Guest Blogger: Choosing An Externship

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Many culinary students go through a formal externship as part of their education. It is much like an extension of the journeyman chef training in the major restaurants in Europe, and in some instances can make or change a culinary career. I’ve asked Anne Haerle, one of my former students to share advice on how she went about selecting her externship.

The Externship Search

Many students are both confused and intimidated by the daunting process of finding the right site for them. The good news is that, by giving yourself time to plan and by taking advantage of all your school’s resources, you can secure a position at a site that will fuel your passions and possibly launch your career down an exciting path. By following a couple of simple steps, your search for the perfect externship will be fun as well as fruitful.

The Sky’s the Limit

It’s best to start your externship site search with a “blue sky” approach. Ask yourself: if you could work anywhere, for anyone, what would you want to do? Do you want to work for a big-name chef in a New York City restaurant? Or does a large resort property in a beautiful coastal area appeal to you? Do you want to see a part of the country or a region of the world where you’ve never been? Maybe you want to write for a food magazine or explore a career in research and development? This is the part of the process where anything is possible.

Give yourself plenty of time to discover what really excites and appeals to you. Don’t limit yourself to a few ideas – create as long a list as possible of locations and types of sites that you find interesting.

If you’re not sure where to look for a list of externship sites, ask the school’s Career Services department to help. At the Culinary Institute of America, there are eRecruting and eDocuments sites on the Student Portal. eRecruiting helps you locate externship sites by name, location and cuisine, while eDocuments provides key details for individual sites. Your school may have a similarly system.

You can also search the Internet for externship site ideas, but make sure to check that the site is on the school’s approved list. If you’re interested in a site that’s not on the list, you’ll need to work with Career Services to get it approved. This can take a few months, so this is another reason to plan ahead.

Making Decisions

Now that you have composed your dream list, it’s time to narrow it down, based on your career goals. It’s helpful to think not just about where you want to go but also about the depth of experience you have now. For instance, if you came to school with a limited amount of time spent in a professional kitchen, you may want to think about working for a large resort or hotel where you can rotate through a number of positions. This approach also works well if you’re not sure what you want to do after graduation. By spending time in a wide variety of kitchens with different menus and chefs, you can discover where you are most comfortable.

Let’s say that one day you want to go into fine dining but so far you’ve worked in more casual dining restaurants. Based on your prior experience and goals, an externship in a fine dining restaurant would be a good next step. If you treat externship as an important part of your professional development, you’ll ultimately find it easier to make a choice that can really help advance your career.

So you’ve considered all the possibilities as well as your career goals, and you have compiled a solid list of possible sites. The next step is to compare those locations with reality. An externship in Italy might sound exciting, but can you afford the travel and living expenses? Do you need to stay close to home to save money? Do you need to identify a site that provides housing to make the externship convenient and affordable? Now is the time to think about the practical side of things. Hopefully, you’ll find several sites on your dream list that meet your real-world needs too.

At this point you’ve pulled together a short but realistic list of sites that really reflects your interests and aspirations. You’re ready to connect with them. Make sure to give yourself time to pull together your references, resumé and cover letters. Here again, Career Services will give you guidelines on resumé and letter writing and any sample materials. Don’t rush this part of the process – make sure all your correspondence is professional, well written, and presents you in the best possible way.

It also helps to connect directly with externship sites whenever possible. Career Fairs are a great way to meet a large number of on-site representatives in a short period of time and interview with them face-to-face. By taking advantage of Career Fairs, you can connect with different locations quickly and shave weeks off the time it takes to secure an externship agreement.

Another idea is to consider “trailing” or “shadowing” at a site that you like, assuming you can afford the time and travel costs. Some sites require that you trail or take a cooking test in their kitchen, which is good to keep that in mind during your search. If your chosen location is too far away for trailing, follow up your resumé and cover letter with a phone call. This will demonstrate your keen interest. Chefs almost always respond to candidates who show initiative and enthusiasm. Try to speak with someone at the site, even if you have to call several times.

And the Winner Is…

After all this work and planning, let’s hope you’ve received more than one externship offer. How do you make your final decision?

It helps to review the advantages and disadvantages of each location. Sit down and make a list of positive and negative points for each site – sometimes seeing all the facts laid out on paper helps you make a tough decision. At the end of the day, you may decide to trust your gut and make the choice that just feels right. After all, if you’ve take the time to go through the steps suggested here, any of the extern sites on your final list should give you a great experience that more than meets your expectations.

How I Chose My Externship Site

When I started looking at externship sites, I’m sure I felt many of the same emotions that other students do – excited but overwhelmed, and not sure where to start. I began my search several months before my externship agreement was due so I wouldn’t have to rush through the process. I considered a large number of sites at first and slowly narrowed it down to six or so. I then went to Career Services, who gave me great feedback on my cover letters and resumé. Once I mailed out my packages to my final site list, I followed up right away with telephone and e-mail to see which locations were most interested.

At the same time I took advantage of two Career Fairs and met with several recruiters – I even received an externship offer immediately after one of my interviews! I also trailed at one externship site during summer break, which really helped me focus my search. Ultimately, I received several offers and had to make a difficult choice.

I made my decision to go to Sea Island resort in Sea Island, Georgia because I would rotate through many stations and knew I would gain a broad base of kitchen experience. The resort also provided housing, which was important since my home is in Seattle and I didn’t want to rent a separate apartment in Georgia. It was a nice bonus that my parents live 3 hours from Sea Island and I could visit them.

I had an awesome learning experience on externship and I truly believe I made the best choice. I know that I was able to make a great decision because I took the time to do my homework and find a site that more than met all my needs.