Valuable lessons I’ve learned in the food service industry

I have spent years working in the food industry, both back home and in Syracuse. Throughout this time, I have learned numerous skills and lessons that have helped me in the kitchen, as well as in life.

Personal Essay by Lily McDonald

When I was 16, I got my first job at a restaurant in my hometown. I worked as a food runner, assisting the cooks with organizing orders in the kitchen, bringing food out to tables, and helping the guests with any other needs. 

I saw both sides of the industry: the inner workings of the kitchen and customer service. The work was grueling at times. I endured 11-hour shifts, running back and forth with heavy trays of food while dealing with the endless demands of patrons. Tensions were high on the busy nights when I had to correct mistakes made by the cooks and keep track of several orders at a time. I have scars on my arms from hot dishes and have lost feeling in my fingertips due to burns. Despite the pain and struggles, none of these factors could deter me from showing up to work every day – I loved it. 

For six days, 40 hours a week, I was surrounded by some of the kindest, most interesting people I have ever met. I was immersed in the standard kitchen routine, watching as the cooks prepped in the morning. I saw them prepare each dish to the best of their ability through the long nights. Each meal was a product of their creativity, and their goal was to please guests with both presentation and taste. I learned the correct way to hold a knife for chopping vegetables and how to get various sauces to the perfect consistency. They taught me how to read the temperature of meat on the grill, along with the best technique for searing salmon. I watched as they attended to each patron’s request beyond the limits of the menu. They were willing to do anything to cater to the guests’ needs, regardless of the extra effort. I loved hearing about my coworkers’ past experiences in different restaurants and all of the wisdom they acquired. My days in that restaurant are what led to my interest in cooking new recipes.

Lily (third to right) bonding with her second family. Photo courtesy of Lily McDonald.

The food industry not only taught me culinary skills, but also taught me valuable life lessons. When I started working, I was told that my fellow employees would become a second family. This could not have been more true. Through strenuous work, I forged a bond with good-hearted coworkers. The management team cared deeply for the employees and guests in a way that engendered trust and respect. 

When I came to Syracuse, I knew I would miss the restaurant industry, so when I saw the job application for food services, I was immediately drawn to it. Now, I work at CoreLife Eatery preparing salad bowls and at Otto’s Juicebox making smoothies. This is a different experience, as I am now more involved in making the food, not just serving it. Beyond cutting steak and tossing salads, I was shown new ingredients that I had never heard of before, inspiring me to experiment with my own creations. Additionally, I had to learn to keep calm under immense pressure. With long lines of students waiting at Core Life and Otto’s Juicebox, working efficiently without mistakes is crucial. Through the stress of busy shifts, I have created connections with my new coworkers, one that mirrors home. We work in unison, focusing on our own jobs while always willing to help each other if we fall behind. The shifts proceed in a steady rhythm. After each one ends, we can decompress together.

Lily’s CoreLife bowl creation. Photo courtesy of Lily McDonald.

The restaurant industry certainly has its struggles and requires intense effort, but it is one of the most beneficial jobs one can have growing up. Through such hardships come irreplaceable friendships, as well as a diverse array of skills that can be applied in and out of the kitchen. It can inspire further interest in cooking and provide opportunities for future employment. My experiences in the restaurant industry have been invaluable, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to work in both establishments, and maybe even more.

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