Who knew fine dining and the film industry were so similar?
I’ve worked as a cook for just about three years now. Working in this capacity has taught me a lot of wonderful things about cooking, design, film, and music.
So, what lessons did I learn as I prepped meals? Let’s take a look:
Prep work is such an important job to have. Some see it as grunt work, but I see it as the foundation of the kitchen.
You have to make sure the food and ingredients are prepped, stocked, and edible. You have to be aware of how much food and materials the line has as well as the house/kitchen. The last thing you want is to run out of a popular dish in the middle of a rush because you forgot to prep.
The same holds true when it comes to screenwriting.
Make sure you are ready and prepared to pitch. That doesn’t only mean your script is rid of typos and errors, it also means that (if you're writing a series) you know where your characters and stories are going after episode one.
It means you are prepared to answer any and all questions execs may have about your character’s journey, backstory, and the connection between you and the story.
Are you prepared mentally?
Do you have everything in order?
Are you prepared for any hiccups that will happen?
It is your job to make sure your ‘house’ is in order and runs smoothly. Start from the bottom. Make sure you have a solid foundation before you even begin to build. Are you willing to put in the work?
It isn't unusual for me to have to wash, peel, and dice three bags of potatoes and one bag of onions before a lunch rush. That's more than 100 potatoes that need to be prepped. During one particular shift, I noticed my dices getting worse. The clock was ticking and the rush was coming in. Some of my cuts were too small and others too chunky. But to get the job done, I sacrificed quality for speed.
I had to do the same thing again the next day and I learned my lesson. You can’t work around things. I started to learn to not only properly use my knife to fine dice, but how to utilize my time and energy as well. I worked hard and put in the time to do it right the next time. You should to. Success isn’t an overnight thing. Every great thing that has happened to you has come because you worked toward that goal one way or the other. You will grow tired, frustrated and burned out, but dedication and persistence is what will place you on top.
I remember one of the busiest days I had when I first started working the line. Mind you I am not trained as a chef, so I had to start "from the bottom" as a soup scooper and salad prepper. Eventually I graduated to line cook and closer. On this particular day I was, of course, alone in the kitchen. Tickets were coming at me every second. I won’t say that I killed it as I worked through those tickets, but I will say I learned one lesson in particular that rings true both in the kitchen and on the page: Don’t cut corners.
As a cook, it is my job to send out every dish with care. Whether it's a steak or a ham sandwich, I don’t cut corners. You shouldn’t either. Anxiety can get the best of us, but it is your job to check your emotions at the door and deliver a pitch that is worth it.
This mindset helped me book a meeting with a local producer.
Two months ago I was approached by a film student from a local community college. She wanted me to score a student film. I normally stick to independent companies and libraries, but I decided to help her with the project. It was a short that many would have turned away or handed over to a student music major. Well, I am glad I didn’t. I gave it my all and treated her just as I would any other paying client. I was very active on set and offered to give extra hands if need be during production or post. I even helped with directing.
Two weeks after things were wrapped, I received a call from a local producer and director. Oddly enough, he was given my contact information by the student who praised my dedication and vision. After a conversation, we booked a meeting.
If I had looked at that student as less than or did a half-done job because she was a student, I would have never been given this opportunity to get my work out there.
It’s not who you know, but who knows you.
There were times I sent out the wrong dish or got overwhelmed during a rush. It happens.
This may have happened to you in front of a producer.
You might have said the wrong thing or blanked on a pitch. We’ve all been there.
What to do next? Follow up and try again.
Working in a fast-paced restaurant as a cook helped me strengthen my mindset and thicken my skin. Rejection and screw ups will come and they will hurt, but they will definitely teach you valuable lessons about the industry and yourself.
I remember what Chef always said to us line cooks. He said, "I can teach you how to cook for three Michelin restaurants, but I can’t teach you how to care about your craft. It doesn’t matter how gifted or skillful you are, if you don't care about what you do, it shows in your work.”
He was absolutely right. In the end, I truly believe what you put out is a reflection of yourself. How you respond to criticism, rejections, and your mistakes define you as a person and an artist.
Are you willing to learn?
Are you willing to admit your shortcomings and improve your craft?
Do you care about the message you are sending out or are you here to do the bare minimum and just get by?
These lessons stick with me in my everyday in my professional life. I hope they resonate with you as well.
Be prepared to take risks.
Prepare yourself for the various changes this industry will bring you.
Do not shortchange yourself or your work.
Make sure the message you send out, is one that you are proud of and willing to stand by.
Shanika "Neeko" Freeman is a film composer and screenwriter based in Baltimore, Maryland. Neeko has scored animated, feature and short films along with various games and has worked with animator and producer, Dan Ekis on his science fiction film GREY ISLAND. She has also worked with director and writer, Harry Owens on IN MADNESS,
the official selection of the Pan Afro Film Festival and previewed at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Most recently, Neeko was featured in the BEST SELLER "IT'S SIMPLY FILMMAKING" by author CALI GILBERT, which showcases women in film and TV.
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