A chef is a creative and highly skilled cook who can not only prepare a delicious meal but can present it as a work of art. In addition to creativity, a good chef needs a healthy dose of motivation and desire, an ability to make split-second decisions, a thick skin to withstand criticism, and a facility for multi-tasking. A good sense of smell and taste is also a must. Learn how to become a chef with these top-notch qualifications below.
What Does a Chef Do?
Chefs have varying degrees of responsibility, depending on their level and the type of restaurant they work in. Generally speaking, they are responsible for preparing a wide variety of creative and high-quality dishes on a daily/nightly basis. To this end, chefs need to do any or all of the following:
- Plan, price, and create a daily menu
- Prepare and cook food according to the customer's specifications
- Arrange and garnish the food for serving
- Develop their own recipes
- Prepare the specialties of the restaurant
- Buy food supplies and cooking equipment
- Hire cooks and other kitchen workers
- Supervise kitchen staff
- Maintain cleanliness in the workplace
- Keep records of supplies
There are actually a number of different varieties of chef, depending on the type of restaurant. Smaller restaurants may employ only one chef. Larger restaurants may have several chefs, each with his/her specialized area of responsibility. In this type of setting, the Executive Chef (or Head Chef) oversees every aspect of the kitchen operation, including menu creation, direction of the kitchen staff, personnel management, and business transactions (planning, budgeting and purchasing). A Sous Chef (also known as an Assistant Chef) is the second-in-command and runs the kitchen in the absence of the chef. Station Chefs (also known as "Line Cooks") are in charge of a particular area of production. Some examples of specialized Station Chefs include the following:
- Sauce Chef (or Saucier): They prepare sauces, stews, and hot hors d'oeuvres
- Roast Cook: They prepare roasted and braised meats (and their gravies) along with broiled meats and in some cases also deep-fried meats and fish.
- Pantry Chef: They are generally responsible for cold foods, including salads and dressings.
- Pastry Chef: They prepare pastries and desserts.
Steps to Becoming a Chef
Many chefs have a natural-born love of cooking and being in the kitchen, but there are usually additional education requirements too. There are many different paths, but here are some steps we suggest taking if you want to become a chef:
- Work in a restaurant as early as possible. Do this primarily for the experience, even if it is in a non-cooking position. Dish washing is not a bad start. The experience will provide valuable exposure to the conditions, techniques, equipment, and culture of the industry.
- Eat and cook often. There is a lot of good information and ideas on menus, so try to eat out as much as you can get away with. Be observant and learn as much as possible about the food other people enjoy.
- Get a professional culinary education and/or apprenticeship. When hiring chefs, employers generally prefer applicants who have some degree of culinary training beyond high school. This type of training can range from a few months to two years or more and can be obtained in school vocational programs, two-year colleges or four-year college programs. Chefs may also be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes. Apprenticeship programs provide the type of hands-on experience which can prove invaluable in becoming a skilled culinary professional. In addition, graduating apprentices are often hired by the restaurant in which they have completed their training.
- Obtain ACF certification. Although certification is not a hard and fast requirement, it can be of great help in proving proficiency and accomplishment, and it can lead to advancement and higher-paying positions. Certification standards are based primarily on experience and formal training. American Culinary Federation certification can be obtained by first submitting proof of education and/or experience, and then passing a certification exam.
How to Become a GREAT Chef
Becoming a great chef requires a strong working knowledge of how to oversee a creative, competent, and well-run kitchen. Here are some tips for aspiring chefs on their path to success in the culinary field.
- Stay up-to-date on industry trends: Knowing the latest food trends and advances in cooking and kitchen equipment can give you a leg up in the field. Read as many culinary journals and magazines as possible.
- Take additional training: Check out local community colleges for specialized or advanced culinary programs. Those thinking about someday opening their own restaurant or advancing to a managerial or executive position should take appropriate business courses.
- Make good contacts: The industry is tightly-knit and making contacts that can be of help later is an important thing to do.
- Put in the work: Becoming a chef is no easy task, and working in a kitchen is extremely hard work, both physically and mentally. To really succeed at your craft, you must be willing to put in 200 percent every single day.
Resources for Chefs
- American Culinary Federation
- The Food Timeline
- International Association of Culinary Professionals
- American Institute of Wine and Food
- Flour Advisory Bureau
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Chefs and Head Cooks, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/chefs-and-head-cooks.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Cooks, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/cooks.htm