Doug Schonfeld, known at Chefs’ Toys as “Chef Doug,” has decades of experience under his belt. Starting in high school, Chef Doug worked several jobs in the culinary industry before attending the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he worked as a chef at Four Seasons Newport Beach before accepting a position at Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills under Executive Chef Bill Bracken. Chef Doug worked his way from sous chef to assistant food and beverage director during his 10-year tenure at Peninsula.
Chef Doug was then the banquet chef at Island Hotel Newport Beach before joining the sales team at Chefs’ Toys. Now, he shares his expertise with shoppers at the Chefs’ Toys store in Fountain Valley, California. We spoke with him to find out what advice and bits of wisdom he has to share with aspiring chefs.
When we recently sat down with Chefs’ Toys salesman Kyle Sampson, his advice focused on specific kitchen equipment recommendations and menu design best practices. Chef Doug approached the bigger picture, providing recently graduated hopefuls with a blueprint to the industry and how to adopt the right mindset for success.
Here are Chef Doug’s top seven tips for young chefs in the industry:
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
I’ve worked in the kitchen for hotels, restaurants, and fast-paced banquets. My advice? Don’t consider the time in the kitchen “work.” Instead, embrace the philosophy of play in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as this isn’t an exact science. Leave that to the pastry chefs and bakers!
If your experimentation leads to what you see as a mistake, just adjust what you do the next time. Cooking in the kitchen shouldn’t be a chore. It should be fun! Maybe you put your own touch on a recipe, and it comes out terrible. That’s progress! Think of cooking and working in a kitchen like riding a bike — you’re bound to fall down, but the important thing is to get up and do it again. The more you work at it, the less often you’ll fall down.
You’re Only as Good as the People Around You
When you watch cooking shows, you’ll often see big personalities and standalone chefs as a one-person savant in the kitchen. This isn’t how it works in a kitchen. Even as an executive chef, you’ll only be as good as the people helping you and supporting you throughout your shift. If you don’t have a good staff behind you, you can’t expect to make great food.
When I trained at the Culinary Institute of America, the first and most important lesson I learned was to work as a team. Everyone has to communicate and pitch in for the kitchen to function effectively. If you try to be individualistic, you will run into trouble. Part of this planning and teamwork includes devoting enough refrigerator space and storage to the ingredients you need throughout the day to avoid confrontations and tense situations. Plan ahead and work together!
You Will Never Stop Learning
In this business, there will always be more to learn. No matter how experienced you become, avoid the attitude that you know everything. You have to be open to new methods and new ways of thinking about food. You can learn so much from what your peers and coworkers are showing you and teaching you, even on a topic where you think you’re an expert.
Someone may introduce you to a better way of doing something 10 years after you learned it. And this isn’t a slight on you, as a chef — think of being a cook as a constant opportunity to learn and to grow. Your interests will eventually expand or shift, and you need to keep an open mind.
In culinary school, we learned that you always had to work hard and gradually work your way up the ladder. Some students that are graduating today may be tempted to think that they’ll be making $100,000 a year as an executive chef just two years after culinary school.
In a perfect world, that would be fantastic, but that’s not realistic. To have a long-term career as a chef, you must learn to keep your head down, work hard, and say, “Yes, Chef,” and “No, Chef.” All chefs have to advance through the various ranks of the kitchen. Just remember that, no matter how talented you were at school, you will spend some time doing menial tasks like chopping carrots and cutting onions. But you will get your shot!
Buy a Japanese Mandolin (and Some Cut Gloves)
Every chef is precious about their equipment. You have to be familiar with the basics in your kitchen, but there are tools that you may overlook. An invaluable part of my kitchen is my Japanese mandolin. Especially when I’m chopping so many vegetables, using a Japanese mandolin instead of cutting everything up by hand saves me hours. A mandolin is an incredible tool, and they are affordable additions to your kitchen. They last forever, and you can replace the blades when they get dull.
While we’re on the subject, chefs should also get in the habit of wearing a cut glove while chopping and slicing and dicing. You don’t want to cut your fingers off! I can’t count the number of times I’ve cut myself with a knife. I’ve had stitches, I’ve had so many cuts, and I’ve even cut part of my fingertip off. If you are handling a lot of knives and you aren’t 100% sure of your skills, always wear a cut glove.
Don’t Be Stingy About Holidays
When you want to be a chef, you must get accustomed to sacrifice. There are a lot of sacrifices you’ll have to make, especially around the holidays. If you work in sales or another area of the foodservice industry, you are fortunate enough to have the holidays off. But, as a chef, you won’t have that luxury. When people take time off to be with family, they will always be eating in restaurants.
This isn’t a bad thing — having a steady stream of business during holidays is great. But to enjoy it, you have to reset your expectations. Taking a week off around Christmas or New Year’s won’t be possible if everyone is lining up to eat at your restaurant. Create your own sense of the holidays, and learn to love being busy.
There Will Always Be Jobs
Of course, that sense of not being able to take the holidays off also is one of the great benefits of being a chef — there will always be jobs! While other industries go through periods of growth and decline, everyone around the world will always want to go out and eat a delicious meal.
The culinary world is a great field to pursue because there are always openings and positions at your skill level. It is fairly easy to transition from one role to another, regardless of what the market is doing. Whether or not there’s a recession, people will always need to eat!
Overall, I love working in this business, and I love working at Chefs’ Toys. It’s a wonderful place to be, especially if you are passionate about creating something new.