(Domitille Biehlmann / The McGill Tribune)

“The guy that I worked for [....] was bragging about how he was yelling at a server and in the middle [of the argument], turned and threw a knife at a wall and stuck it in the wall and scared the shit out of the server.” Noah Sutton said, when recalling his time as a line cook at McKibbin’s Irish Pub in the summer of 2016. “I thought, ‘This is terrible, like, why would you do that?’ That’s crazy.’”

With Sutton’s testimony, I’m convinced: Cooking isn’t my gig. This summer, I’m returning to my camp counsellor position and I can’t help but wonder if the first paying job of my “adult life” is worth a bullet point on my CV. I’m all too aware, as an English major, of the need to sell the value of my degree, but I’m not sure if I should pen a defence for leading a group of kids while I’m at it.

When you don’t remotely want to be a teacher or the next Anthony Bourdain, how do you justify doing work unrelated to your career goals?

Understandably, employers view internships as resume-enhancing: Working at companies gives students hands-on experience. For a season, students demonstrate their ability to carry out projects in their desired field. However, not all interns are remunerated for their professional stints.

(photo courtesy of mckibbinsirishpub.com)

Like Sutton, many students gravitate to restaurants if they’re in search for temporary work while at university. According to Statistics Canada, the median hourly wages of men and women age 17 to 24 in 2012 were 13 per cent and 8 per cent lower, respectively, than their counterparts in 1981. Since wages offered for entry-level positions are decreasing, young people are more willing to accept questionable salaries. Students from lower-income families are then further disadvantaged when entering the workforce without relevant job experiences for future postings. Instead of pursuing internships, they’ll settle for non-standard work. Flexible hours and high turnover are just some of the reasons why an intrepid undergrad would choose to take the heat of the service industry.

International student and part-time customer representative at Chef on Call Murat Polat, U0 Engineering, discovered his current workplace, during September 2016 Frosh. Now he spends roughly 20 hours per week at the restaurant, preparing milkshakes, answering phone calls, and packing meals. Polat has certainly grown more independent since moving from Istanbul, Turkey to study at McGill. To his surprise, his work as a customer representative developed into a steady source of income throughout the school year.

“At first, I wanted extra pocket money, but now that I’ve worked for months, [Chef on Call is] becoming major income for me because I’m getting less money from my parents since I started working and at the end of the first semester, I found a new apartment and I have a lot of new expenses,” Polat said. “I’m trying to adult.”

(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

Due to the low barrier to entry, potential employers may look down on restaurant industry positions. But these jobs are very often teenagers and young adults’ first experience with responsibility. Even though the hiring process is straightforward, it would be inaccurate to say that cooks, hosts, and servers are engaged in mindless tasks. Seating customers during a lunch rush requires foresight and only the more coordinated among us will come out alive after a 10-hour shift balancing plates. It’s no secret that entry-level jobs are taxing. If you stick with them long enough, however, odds are you’ll put in your two-week notice with more in-demand professional skills than you had when you first applied.

“A lot of people wouldn’t necessarily say little restaurant jobs like this would give you tangible experience,” Sutton said. “And it’s unfortunate that it’s not something I include in my CV because I don’t think people would see how it translates. But I do think that there are skills that you get out of it that are secondary, [such as] organization, working under pressure, working in a team.”

Last summer was a three-month experiment for him. Instead of returning to New York, he opted to stay in Montreal and earn a bit of money on the side. Having a mother who is a professional chef helped him develop culinary skills, and so the service industry was an obvious sector for him to enter. McKibbin’s was Sutton’s first experience as a line cook and he was forced to adapt to the fast-paced environment quickly.

“Working in a restaurant is very much organization and just plugging and going,” Sutton said. “You know how to chop an onion? Great. Do that 100 times. Cut this entire bag [....] Whereas homecooking, you’re making one thing, you can spend time with the presentation and really put it together. In a lot of restaurants, [what is required is preparing food] in bulk, but doing it 10 times faster.”

(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

The restaurant industry not only fosters soft skills, like stress management and teamwork, but also quantifiable hard skills, such as better navigation. Ines Dubois, BA ‘16, a former Chef on Call customer representative and currently working as a cashier at Sadie’s, recalls some of the unexpected mental work Chef on Call entailed, and how she can still apply this knowledge today.

