The first job I ever had was working at a small, family-owned custard shop in Minneapolis. I was a sophomore in high school, and I made less than $5 an hour when I started. Maybe it was too many brain freezes on the job, or maybe it was that I actually had fun, but there was something about the experience that made me want to work in restaurants throughout college and beyond.
I consider the time I worked in the food service industry to be fundamental to who I am today. Whether you were flipping burgers, or serving tables, you learn a lot of invaluable life skills that someone outside of the industry might not understand. Here are a few things The Kitchn editors and contributors feel we have learned from working in the food service industry.
More so than any other job or internship I’ve ever had, working in a restaurant throws you into a very intense community of people. When the restaurant is in the weeds and everyone rallies together and manages to rock service without any of the patrons guessing something is off, well, that just feels awesome.
It’s the fast-paced nature of restaurants combined with service aspect and something as enjoyable and passionated as food, that sets restaurants apart from other service industry jobs. Things get heated, you need to think on your feet, and you need to smile the entire time – it can be a draining job, but the things you learn and the people you meet are worth your time.
Here are the most important life skills I learned from working in five restaurant and food service jobs in the last ten plus years.
1. I learned how to gracefully deal with unpleasant people.
This holds true whether it’s the people you work with or the customers themselves. You are going to have to deal with people who are rather unpleasant if you work in a restaurant. There were a couple of times when, as a maître d’, I’d have to stand there and listen to someone scream at me because they were over an hour late for their reservation and I gave their table away on a Saturday night. You do it with a smile and you have to think of a solution, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.
2. I learned how to multitask like a mad woman.
Working at a restaurant is all about multitasking. In any given minute, you could take someone’s order, fold a napkin, direct someone to the bathroom, pour more water, and talk to the chef about a guest’s dietary restrictions. Trying to keep all of that in your head while smiling is what makes restaurant workers just good workers, generally.
3. I learned not to take my mistakes too seriously.
You will undoubtedly make mistakes working at a restaurant that will either affect the customer or your colleagues. You might forget to fire an order, or add the wrong garnish to a dish, or seat someone at the wrong table. People will be mad at you, but you learn to say you’re sorry and try not to do it again.
4. I learned empathy for other people who work in service industry jobs.
If you work front of house and are basically living off of tips, you know how important it is to tip when you go out and receive great service. Similarly, if your food is slow at a restaurant or the order is wrong, I always try to remember that it’s not one individual’s fault at the restaurant. Don’t yell at your server.
5. I learned the importance of being on time and working hard at any job position.
You know how stressful it is when one of your colleagues is late to a shift because their alarm didn’t go off, or they’re too hungover, and you have to cover their tables or station. And if someone is slacking during a busy shift at work, you feel it – it doesn’t matter the position. You learn from these experiences and try to work hard and be on time for work so things go smoothly.
10 More Food Industry Life Lessons
Here’s what the other Kitchn editors and contributors had to say about what they learned while working in the food service industry.
Mental organization: There is nothing like working in a restaurant, especially as a server — the person who is the point of connection between customer, manager, maître d’, chef, and bar — to strengthen your mental organization. You learn how to keep your mind organized on the fly, with a set of ever-changing priorities. — Faith Durand
Tolerance & patience: Food is such a personal thing. Working as a server (for example) teaches you to interface with all kinds of people who have all kinds of reactions to food, and teaches tolerance and patience. It also gives you tremendous empathy for those who prepare your food and serve it to you, day in and day out. – Carrie Havranek
Be efficient: Never walk anywhere empty handed. Clean up as you go along, or have a designated area for dirty stuff if you can’t. Tip well. It isn’t always obvious whose fault a mistake is, so don’t freak out. – Anne Wolfe Postic
Major on the majors: Working in the industry teaches you to work with passion, but let go of the little things. When you’re in your home kitchen it’s easy to spaz out or make a bigger deal out of something small. Cooking professionally, the show must go on and quick! Adaptability and an organized and paired down kitchen are key! – Sara Rae Trover
Hones your edge Working on the line forces you to multitask and focus through noise of the relentless ticket machine, sadistic demands of a lunatic chef, exhaustion/adrenaline of back to back shift work, confusion from language barriers, requirements from diners that range from reasonable to absurd. (Turns out, sweating it out in a resto kitchen hones an edge useful in parenthood, too.)
Understanding the workforce: My experience working in an American restaurant will forever influence my view of the entire US work force and inform my political and basic human opinions on fare pay and American immigration policy. I have worked in corporate America, television, print media, and other industries and it’d be tough to say there is a collection of harder working, more creative and inventive people than those who make our restaurants run. Getting in the mix of a kitchen is one of the most eye-opening, and impacting experiences of my life. Also one of the hardest– Tara Mataraza Desmond
On team work: Everyone should work in restaurants because they don’t realize how it really takes a team of people working well together to get you delicious food quickly. – Christine Gallary
The simple tricks that save time: For me (having worked in the early morning prep kitchen, behind a bakery/coffee counter, and as a server) the biggest takeaways were food prep skills to save time, look nicer, or taste better. It wasn’t formal training, just tricks passed on from the chefs, that have made a huge difference in my own cooking. – Jessica Fisher
A foundational lesson in respect: Working as a waiter also gave me so much respect for the people who serve me now. I make a point of being nice to bar tenders and servers and tip well. I can’t handle it when friends or business contacts aren’t nice to service people. There’s this amazing intimacy to a kitchen. Standing around peeling potatoes or frying hundreds of parmesan chicken nuggets or deveining shrimp for hours, the good long stories about relationships, sex, family start pouring out. – Chris Phillips
Diplomacy: From my experience working/ training in a cooking school, chefs can be temperamental and you need to be diplomatic around them. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to tell them that they’re doing it wrong or that there is an easier way to cube a mango. I learned a lot of tact and people management skills at this job, and for a hothead like me, it was a real lesson. – Michelle Peters Jones
The real world of food: My first non-camp-counselor job was working at a bagel shop — it was the summer between high school and college, and it was a messy, smelly job! I always reeked of everything bagels. The experience seriously motivated me that first year in college — I never wanted to work in a commercial food setting again. I like to eat too much, and that work experience almost ruined everything bagels for me – Landis Carey
Credit to Ariel Knutson from Kitchen.