There are many folks out there who watch a show on the Cooking Channel or Food Network and think to themselves, “Hey, I could do that” or “Being a chef looks like a lot of fun.” It’s not all fun and games in the kitchen, however, and before diving headfirst into the culinary arts world, there are many things to consider. If you’re interested in becoming a chef because you think you’ll be the next Anthony Bourdain, Paula Deen, or Gordon Ramsey, you may want to think again. The odds of becoming cooking’s next superstar are incredibly small, and you’ll need a lot of luck combined with a lot of talent. If you simply love cooking and dream of one day owning and operating a restaurant, though, then this article was written for you. The following suggestions will give you the opportunity to prove yourself in the kitchen – the rest is up to you.
Education: It’s not necessarily a requirement to graduate from culinary school to become a chef in a restaurant. However, most chefs start their careers by getting their Associate’s/Bachelor’s degree at one of the many institutes throughout the US. Beyond learning technique, it’s also important to educate yourself about the industry, so do some research into potential career paths. What kind of chef do YOU want to be? Not everyone is cut out to run a restaurant, so consider other positions in the kitchen such as pastry chef, banquet chef, or private chef. If your passion truly lies in one of these specialty roles then you may be drawn to a more focused job.
Practice, Practice, Practice: Like a lot of things in life, the best way to get better at cooking is by getting your hands dirty in the kitchen and working up a good sweat in front of the stove. Once you’ve cooked the same dish 500 times, odds are you’ll have it down. Even after you’ve cooked that same dish 500 times and think you’ve mastered it, though, remain open to suggestions from others and never stop learning. The culinary industry is ever-evolving, so becoming complacent is the fastest way to get left behind.
Start at the Bottom: Regardless of the industry, it’s all but impossible to start at the top. The same is true for the culinary world, so prepare yourself to start in a position that will be monotonous and physically demanding. More than likely, your first position in the kitchen will be washing dishes, cleaning and peeling vegetables, shucking oysters, or preparing meat for the actual chefs.
Work your You-Know-What off: Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you will have to fight to move up in the restaurant world. An incredible amount of dedication and determination is required to succeed in this industry, but there’s good news: hard work almost always pays off. By showing your willingness to work long hours and readily taking on new responsibilities, you’re all but guaranteed to get the chance to display your cooking skills by moving up to a garde manger or chef assistant position. Once you’ve paid your dues long enough preparing cold hors d’oeuvres, simple appetizers, soups, and salads, you may finally be given the opportunity to cook on the line. Showing off your talent at various stations encompassing sauté, grill, meat, and/or fish will lead to a promotion to sous chef, which is only one step below the main event, executive chef.
Innovate, Create, and Make Yourself Irreplaceable: After rising through the ranks and earning your chance as an executive chef, you will need additional skills to achieve continued success (and employment). No longer will your primary responsibility be to ensure that dishes are prepared correctly and cooked to the proper temperature. The role of an executive chef extends beyond the kitchen and involves a range of duties such as budget administration, purchasing, inventory control, menu design, recipe creation, scheduling, and staff supervision, motivation, and instruction. More will be demanded of you, and you’ll want to be sure that you’re up to the task, so you may want to reach out to a mentor or enroll in additional training courses to take full advantage of your opportunity to run a kitchen. To be a great executive chef, you’ll need leadership skills, but you’ll also need the imagination to create dishes that will fill the restaurant every night, marketing talents to devise special promotions that keep diners coming back, and financial acumen to make the most of whatever resources are at your disposal.
If you’re considering a career as a chef, the first thing you must know is that it’s not all glitz and glamour. Quite the opposite, it’s a difficult, strenuous job full of 10-hour days that often includes working nights, weekends, and holidays to get ahead. To succeed in the culinary field, the two most important things are passion and dedication. You must be passionate about food and truly love to cook. You also must be committed to your ultimate objective of becoming an executive chef. If you have those two traits and follow the steps listed above, there is no reason you can’t achieve your goal, and with a little luck, BAM – maybe you’ll be cooking next to Emeril Lagasse someday.