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The Chef is ALWAYS the Boss.

The Chef is ALWAYS the Boss.

Stuart Leavenwort | The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

In his 2003 memoir, “The Apprentice,” chef Jacques Pepin describes how he left his classmates and family at age 13 and became an unpaid kitchen intern.

He worked his way up quickly. By his early 20s, Pepin had become chef to French President Charles de Gaulle. He has since become one of the world’s best-known French chefs.

At this point, it doesn’t appear that my culinary career will follow a similar trajectory. After three months at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland, I’m still perfecting my dicing of onions. So far, Alice Waters hasn’t stormed the kitchen and tried to recruit me. I’m not planning any book tours.

But while I may still be a lowly galley slave, I’ve proved to be a fairly reliable one. With every week, the chefs at Oliveto throw new challenges my way. One day I’m curing pancetta. The next day I’m cleaning squid. An hour after that, I’m helping five other people shuck boxes of cranberry beans. The next day I’m braising fresh porcini mushrooms, and then using them as a filling for cannelloni.

The duties range from the mundane to the revelatory, but nearly every day is different. To be a successful kitchen intern, you must gird yourself for anything. You must jump on any assignment.

It helped that, early on, I sought the advice of one of the most experienced interns at Oliveto. His name is Jacob Calthorpe. Jacob has been interning in the kitchen for nearly two years, mostly on the weekends.

He is 13.

Jacob, I asked, any suggestions on being an intern here? Any wisdom you can impart?

“You need to ask the chef,” Jacob replied.

I’ve since understood the wisdom of Jacob’s comment, which, at the time, seemed unhelpful. Never ask an intern a question that is the chef’s to answer. And never answer a question that should be left to the chef.

Interns Must Adapt to Chef

Tens of thousands of aspiring cooks work as interns at restaurants each year nationwide. An unknown number fail within weeks. Some are too cocky. Some are too chatty. Some have problems with authority. Others think they want to change careers into cooking, only to find they can’t handle the hours and the heat.

As a result, many restaurants don’t bother with interns, even though they provide free labor.

Yet at Oliveto, chef Paul Canales has long welcomed apprentices. He seems to relish the challenge.