This week’s jobtalk is with Chef Rose Riccobono, who makes a tummy-pleasing ribbolita soup and cookies so good that you’ll cry when they’re gone. Currently, she works as a line cook at Rats, a fine dining French restaurant. Riccobono comes from a family of chefs and can’t imagine herself working in any other field. If you’re interested in working in the food industry, you’ll want to read what Riccobono has to say!
Job Title: Line Cook at Rats in Hamilton, NJ
Education: AS in Culinary Arts 2006, Johnson and Wales University
Describe your typical day.
My workday starts at 2, but I usually get there 15 minutes early. I like to get my setup in order, my knives, my apron, my cutting board, my bar towels – everything in know I’m going to need to work with. Then I check how many people we have on the reservations for the night, and I plan my prep accordingly. From that point on, I have until 4 to get all of my a la carte prep set up. At 4, I start serving apps for happy hour.
At 5, a la cart service starts. On a slow night a lot of my shift involves smoking a lot of cigarettes (outside obviously) and doing as much prep as I can ahead of time. But most things aren’t supposed to be prepped ahead of time. I also have the luxury of testing out different recipes for the restaurant if it’s slow. Last week I made orange-beet ice cream. It was amazing.
On a busy a la carte night, there is no time to think. You need to move faster than your brain can. There’s no time to second guess yourself. You need to have an organized list to make sure that you have enough for the night, and you’ve got to make sure that this list is prioritized. For instance, something that you know takes a really long time to prep, like poached pears, has to have been done the night before. So we can’t run out. It’s not like I can make poached pears during service if I’m getting close to running out.
I’m also responsible for making the staff meal every single day, so I have less time than everyone else to prep because I have to be set up by 4 for happy hour, and I have to serve about 50 people who will eat the staff meal; I have about half an hour to make dinner every night for these 50 people. I’m also responsible for making the amuse bouche for the night.
What do you make for the amuse bouche?
I always try to do something that is in season that makes sense for the weather. If I know I’m serving a lot of people I want to do something easy that doesn’t take a lot of time for plate up. Lately, on Saturday nights, I’ve been making mulled wine – it’s served in a shot glass with a sugared rim. I don’t have to plate it up, the runners can, so it saves me a lot of time.
Do busy nights go smoothly?
Ha ha. What’s smoothly? No night is ever perfect. There’s always some mess up whether it’s from me or someone else. …someone drops all their mise en place on the floor, which just happened last weekend.
So far you haven’t mentioned any sort of break that you take on busy nights.
There is no such thing as a break. Because I’m a smoker, I take smoke breaks when I can. On a busy night, I may get 5 minutes. Maybe.
That’s why you’re so thin!
Yeah, basically, even though I’m around delicious buttery food all the time.
How many nights are usually crazy?
In the fall and winter time you get these crazy rushes for the holidays and then it drops. During the slower seasons, Friday and Saturday nights are busy and maybe one or two other nights during the week are somewhat busy.
What time do you finish work?
The kitchen closes at 9. On a slow night, if we have all the time to clean and get everything in order, we can be out by 9:30. On a busy night, people that come in to eat at 9 aren’t really eating till 9:30 or 10. If we’re done serving last course by 11:30 then we finish cleaning around 12am.
What are the most stressful aspects of your job?
Physically it is really hard on your body. You have to work hard. You don’t really eat because you don’t have time to. I mean, I didn’t have time to eat the staff meal today then ended up eating French fries that were right in front of me because I was starving, and I had to eat. Not exactly healthy.
What are the monotonous parts of your job?
Weeks kind of flow in and out of each other. Going into work at 2 and getting out late makes the weeks feel like days, and the days feel like weeks. When I’ve done pastry it’s extremely monotonous because it’s like, decorate these 500 cupcakes and have them all look the same.
What else is difficult about working in this industry?
You miss a lot of things in your life. I’m working during family parties. I’m working during Thanksgiving. You make crap money. And you will for a while. You can take a corporate job and make good money and have Monday through Friday hours but for me it’s soulless.
You’re just pumping out food for people who don’t really care about what they’re eating. I want someone to eat my food and really feel something, whether or not they hate it or not. Even if they hate it at least they felt something about it.
What is exciting and fun about your work?
I really like when it gets busy. It’s exciting knowing that my speed and care of seasoning a plate is going to make someone really enjoy the food when it gets served to them. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Food is all I think about.
For a while you were trying to break into the catering world. Butterlust, your company, made some great products.
Buttlerlust bakery made mini desserts, biscotti, muffins on Mondays for Small World Coffee in Princeton. I did some small parties… I pretty much made whatever someone asked me to do. Carrot cakes were really popular.
What made you shut down your operation?
A lot of things. Probably the number one reason was money. I started it off of my own savings. Even though I was making enough to cover my costs and pay my rent, I wasn’t making enough to let me spend time to develop the company more. It was also really hard doing everything by myself. I don’t mean the food production. That was easy.
I didn’t have time for marketing or to get people to know that I even existed. Another big thing was that I was trying to do too much. I love morning pastries but I knew that it was more lucrative to do real desserts like cakes or even catering for parties at homes. But to brand yourself you have to brand yourself with one thing, and I already committed to morning pastries.
But you still want to go into business?
What do you want to do now?
I don’t want to do wholesale. I want to have my own store. It’s a much bigger risk. Wholesale doesn’t require startup money. And starting your own store is a big financial risk, but it’s more along the lines of what I want to do. At the end of the day you are able to make more money because you don’t have to worry about selling as much volume.
Do you recommend that people who are interested in becoming a chef go to culinary school, or should they first get a job in a kitchen, then go to culinary school?
Definitely get a job in a kitchen first. Culinary school isn’t even necessary, to be quite honest. Working in a kitchen shows you the reality of being a chef – the hours, the day to day operations. Culinary school is really about drinking, sex, and occasional learning! But really, the benefit of going to school is that it will teach you the basics of classic techniques such as mother sauces, and if you are studying pastry what a pate brisee is. You are learning classical terms and about how people have cooked for centuries. It also opens the door to get you into a big name kitchen, especially if you do well in school.
And making connections is pretty important right?
Yeah, getting a good job is about networking. But at the end of the day, in the kitchen, no one gives a ___ about whether you went to school or not. You have to be passionate and keep studying for school to mean anything.
Who shouldn’t become a chef?
People that want to make money. If you want to make money, you should not be a chef. If you have a lot of hobbies and you actually want to do them you should not be a chef. People who take things too personally. There are some days when you just scream at someone just because they’re there. I’m not saying that’s right but when you are in the moment and the most important thing is getting a plate out and this guy is burning my sauce, I’m gonna yell at him, and it’s nothing personal. But pay better attention!