How To Become a Chef: What You Really Need To Know
When you think of a chef, what comes to mind? A big guy in a fancy white coat and hat, with an impeccable handlebar mustache sampling stews? Or celebrity chefs who seem like they yell more than they cook (on TV at least)? For a profession that gets a lot of time in the spotlight, what it is to be a chef seems to be often misconstrued. So, what does it actually take to become a chef then? We’ve got you covered.
Being a Chef has never seemed like more of a badass profession than it does now. Shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef Junior” (a personal favorite) show the skill, beauty, and stress that go into making a restaurant quality dish. The sincere desire for perfection and the tireless energy put forth to strive for it are essential character traits. Becoming a chef can be incredibly rewarding for those who love the discipline and dedication that goes into every detail of the job. With that said, let’s get these rose-colored glasses off and really take a look at the profession.
Being a chef is not a glamorous position, or for the faint-hearted. Take it from one of the greats, Anthony Bourdain. He shares words of wisdom and the realities of working in a kitchen in this excerpt from his book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. Bourdain’s account of working in the business shares similarities with others in the industry. Drug and alcohol abuse is pretty common, along with sexual harassment and bullying.
This past year has been rough in the food industry with the #metoo movement driving women in this field to speak out on the sexual assault and harassment that’s been normalized in the industry for decades. The industry as a whole is working toward correcting and eliminating ignorance and these abusers, but it’s still a place where you need to have thick skin.
Another not-so-great detail, but a staple of the job are the weekends and holidays are when you can expect to work the most. Maintaining relationships and finding time for your family can be difficult when you work long, odd hours. An 8-hour shift might turn into a 14-hour shift, making after-work plans with anyone but your co-workers unpredictable and unlikely.
Lastly, be prepared to be exhausted. When you’re on your feet constantly moving in a hot, high-pressure environment, what else can you expect?
“Wash dishes and work your way up to prep cook. If you still have the desire, get on the sauté line. If you still have passion after that, then consider going to school,” Jimenez says. “You really can get beat up on the sauté line, and if you’re working that line and you can’t picture yourself doing anything else, that’s when it lies true.” – Chef Esteban “E. J.” Jimenez
So you still think you want to become a chef? Get a job in a restaurant kitchen. This experience will give you a chance to see the type of environment you’ll be working in, and it’ll give you invaluable hands-on experience as well. You don’t have to be in school to learn, so take advantage of those skills you can pick up from experienced cooks. Why invest in something when you may not be sure about it? Going to school to become a chef can be incredibly expensive, and having the peace of mind that this is what you want before investing in school is a smart move.
If you don’t quite feel ready for a professional kitchen, there are things you can do to work your skills up to par. Practice your cooking skills at home. Get comfortable with cooking utensils and try new recipes and types of cuisine. This kind of practice will give you an idea of what you enjoy cooking the most, as well as helping you see your strengths and areas in which you need to improve.
Cook for family and friends – feedback is important for chefs. Try out new dishes and get your family and friends honest opinion. Follow industry publications by staying up-to-date with all things food and restaurant related. Subscribe to industry blogs and magazines, read books by chefs about becoming a chef. Lastly, visit other restaurants. This will give you a sense of how they run. Pay close attention to the staff, menu, food turnaround time, plating and taste of the food you order, and gain a sense of a how everything works together.
Going to school to become a chef isn’t necessarily required, but it does give you a competitive advantage versus chefs that don’t have formal education. You can find culinary programs at trade or vocational schools, colleges, and culinary institutes. A stronger focus in specialties such as pastries, butchering or frying is also a plus side of attending school to become a chef.
You’ll take such courses as nutrition, sanitary food preparation techniques, butchery, pastry making, and other basic cooking knowledge. If you plan to own a restaurant one day, choose a program that offers classes in business, management, human resources, etc. When you complete your program, find an internship. If your school doesn’t offer assistance finding internships, try to find one on your own. These internships will be major resume builders.