“Because Montreal is big and we’re only one [Chef on call] location so you have to manage West orders, East orders, which ones go together because you can’t just send the driver all over the place for one order every time. So I learned Montreal streets, too. Even though I haven’t been to all the places, if you tell me a street, chances are I can say, ‘Okay this is South-West or South-East.’”

Adjusting to the highly demanding setting of a restaurant can be difficult. At McKibbin’s, Sutton had trouble fitting into a workplace that necessitated confrontation. One month into his job at the pub, Sutton had to stand up to a server after being asked to prepare a meal that would disrupt the flow of orders. In an uncharacteristic display of temper, he yelled at the server.

“The next day, I come in and [the other cooks] are like, ‘Noah! You’re one of us now,’” Sutton said. “So yelling at server was like, ‘You’re now part of the kitchen’ [....] On the one hand, I don’t like yelling just to yell, but sometimes in that high pressure environment you have to yell just to get your point across.”

The external stress from part-time jobs is not wholly negative: It can make students more efficient and judicious with their time. Self-proclaimed procrastinators, like Dubois and Polat, need the pressure of deadlines to carry out projects. Maintaining a part-time job in high-stress environments while studying may make their schedules jam-packed, but it also increases their productivity.

(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

“I can manage my assignments and my school tasks better now,” Polat said. “I can be more strict about my schedule. For example, on Saturday I know that from noon to 3 p.m. I’m going to do this, this, and that, so it’s easier for me to get stuff done because of the structure.”

“[Restaurant jobs are] valuable for some life skills, but overall it was because I needed to do it more than because I wanted to,” Dubois said.

In 2015, a study conducted by the Georgetown University Centre on Education and the Workforce (Georgetown Centre) showed that 40 per cent of undergraduates and 76 per cent of graduate students work a minimum of 30 hours a week while pursuing their college degree. Out of the students who work while studying, 25 per cent commit to a full-time job and a full course load. Dubois admits that if she didn’t need to, she would avoid juggling menial work and her studies.

“[Restaurant jobs are] valuable for some life skills, but overall it was because I needed to do it more than because I wanted to,” Dubois said.

I would have a lot on my plate and when the [academic] due dates came, I would think, ‘Oh my god. What have I done?’ It was tough sometimes, but looking back, I’m really proud to have been able to do it all and accomplish what I wanted and to finish McGill with a GPA that I’m pretty happy with.”

There is a tendency for customers to judge, be impatient toward, and call out entry-level workers for their incompetence, regardless if they are truly in the wrong. Rarely do working students brag about navigating the chaos of an overcrowded kitchen or enduring the hell that is unappeasable patrons. While placing dishes before diners may be viewed less favourably than a competitive position at a prestigious firm, service jobs still warrant esteem. Getting an internship that is unquestionably related to your career aspirations is ideal, but so many of the students who work in the service industry are doing these jobs out of necessity. Hence, as with any experience, working at a restaurant contributes to a candidate’s unique background, and at the early stages of a career, it plays to one’s versatility.

“[Last semester], I got a lot more hours at Chef on Call,” Dubois said. “[....] I would have a lot on my plate and when the [academic] due dates came, I would think, ‘Oh my god. What have I done?’ It was tough sometimes, but looking back, I’m really proud to have been able to do it all and accomplish what I wanted and to finish McGill with a GPA that I’m pretty happy with.”

Maybe a defence for so-called irrelevant jobs is unnecessary. Sutton’s, Polat’s, and Dubois’ experiences demonstrate that undertaking any type of work can be valuable for one’s career. In retrospect, cooking in a professional kitchen or being a camp counsellor are all reasonable starting points to develop leadership skills, efficiency, and even overcome shyness. When we disregard candidates’ less illustrious workplaces, we also neglect a significant part of what shaped who they are. In all cases, it’s the individual that defines the experience.

“The kitchen works like that,” Sutton said. “It’s kind of shady, but if you put in the effort, you also get recognized [....The tasks are] really draining. It’s an easy job to slack off in and do nothing, but you can choose to make the most of it."