Chicago Green Jobs

Green Job Profile #3: Local Food Line Cook/Truffle Maker
April 23, 2009, 8:06 pm
Filed under: Green Job Profiles

Ariel Diamond and I dropped out of the same business school, and she is now on the path to building a career as a chef working with local, sustainable food. Ariel is one of the most interesting people I know, and I learned a lot about what it takes to make our restaurants sustainable from this profile. I recommend reading it through, but here’s the money quote:

It has been quite an experience to go from offices and suits to chef pants and clogs. I feel much better suited to tackle these problems now that I can relate to people who do the labor. It makes me want to run a manual labor retreat for greenies to try to get them (us) to break that elitism that we’re so famous for. Greening the world will take a lot of WORK, work that requires you to use your body, and is sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by the educated, privileged mind.

Current Title: Line Cook/Truffle Maker. I am currently a line cook at La Tache in Andersonville and by the time this is published, I will be cooking at Green Zebra restaurant, a seasonally-focused mostly-vegetarian restaurant. On the side, I make truffles and caramels with a tiny local sustainable chocolatier, Katherine Anne Confections, with whom my biggest claim to fame – besides making over 1000 truffles by hand in a day – is that I developed our awesome white chocolate carrot cake truffle. –

Relevant training: I took a knife skills class at Kendall College and I have a newly minted sanitation certificate! I’m going to frame that and send it to my mom. No culinary school over here – I’ve been learning on the job. I walked into a French-influenced restaurant last March, got a job, and have been training (while getting paid) ever since!

What do you do all day? I prep food, cook food, plate food, and then clean up. I am currently one of two line cooks in a four-person kitchen, so I am fortunate in that I get to work directly with my chefs and be carefully trained by them. I am also fortunate that they ask me for ideas and let me develop some specials — you often have to wait years for that in bigger kitchens. This week I made the soup du jour and a dessert special, into which I integrated my value for seasonal, local food, which isn’t a high priority of the restaurant otherwise.

What did you do before you got this job? Starting at the beginning, I have a degree in Environmental Studies from Wellesley College and an uncompleted Sustainable Management MBA from the Presidio School of Management — just like you, Kate! After college, I started working on environmental issues with the Chicago city government, then worked for a while for a food-related non-profit.

A little over a year ago, I quit offices for good and after taking odd jobs for a while – much to the chagrin of my mother – and finally came to terms what I actually want to do every day, which is to get my hands all over that food I kept talking about! I walked into a kitchen off the street and asked for a job last March. I got it. I’ve been working in kitchens — some sustainable, some not — ever since.

What impact do you have on the planet and/or community through your work? While at The Land Connection, the sustainable ag org I used to (and still occasionally) work for, we used to talk about the missing link of a good local food distribution system. Now that I’m in restaurants watching my chefs put in orders, I see that problem in living color, realizing that ultimately it is light years easier and cheaper to order from Sysco and United Foods. Chefs are overworked as it is and getting food has to be easy, reasonably priced, flexible, consistent (while in accordance with seasonal availability), and FAST. Say what you will about Sysco, but you can order something on Friday night at 11 pm and get it at 2 pm on Saturday. Local foods have to be able to compete with that, but you can’t ask a farmer to quick drive up two cases of eggs.

We need some new infrastructure and new players before happy food can really compete. As I build my skill base and eventually be the one setting menus and ordering, I plan to not only stock my walk-ins with ethical food but also support any efforts towards developing a sustainable food distribution system.

Ariel’s essential skills and personality traits for success – not to mention her reading list – after the jump.

What 3 essential skills are needed to do your job? At this stage in my career, I would say the ability to:

1. Work hard, shut up,  and handle stress

2. Be precise and consistent while holding a knife

3. Absorb a huge amount of information

I come from a highly educated middle class family, and there’s nothing like working in a kitchen to first highlight your privilege and then break it down. We don’t have a dishwasher at my current restaurant, so I spend a chunk of time every night washing every plate and pot in the kitchen. You can’t be haughty while you’re doing the dishes. And it’s actually a transferable skill – I got fast at doing dishes, then broke through my speed wall on the line. I’m a better cook because I’m a good dishwasher. You don’t actually have to care about food to be a cook – but you do to be a chef. Then one would need a whole lot of skills that would be hard to condense down to three.

What 3 essential personality traits that help you succeed in your job? Right now, I need to be:

1. Humble but confident

2. Eager to learn

3. Discerning about when to make suggestions/come up with ideas. Can you tell what I’ve been struggling with? I have a big mouth and lots of ideas, and I had to learn how to shut up and offer input when asked. It’s a little like the army. You show that you can do the grunt work and show a glimmer of a brain, and eventually, hopefully, you rise. I thought I could go in and get by on my brain and sidestep the work… not so, my friend.

To get to where I want to get, I need to show that:

1. I am creative

2. I have a good palate

3. I have some serious endurance.Sous chefs and chefs work more hours than I can imagine.

What is the least glamorous aspect of your job? Doing the dishes and getting yelled at. Oh, and getting a bucket of kitchen sludge dumped on you when you leave a kitchen as a “going away present.”

What is the most influential book you’ve read on sustainability? I have a tattoo of an image from McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle,” so I’d say that was pretty influential.

I’ve read a lot of Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappe, Paul Hawken, and Michael Pollan. With my business background and my currently nebulous business ownership dreams, I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about how to run a financially successful ethical business with happy employees, and how the food/ag/service industry can be transformed to be sustainable and efficient.

Right now I’m figuring out how to be a good cook without culinary school so I have to read a lot just about food and cooking, and keep my sustainability ethic simmering on the back burner.

What do you do to keep current on your field and/or expand your knowledge and skills? I practice, read (especially autobiographies of chefs, just finished Jacques Pepin’s), garden – it keeps me seasonal – and going to farmers markets. I also have parties where I cook for a theme. Just had a Sephardic Passover seder, and a few months ago I had an international dumpling party. I also talk a lot with folks about green stuff and food stuff.

What do you think is a growth area in the green jobs sector right now? Mo def blue collar jobs (see my complete tirade below). To me, it is very very important for green-minded people to go into brown industries, be really fucking good at their jobs, and win the respect it takes to change from the inside. That’s what I’m trying to do anyway, though it’s obviously not the only way.

What else should we know about your job? It has been quite an experience to go from offices and suits to chef pants and clogs. I feel much better suited to tackle these problems now that I can relate to people who do the labor. It makes me want to run a manual labor retreat for greenies to try to get them (us) to break that elitism that we’re so famous for. Greening the world will take a lot of WORK, work that requires you to use your body, and is sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by the educated, privileged mind.

It’s like what they say in the immigration protests – who is going to build that wall?? Same with green changes: somebody has to install the solar panels and build green buildings and grow food (and cook food). It’s hard to understand the challenges that workers face unless you’ve done the work. The movement takes all kinds, but it seems like it’s a little heavy on young, white, educated consultants that haven’t done much outside of an office (zing!). How can you consult when you haven’t done the work?

So go to a restaurant or a landscaping company or a construction site and WORK goddammit, if only for a day. That’s all I have to say about that


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I heart Ariel Diamond.

Comment by Jonathan Eyler-Werve

thanks jon, you’re a sweetie.

Comment by Ariel

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