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My uncool summer job

Sophie Levenson

A friend of mine told me recently that he had been offered a summer internship working for Google out in California. It sounds like a phenomenal opportunity—two months in the valley, living with a friend in a paid-for apartment, hacking away at some coding in exchange for a neatly ticked box on his resumé and an inevitably enormous paycheck.


Duke has a number of students like my friend, applying for fancy internships in big cities across the country, where they will have opportunities to learn specialized skills in sleek and snazzy office buildings, chatting with successful entrepreneurs and networking their way into Wall Street jobs that will have black leather swivel chairs ready for them the day after graduation. College students at all the elite schools are like this: ambitious, connected, happy (naturally) to be grossly overpaid while sitting in a newly-renovated conference room full of bright young minds bursting with innovative ideas.


When I go home this summer, I am going to throw on a blue chef’s apron over an unflattering pair of khaki shorts, step into a pair of incredibly unclean Vans, and get to work in the kitchen. There, I will be happy. Incredibly tired, but happy.

My job does not impress a lot of people. Alas, I will not be spending my summer months at some fancy internship. In the same vein, I will not travel to some remote corner of the globe to immerse myself in a new language, planting eco-friendly beans on a school-sponsored trip to an impoverished country. 


Like 17 million other Americans, I will spend sticky, humid evenings in the back of a restaurant, dealing with rich grumpy adults who complain about everything from dining room lighting to the amount of butter on their roasted asparagus.

Confession: when I mention my job, and people ask me what I do, I sometimes say, “I’m a chef.” I am not, technically, a chef. I mostly expo: wipe plates, direct food to tables, liaison between line cooks and servers; I do a decent amount of prep, chopping beets and making peanut butter fudge pies, trays upon trays of hot popovers. A handful of times I have worked on the line, mixing salads and dropping fries and onion rings into boiling vegetable oil. But I do not actually know things about food. I could not tell anyone how to properly sauté broccolini, or prepare flounder so that it is edible. I am mostly just good at doing what is asked of me.


Actually, I spend most of my time in the kitchen cleaning. Anyone who works in the food and beverage industry can tell you that cleanliness is among the most important elements of a successful restaurant, and often one of the most overlooked. Not in my kitchen, though—it’s a daily battle between me, three chefs, and a giant bucket of soapy water before we lock the doors around midnight and head home after a shift.


So no, I am not a chef. I just kind of work in a kitchen. But “chef” sounds cooler, and at Duke, cool summer activities are the trend. Real, gritty work doesn’t provoke much of a reaction from our peers here.

Working in a kitchen is not an easy job, though. The chefs I have worked for are some of the most perpetually exhausted people you could imagine, arriving at work at eight in the morning and leaving after midnight almost every day of the week. This has only been made worse in the last couple of years by the epidemic of understaffing that restaurants are all suffering from as the demand for unsustainably high wages grows louder from prospective employees. It is not uncommon for a dishwasher to walk out mid-shift, in any establishment, leaving chefs and food runners and expos left with stacks of dirty dishes to crank out between putting up orders and cleaning everything else up, too. 


Even when there is a full staff—a happy, drama-free staff (rare in a restaurant environment)—the job is difficult. It calls for exertion and skill (can you carry four plates with two hands?) and the ability to remain calm when random people are threatening to report you to a manager at any moment for an unintentional, harmless mistake. It calls for long showers and long nights of sleep—that you will never actually get—and long hours on your feet without food, without a break, without patience from customers or room to screw up. A job like this is not an internship; you are not well paid, you are not learning: you ruin someone’s dinner, and it is time to find somewhere else to work.

That being said, there is, of course, no fundamental issue with college kids pursuing prestigious internships. If you know what you want and you have earned an impressive position, go for it—it is, indeed, pretty impressive. The point, however, is that any kind of hard work is impressive, even if it doesn’t make as much money, or doesn't require a written application, or a resumé built on the fact that you go to Duke and major in Econ. 


Working in a kitchen, or anywhere in the service industry, absolutely does not indicate a lack of intelligence or of ability. You might be surprised to know just how much brain stimulation it takes to multitask cooking nine different meals, in a specific order, with specific modifications to each dish, for hours on end every night. You might be similarly shocked to find that it is incredibly difficult to effectively communicate with a cast of coworkers all from different backgrounds, at different ages, in different stages of life. Emotional intelligence as well as basic quick intellect is a required skill for a kitchen worker. The service industry does not offer jobs for the weak-minded.


In June, I will not be traveling somewhere exotic for a life-changing experience in a new country, with a new language and with eco-friendly beans. Instead, I will watch my boss cook normal legumes—and if he feels so inclined, Luis, our trusty Mexican dishwasher and my good friend, can teach me Spanish.


Let’s dismantle, then, the obnoxious hierarchy of “cool summer jobs” available to college students. Hard work—on-your-feet, un-air-conditioned, long-hour, underpaid hard work—deserves a bit more respect.

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