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Eater Young Guns Semifinalists Talk About Their First Industry Jobs

The next guard talks first jobs, hustling, and Waffle House.

Love & Salt.
Love & Salt.
Wonho Frank Lee

Last week Eater announced the 50 Young Gun semifinalists, a group of promising up-and-comers selected from hundreds of nominees. We surveyed each and every one of them, asking about their experience, the challenges they've faced and what they hope to accomplish in the future. We're publishing a selection of their answers over the next month, and the winners will be announced on June 8.

To kick it off, Eater asked the up-and-comers about their first jobs in the industry: Where did they work? What did they learn? Is any of that knowledge relevant today?

Julia Poplawsky [Photo: Winslow + Co]; Colin Stringer

My first baking job was at St. Cupcake in Portland, OR, in 2006. I mostly scooped cupcakes and made frosting. On top of learning what it's like to work in a commercial kitchen, I learned to tap into a part of me that enjoys doing monotonous tasks like scooping hundreds of cupcakes. That part of me has helped a lot through the years of rolling thousands of pie crusts and whisking vats of pastry cream.
— Megan Miller, baker/co-owner, Baker Miller, Chicago

When I was 14 years old, I cooked breakfast at a local favorite greasy spoon called The Claimjumper. I learned speed and organization, skills I still use everyday. I also learned how to make an omelet, which comes in handy at home once in while.
— Matt Vawter, chef de cuisine/Proprietor, Mercantile Dining & Provision, Denver

The Avalon music venue was the first real kitchen job I got while I was in culinary school. It definitely taught me how to hustle, which is basically a seventh sense you have to have in a kitchen.
— Rebecca Merhej, chef de cuisine/Pastry Chef, Love & Salt, Manhattan Beach

To be honest, nothing really. I was 16 years old and a busser at Mexican cafe in my hometown, Boerne, Texas. I didn't realize that food was going to be my future career. Well, that's a lie.... I learned one thing: tacos and/or enchiladas always make the best family meal.
— Julia Poplawsky, butcher, Dai Due, Austin

Tacos always make the best family meal

I worked at a cafe in New Jersey that is now closed and was pretty terrible; one of those places that you aren't surprised when it closes in the slightest. The good thing to come from that was that we had to do EVERYTHING: clean, bake, make coffee beverages, everything. As a first job, it was a good comprehensive experience, if anything.
— Sande Friedman, education director/cheese director, Tria, Philadelphia

I started in the industry at 13 years old. I, like many young boys, wanted to buy a Jeep to drive girls around — so my Dad said get a job. Washing dishes taught me all the lessons of a first job at a young age. How to interact with co-workers, how you cannot play all day and need to get your hands dirty, and how to be part of a service and team.
— Corey Polyoka, partner/director of operations, Foodshed, Baltimore

My first job in the industry was a dishwashing position at the age of 13 in a little diner in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. It was a very small, busy kitchen so everyone had to work super tight, clean and fast. If you stopped moving, you would get run over. This stuck with me.
— Ryan Fox, executive chef/owner, Nomad.PDX, Portland

If you stopped moving, you would get run over

When I was 18, I was an extern at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago; being a young chicano cook, it was important to me to learn everything I could about the food I love and grew up with, which enabled me start [my pop-up series] E'Chingon.
— Mara Serna, head chef, D&T Drive Inn, Houston

I worked a few different kitchen jobs before working at Waffle House, but that was probably my first real line cook or short order cook position. Just learning how to cook using six to eight egg pans at a time was a challenge. I think that job taught me focus and intensity, which are things you obviously have to master in any type of kitchen. That job was crazy though.
— Colin Stringer, co-owner/cook, Nani, Oklahoma City

My first cooking job was at a pizza place, The Emporium, in my hometown, Readfield, Maine. I was 15, and though I enjoyed cooking and food, had no real clue about life in the restaurant industry. I learned from the cook who was leaving and fell in love with working with food — stretching dough, tending to sauces, spending hours alone before service getting my mise in order, and learning to work a hot oven without losing my cool.
— Kate Whittemore, cook, Palace Diner, Biddeford, ME

I moved to Seattle with the lofty dream of being a professional dancer. Bills turned out to be quite real, so I got my start in the industry out of necessity and bussed brunch tables at a busy cafe. My love for coffee combined with a little crush on a barista motivated me to get behind an espresso machine. Making coffee was awesome, and my co-workers were patient with me while I got lost in major brunch weeds.
— Wille Sheller, bartender, Liberty, Seattle