmet sauces by setting up tastings in grocery stores around Austin.

Take Away: "I realized two things: I love talking to total strangers when I have something to talk about, and I loved the challenge of trying to sell a nonessential item to people. Both have served me incredibly well through my career."

The things you want the most take the hardest work: Jamie Bissonnette

"I had the worst summer job ever," claimed Bissonnette, a James Beard Award-winning chef whose Boston spots include Little Donkey and Toro. "When I was 13, I wanted a pocket knife that cost $80 dollars at the hardware store," he said. "My parent's friends owned the store, so they had me work for a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with a 10-minute hourly break) on the roof, spreading tar."

As you might guess, "tarring a roof in August sucks," Bissonette explained. But the work paid off-briefly. "At the end of the week, I was paid with the knife. That knife was stolen two weeks later."

Take Away: "I learned that you have to work hard for the thing you want in life," he said, looking back now. "And never take what you have earned for granted, because you can lose it all in the blink of an eye."

Engaging all the senses in an experience heightens it for patrons: Kelly Fields

For the chef at Willa Jean in New Orleans, some summer jobs were more conventional than others. "I had a little hustle cutting all my neighbors' grass," she said. "It was a teaching moment of just how important aroma is to an experience." Even today, she said, the smell of cut grass is incredibly evocative of that time. (Scent is closely tied to memory.) Still, Fields said, "I think the hardest job I ever had was picking olives during harvest in New Zealand."

Take Aways: Fields said she learned to "make that extrasensory connection with guests in the restaurant-make sure they can smell the breads and the pastries, the food that's being cooked. Connecting counts." Not to mention that "Learning the physical effort required for one damn olive really taught me to not take a single item for granted in life."

Find the part of the business that's right for you: Suzanne Goin

One of southern California's most iconic chefs, Goin is in the Beard Who's Who of Food & Beverage professionals and operates Lucques, A.O.C., and Tavern in Los Angeles.

Her beginnings were much humbler. During college she worked at the original California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I learned all about front of house-I was a host-and fussy customers."

Take Away: "Lesson learned: Some people are meant to be sellers. Not me. I want to be in the kitchen, creating the food-not in the front, where you have to sell it."

Find a job that keeps you on your toes: Ben Daitz

In Worcester, Mass., in the '90s, Daitz-chef and co-founder of Num Pang Kitchen in New York-was working in a mail-order recreational vehicle-parts warehouse. There was no air conditioning. "We had to pick up the orders at a printer and race around the massive warehouse, filling these orders sweating bullets all day," said Daitz. "It was the grittiest summer job I ever had-minimum wage, manual labor, the whole package."

Take Away: "After that job, I knew I never again wanted to get stuck working in a monotonous situation like that, where the job is just the same thing, day in and day out. Instead, I wound up in one of the most dynamic industries there is. No two days are the same for a restaurant owner-always a new task to tackle, or problem to solve. Definitely keeps me on my toes."

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