The American Culinary Federation (ACF) offers a chef certification. You can receive specialized certifications in areas such as pastry making. Certifications can help boost your resume and set you apart for employers. They may not look as prestigious as a degree from a culinary school, but getting these certifications can show you’re serious.
If school simply isn’t an option for you right now, you can still achieve your dreams of becoming a chef. A solid middle ground between a kitchen job and culinary school is an internship. Working as a stage gets you kitchen experience with your superiors while keeping in mind that they are teaching you skills, and you’re learning. This method may be a little less overwhelming than getting a job in a kitchen. Finding a paid internship can help keep the bills paid, or help you eventually save up for culinary school.
Chef Career Path
Even with a degree from a reputable culinary institution, you still start out at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, and it can take years to work your way up in that one kitchen if you have the skills to do so. Hierarchy and filling your role is essential to a functioning kitchen.
As you work your way up the kitchen hierarchy, you’ll often find that executive chefs and head chefs don’t do much cooking. Between managing the staff and kitchen, ordering kitchen supplies, and designing a menu, cooking is often more in the hands of the sous chefs and those below them. When you think of becoming a chef and management doesn’t sound like an appealing aspect of the job, consider focusing on a specialty. The chef in charge of butchering meat or making pastries is an integral part of making a kitchen work, plus you get to be a part of the actual cooking process.
Opportunities and Earnings
Expect long hours with low pay starting out. Odds are you’ll start out as a line cook as you work your way up to chef, and they typically make $24,730 on average. The average national wage for a chef or head chef is $49,650, so even at an upper-level position, you aren’t in this line of work for the money. When it comes to the best cities and states to work and train in, results can be conflicting. Some said Atlanta, while others say Chicago, Washington D.C., or some other metropolis. A metropolis provides the most opportunity for aspiring chefs. They’re often ahead of the curve when it comes to culinary innovation and odds are the cuisine is more diverse than what you can find in your hometown. Opportunities can be very limited for an aspiring chef living in a rural community, so you may have to relocate to take your career to the next level.
Fine Dining vs. Casual
Fine dining restaurants use only the freshest ingredients, and that typically means far more prep work than fast casual restaurants (pre-packaged/prepped). You won’t have an avalanche of orders like you might working a Friday night at a well-known table service restaurant, but that also leaves no excuse for any lack of quality control. Also, don’t be quick to jump to the conclusion that you’ll make more money as a line cook at a high-end restaurant than you would at a chain table-serve.
Working as a chef in a more casual setting, like table -service or quick-serve establishments, comes with its own sets of challenges. “Turn and burn” is often used to describe the type of kitchen style you’ll see at a chain restaurant, where flipping tables is key. Often, some components of a meal can be frozen or pre-cooked and prepped, so the prep work can vary from that of fine dining establishments.
Both types of kitchens share commonalities, though. Expect to be working under tight time constraints and stress, be ready to be on your feet and constantly moving for 10+ hours at a time.
Becoming a chef isn’t quite the glamour that it’s chalked up to be on TV. It’s hard work that requires dedication and passion for the art of cooking. If you want to see if working toward becoming a chef is the right fit for you, get a job in a kitchen. Though it’s a hands-on field, there are a ton of learning opportunities that working in a kitchen can present. If that feels like the right fit for you, consider looking into culinary school or other education to gain a competitive edge.
Bottom line, being a chef isn’t easy. You can’t just “like” cooking — you’ve got to love it. A chef’s life is fast-paced, it can be hard on your body, sleep and social life, and it doesn’t get easier as you move up the ranks. Be sure you have the passion, drive and desire. Odds are you’re not going to be the next Gordon Ramsay, Rachel Ray, or even Remy. You’re a chef because you love to cook and you truly love the job.
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About the Author
Brooke is a marketing intern at QSR Automations. She currently attends the University of Louisville and is working towards a Bachelor of Science in Communication. In her free time she likes hang out with her pup, spend time in nature and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine.