Chef-owner of Dirt Candy, StarChefs "Rising Star" award winner, author
"The first few years of working in a professional kitchen are going to shape the rest of your life, so don’t slack."
On cooking school:
"I have a hard time recommending that anyone go to cooking school because of the amount of debt you take on. There just aren’t enough jobs that pay a starting cook enough to make a living and pay off their student loans. That said, I went to cooking school because I needed a place to learn where I wasn’t on the job, where I could ask questions, and where screwing up was allowed. Some people can learn on the job, but I couldn’t."
On what to read:
"Reading cookbooks is a great way to become a food writer. To be a cook, you have to be eating—everywhere, all the time, always different. Reading cookbooks will give you some theory and it’ll expand your horizons, but your central activity needs to be trying new food, and that means actually putting it in your mouth and ingesting it. Not just reading about it."
"I think it’s important to stretch yourself and get out of your comfort zone. Throughout your career you should try to stage in restaurants you wouldn’t normally gravitate to; if you love pizza, try to stage in a Chinese restaurant at one point if you can. I cook vegetables, but I just helped out another chef working a pig roast. It’s how you bring new techniques to the table."
On how long to stay in one kitchen:
"Get on a line in the toughest, busiest kitchen you can. Stay there for a year. The first few years of working in a professional kitchen are going to shape the rest of your life, so don’t slack. Don’t call in sick, don’t show up late, don’t screw off. Get on that line no matter what and realize that for that year, your best will never be enough. You will have to get better every day, or you will crash and burn. By the end of the 12 months you’ll either realize cooking in a professional kitchen isn’t for you, or you’ll be on the way to having an unbeatable technique that will support you for the rest of your life."
On moving to a city:
"It doesn’t matter. You need a real kitchen that does real business and you need to stick with it. Don’t look for a mentor, don’t look for excitement. What you need to do is learn how to work a busy line, and how to keep pushing yourself. First, figure out how to handle the workload, then figure out how to make the food good, then once you’ve got that, figure out how to be consistent. Then, once all that is under your belt, you can figure out how to make it better."
On tools you need:
"Not really any. A lot of people think you need a fancy knife, the same way a lot of middle-aged guys think they need a fancy car. Your knife should be sharp and you shouldn’t care about losing it. I used a free knife I found in a gift bag for years and right now I’m using a basic Wusthoff. As long as it can stab a carrot, it’s good enough for me."
A helpful tip:
"Whenever I’m out with other chefs we all bemoan the quality of staff out there. These days, fewer and fewer people want to put in the years and really work. Everyone wants to be a superstar, they all think being on TV is the be all and end all, and most of them aren’t good enough in a crunch. So if you’re willing to never complain, never blame, and always bust your butt, there are jobs out there for you. But it’s harder than you think. Cooking in a professional kitchen will break you down, and it’ll also build you back up again, but you have to be willing to commit to going beyond your comfort zone."
Check out Cohen's full guide to becoming a chef.