How to Become a Chef
Have you ever watched a show on the Cooking Channel or Food Network and thought to yourself, “Hey, I could do that,” or, “Being a chef looks like a lot of fun!”? Maybe you’ve picked up a knack for creating your own signature dish at home or keep thinking back to that summer job you had running the grill at your local fast-food joint. If becoming a chef sounds like the career path for you, this guide will give you the details you need to get started in the culinary arts.
Before you dive into pursuing 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- or 12-hour days that often includes working nights, weekends, and holidays to get ahead. Therefore, 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.
What Does a Chef Do?
A chef is a trained culinary professional, skilled in all aspects of food preparation. A chef (sometimes referred to as the executive chef or “chef de cuisine”) is the head of the kitchen in a restaurant or foodservice institution. Unlike a cook (for example, a line cook or prep cook), a chef is responsible for more than grilling, frying, roasting, and making food to order – chefs are involved in menu planning, recipe creation, inventory management, staff training, quality assurance, and even business development and growth (all the efforts that put a restaurant on the map).
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.
Here’s a small sampling of common chef job responsibilities you may see when browsing job postings:
- Check quality of foods or supplies.
- Estimate supplies, ingredients, or staff requirements for food preparation activities.
- Train food preparation or food service personnel.
- Coordinate activities of food service staff.
- Inspect facilities, equipment or supplies to ensure conformance to standards.
Career Path to Becoming a Chef
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.
We’ll get into formal education and training later – which is ideal, but not required to become a chef. However, chefs who have worked their way up through the kitchen hierarchy have one thing in common: practice, practice, practice.
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. From there, you might progress to become a line cook or prep cook, and then move onto become an assistant chef, sous chef, or executive sous chef (the second-in-command in a kitchen), before finally reaching the role of executive chef.
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.
As you progress in your culinary career, you may find that you excel in a creating particular type of cuisine or have a knack for a certain technique. In such cases, you could opt to become a specialty chef, such as a pastry chef, sushi chef, banquet chef, or even a private or personal chef.
You might also find that you’re more interested in the operational side of the restaurant or foodservice industry. Career titles such as culinary operations manager, kitchen manager, or restaurant manager may appeal to you.
Requirements to Become a Chef
It’s not necessarily a requirement to graduate from culinary school to become a chef in a restaurant. Most chefs start their careers by getting their four-year bachelor’s degree, but others opt to complete programs at community colleges, culinary arts institutions, and technical schools. However, such programs require a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll. Apprenticeships and internships are also excellent places to start your culinary career, as you’ll work under an executive chef or mentor, and learn the ropes in a commercial kitchen.
So what makes a good chef? It’s not uncommon for culinary employers to look for applicants with specific chef certifications or chef training. Even if you’ve completed culinary school or have years of on-the-job experience, earning additional credentials will help you stand out in your job search and further your education. For example, the American Culinary Federation (ACF) offers an extensive ACF certification program, with 16 stackable certification levels recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor.
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Regardless of the education and culinary training route you choose, 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.
Qualifications & Skills for a Chef
Employers on iHireChefs frequently require or desire the following skill for executive chefs:
Education & Experience
Executive chefs posess a wide variety of education and work experience:
Liscensing and Certifications
The following executive chef credentials are commonly desired by employers on iHireChefs:
How Much Do Chefs Make?
As a chef, your pay scale will vary depending on your location, your employer, and the type of establishment in which you’re working. Chefs in the U.S. make anywhere between $35,000 and $64,000 a year, while executive chefs, specifically, can make as much as $82,000 a year.
To zero-in on location-specific chef salary details, or browse pay ranges for additional culinary career titles, try using iHire’s Salary Research Tool.
Tips for Writing a Chef Resume
While you may also choose to share a culinary portfolio with potential employers, your resume is your ticket to your next career move. And, you’ll want to customize your resume for each job you apply for to give you the best chance of standing out and making it past an applicant tracking system (ATS).
When writing a chef resume, look closely at the job posting you’re applying for. What skills, credentials, requirements, and other keywords are included in the job ad? Include those same words in your resume, and remember to change the title of your resume to match the career title of the role for which you’re applying. However, your resume will vary depending on the type of chef job you’re trying to earn. Check out the following guides on writing chef resumes:
Where to Find Chef Jobs
Start your search for the perfect chef job on iHireChefs.
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