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Some Of Life's Best Lessons Can Be Found In 'Lousy' Kitchen Jobs

The writer, Rachael Cusick, pictured with chef Oneil Wilson, her coworker in the kitchen during a summer job as a line cook during the breakfast shift.

Our resumes are grounded in assumptions. Want a job? Assume it's best to exaggerate your leadership experience. Assume you should build up your image as a self-starter and team-player. And, unless you want to be a chef, assume that your kitchen-prep experience is as irrelevant to your success as your summer camp counselor gig when you were 16.

I don't buy it. There's plenty to be learned from the kitchen (and also your summer camp counselor gig.)

There are the obvious lessons — such as the tricks you pick up to swiftly peel tubs of tri-colored carrots, or yelping "Behind!" as you glide behind chefs holding freshly sharpened knives.

But there are also things you learn that stick with you long after you clock out. After working as a breakfast line cook one summer, I couldn't help but realize all the relevant life lessons I had garnered in a job deemed "irrelevant" to my future employers.

Among them:

Coworkers can outweigh the pay grade. At face value, the job sucked. I was a 20-year-old college kid riding 7 miles on a bike at 4 a.m. to cook brunch for people I would never meet. I had no desire to be a chef, and the pay was minimum-wage. But, because of the people I worked with, I realized I had scored the gig of a lifetime.

Each morning, as I grumbled through the swinging kitchen door, I was met by two chefs prepping their ingredients for the day and cracking affable jokes. "How can I help?" or "What do you need?" were the knee-jerk responses to someone's bouts of anxiety during meal rushes. I laughed all day at the endless mutterings of the lovably crusty sailor-mouthed sous chef with a Louisiana accent.

I spent my one day off per week with my coworkers — the same people I spent the other six days with — because we were friends no matter the setting. And when I asked the older chefs why they'd stuck around when most people had moved on to new restaurants, they shot back with answers they had clearly reflected on: The camaraderie they found in each other here was better than a pay raise elsewhere.

If you can't stand the heat, stay in the kitchen. Other than a strong disposition for eating egg sandwiches, this job was not tailored to any of my strengths. My first few weeks were haunted by the nuances among eggs that could be soft-scrambled, hard-scrambled or semi-hard scrambled. There was the lady who sent her toast back three times because it wasn't burnt enough. And my attempts to flip fried eggs with a flick of the wrist ended in them sliding to the ground with their fallen comrades. I felt flustered and ticked off and defeated from 4 in the morning 'til 4 in the afternoon.

And yet, there was an inexplicable quality of the kitchen that taught me to adjust and anticipate, to be patient with myself and others, and to keep on plugging away, even while standing among the ruins of an egg massacre.

Thick skin comes from scars. I built up callouses from gripping my chef's knife the same way each day for three months. I collected cuts on each finger while dicing tomatoes for salsa and suffered the sting of lime juice that followed. I still have the oil burns from dropping battered chunks of cod into the fryer on the day I pleaded with the lead chef not to make fish tacos a special. And then there's the pain I felt when I messed up so many times in one day that all I wanted to do was shrink inside the walk-in freezer or hide behind watery eyes that I blamed on the onions.

No matter where we work, we all have days when we feel inadequate, embarrassed and overwhelmed — though most of us aren't lucky enough to have onion-tear camouflage. Although those fleeting twinges of pain seem trivial today, the scars from that summer were what taught me not to dwell so heavily on a bruise or a bad day, because they go as quickly as they come.

Now, I'm not campaigning to fill all job openings with short-order cooks, nor am I arguing that every kitchen job will result in a positive experience. But sometimes, buried in those stacks of paper assumptions, relevance can exist in seemingly trivial work experience. You wouldn't be who you are today without the lessons of your yesterdays.

Rachael Cusick is an intern with the NPR Arts Desk and studies food policy and journalism at Cornell University.

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