Extern. Such a little word that can cause any lowly culinary student to shiver at the thought. Both the position, and the manual that goes along with it, loom above us all and becomes a giant chasm that seems to always be sitting right there between us and a degree at the end. Having just completed it and being back at school I feel like I have some new found respect for everything that it entails.
When I was at school last spring, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a little kid always running to Chef. I was so unsure of myself and second guessed pretty much everything that I was doing in class. Arriving at my extern site I knew that I would be the lowest man on the totem pole. I was ready for this, but as time went by I was getting more and more agitated and jaded with this position I was in. I worked like an employee and was on par with most of them skill wise, but was still just an extern.
I kept my mouth shut and in time, whether because of staffing shortages or because they may have seen that I was capable of more, in their infinite wisdom they decided to make me Chef de Partie of the garde manger station (at least a few times a week anyway).
I was very nervous at first and the more I thought about it the more I thought I would fall back into that uneasy nervous kid again. I was afraid that I wasn’t ready for such a responsibility. To not only get my work done but to make sure the other workers would be able to get their prep done as well, and on top of that to come up with a different VIP amuse to be served each night seemed like the biggest challenge in the world at the time. I knew their strengths and weaknesses, along with mine, and had to try and successfully get us through the end of the night. I had never been in a position such as this before and all things that I tried to soak up in my Intro to Management class I completed before extern, began coursing through my mind and cluttering up my head.
On my walk to work that fateful day I came to the realization that if things went horribly wrong, in the end, my chefs would not let me fail. They COULD not let me fail. They would not allow dishes from my station to be off the menu for the night; that would just make them look bad. Walking through the doors that day I tried to keep this thought in my head. I approached my colleagues and told them that they knew what had to be done by service and to just make sure they got it done, and if they could try not to make me look bad during the process that would be the cherry on top. The shift went very smoothly and the little “extern chef de partie” experiment seemed a success. And then I began to be regularly placed in this position.
I started feeling like a part of something bigger. Before this point I had always felt like just a station. The chef would always yell “Garde manger!” but it was never anything more personal. I wanted to be MORE than a station; I didn’t just want to be a cog in the machine, I wanted to be a gear. By this time I became responsible for other people at my station. If there was a problem the chef would come to ME and address ME! I knew that the problem they may be talking about wasn’t even necessarily my fault, but it was the fault of someone I was responsible for and therefore it became my problem. I had matured from the nervous, uneasy student I was at culinary school and became a man. Work became much more fulfilling and the rest of my extern felt less like a chore.
I want to end by encouraging future students looking for extern to get outside your comfort zones and challenge yourselves. Don’t take the easy route. I know the chefs have told you this, and I know that most things they tell us goes into our consideration, hopefully. But if you don’t listen to them, maybe you’ll listen to one of your peers. I can only hope that those leaving soon and those who are still looking make the most of it. It is the best chance to go out there and do something crazy; it’s not your career yet.