February 5, 2015 / 1:02 PM / 3 years ago

YOUR MONEY-Top chefs got their start chopping and washing

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK, Feb 5 (Reuters) - If there's one thing Reuters has learned from a year of asking celebrities about their first gigs ever, it is that you never forget your first job. No matter how famous or powerful they have become, America's foremost achievers all remember that very first moment of bringing home a paycheck.

This month, to coincide with the monthly jobs report, we talked to the celebrity chefs who have taken over our airwaves. Before they started creating gourmet meals, they began at the bottom just like the rest of us.

Bobby Flay

First job: salad chef

"After getting kicked out of high school once, I finally dropped out as a sophomore. My dad said, 'If you're not going to school, you have to get a job.' He wasn't asking, he was telling.

"He was a partner in a Broadway-district restaurant called Joe Allen, and I filled in as a busboy for two weeks. I was literally walking out of the restaurant when the chef said to me, 'Do you want a job in the kitchen?' I said 'OK, sure.'

"So I put on my cook's whites and started working at the salad station. One day I woke up and thought, 'I can't wait to go to work today.' I knew something was different.

"I was paid $190 a week. I remember opening my first paycheck and being shocked at the amount of taxes they took out: $46. It was criminal. But this was around 1981, and with $144, I felt like I could do anything I wanted. I could buy all the beer I could possibly drink."

Thomas Keller

First job: dishwasher

"I started out washing dishes, which turned out to have a huge impact on my life and career. This was at a restaurant in Laurel, Maryland called the Bay & Surf, which was run by my mother. The dishwashing station was next to where they cooked crabs, so sometimes I got to help the chefs.

"I think my brother and I got paid a little something, but we were far too young to be on the payroll - I was only in 6th or 7th grade.

"As a dishwasher I may have been considered the lowest person in that restaurant, but I learned that I was just as important as anybody else. If I didn't do my part, then nobody else could do their jobs."

Emeril Lagasse

First job: bakery assistant

"I worked at the Moonlight bakery on Bedford Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. I used to go there with my parents, and one of the owners took a liking to me and gave me a job a few days a week after school. It was mainly washing pots and pans, and I made a dollar an hour.

"I was infatuated with baking: the smells, the bins, the flour and sugar and eggs. Not a lot of guys there spoke English; these were hardcore Portuguese bakers. But I guess they liked me, because I started going on deliveries, and eventually they taught me how to bake.

"By the time I was 14 I would work in that bakery from 11 at night until 7 in the morning, and then go to school all day. I would sleep after school, my parents would wake me up for dinner, and then I'd go back to the bakery to start all over again."

Michael Chiarello

First job: dishwasher

"If you ask chefs of my generation, probably at least half of us started out as dishwashers. I grew up in a small farm town in California's Central Valley, and there weren't many restaurants around, but I walked right into one of them when I was 14 and asked for a job.

"Once the dishes were done, there was nothing to do, so at some point the cook asks you to help out. That was the goal, since I always wanted to be a cook.

"I made less than minimum wage, and spent the money on fishing and hunting gear, since I was a country boy. Eventually I put myself through chef's school by raising litters of golden retrievers.

"Dishwashing is actually one of the most respected positions around. It's the heart of the kitchen, because as that area goes, so goes the rest of the restaurant." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Beth Pinsker and Jonathan Oatis)

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