My first day in the restaurant business was not the best day of my life. In the weeks and months to follow, I learned that there would be a lot of ups, downs and teachable moments in my career that would lead to my eventual success. Now, 50 years later I am thankful for the journey that lead me here and I am so glad to be sharing my passion with all of you on my newest adventure.
I was 18 years old when I started. I had expressed interest in the field, and was sent by my high school guidance counsellor to the 4 Seasons Hotel at Leslie and Eglington to begin my apprenticeship. I had next to no cooking experience, I had worked as a delivery boy for a fish & chip establishment and had watched my Mom cook, but she was definitely not a Chef. I was inspired by my Grandfather who worked as a Chef for the Canadian National Railroad for 43 years. My Grandfather had been the Chief Steward on the train that took King Edward across Canada in the 1940’s. My Grandfather’s stories of a life full of hard work and dedication always enthused me. He was a stern, 6’2” Englishman. The difference between my grandfather and I was that he knew what he was getting into. I did not.
When I arrived on my first day, I was outfitted with a Chef’s hat, coat and a pair of pants, but they also gave me some sort of linen thing that I was not sure how to use. With this piece of linen in my hand, I reported to the Head Chef and asked him what I was to do with it. It turns out that it was a handkerchief, which he folded up, put around my neck and tied in a knot before saying, “Did you see how I did that? Because I am not doing it again!” I started on a Sunday in the Buttery Kitchen, where they would serve about 600 breakfasts a day. My job for 8 hours straight was to make toast, white, brown or rye, and I had to ask for clarification of what rye toast was. Things were off to a great start. I was learning a lot.
On my 2nd day at the Four Seasons, I reported to the Café de l’Auberge for the 4pm dinner shift. It was one of five 4 star restaurants in the City of Toronto at the time. When I entered the kitchen, the questioning began. Why was I there? Why wasn’t I cooking in the summer camps? The Chefs at the top restaurants in the City were all European. I was the local boy, just starting out. I ended up becoming a fish cook apprentice. My job was to clean all of the Dover Sole that was flown in twice a week. I was also instructed to open oysters and cook, clean and cut lobsters in half. I still have a scar from the first 12 oysters I opened because I put the oyster knife through my wrist. By my third day on that shift, the fish cook never showed up, so there I was with less than a week of experience doing the job of a Chef. I was thrown into things and I still had so much to learn, very quickly.
During my time at the Four Seasons I realized that being a Chef wasn’t always going to be what I had imagined, but if I put in the work it would be worth it eventually. At the time, I was an apprentice making $1.17 an hour, working for 50-60 hours per week but only being paid for 40. If we were not at our work stations 10 minutes before our 4pm shifts we would be sent home, and someone “more responsible” would get to take our place. I was sent home once, because the bus was late, but I learned my lesson and I was never late again.
If someone were to burn or cut themselves, they were to stay for their shift. It was customary back then to go through the kitchen line and taste everything before serving. I remember putting my fingers into burnt sugar that had been prepared for carrots, and my fingertips rose about 3 inches. The vegetable cook told me that it was stupid of me, so he took my hand and put it on the hot top burner to kill the burnt skin. The Sous Chef then said that I would be working at the grill that night to learn the pain of what I had just done. Tears ran down my face all night long, but I never made that mistake again.
Working at the Four Seasons I learned discipline and grew up quickly. It was hard and I was young, but I didn’t want to let my family, or myself down. I stayed for 2 years and learned everything that I could, until they began to run short of qualified cooks and started re-assigning positions. I ended up working room-service on midnights alone, cheap labour and with no more lessons to be learned decided it was my time to move on. Looking back, I am still thankful for my time there but I am glad to have recognized that the best was yet to come. I had accepted a position at the Ontario Club and I was ready for my next adventure where I made more memories and learned more lessons that I am excited to share with you.
Until next time,