The term "chef" refers to someone who works in mid-tier to fine dining establishment with table service and where food is "cooked to order." It is a multi-faceted profession, with many types of chefs (some quite specialized), performing various tasks and in different restaurant settings. This is a great profession for someone who loves to cook and who has a certain personality. There are several paths to becoming a chef, with culinary education and industry experience being the key ingredients. Read on to learn more about pursuing a career as a chef.
Day in the Life of a Chef
Chefs have varying degrees of responsibility, depending on their level and the type of restaurant they work in. A small restaurant may employ only one chef. A larger restaurant may have several chefs, each with his or her specialized area of responsibility, such as Sauce Chef, Pantry Chef, or Pastry Chef. In a large restaurant, 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 (such as planning, budgeting and purchasing). A Sous Chef (or Assistant Chef) is the second-in-command and runs the kitchen in the absence of the chef. Station Chefs (or Line Cooks) are in charge of a particular area of production.
In a typical day, a chef may 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 and keep records of food supplies and cooking equipment
- Hire and supervise kitchen staff
- Maintain a clean workplace
The work of a chef can be both challenging and rewarding. Challenges can include repetitive work; working on holidays; pressure when the demand for quality and/or quantity cooking is high; and long hours spent standing and working in a hot kitchen. Yet the rewards of this work can be great, including work that is fun and creative; camaraderie with the kitchen crew; the opportunity to learn new skills and techniques; and the satisfaction of creating a meal or dessert that is appreciated by patrons. It takes a certain kind of person to perform these tasks well. Next, we'll look at key characteristics a chef should possess to achieve success.
Important Characteristics for a Chef
What characteristics make a chef successful? In addition to a love of cooking, important traits include:
- A good sense of smell and taste
- The ability to make split-second decisions
- A thick skin to withstand criticism
- The ability to multi-task
- Physical stamina
For an aspiring chef who possesses these characteristics, the next step is pursuing culinary education and training.
There are some basic education requirements that prepare students for entry-level culinary jobs. They include two-year programs at community colleges and technical schools that confer an associate degree or certificate. Examples include associate degrees in culinary arts, commercial food service, or baking and pastry. More advanced training is available at culinary institutes that offer four-year degrees, such as a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Nutrition or Culinary Management.
Apprenticeships give aspiring chefs hands-on training and experience. They are available through the American Culinary Federation and professional culinary institutes. Restaurants often hire apprentices whom they have trained.
Special certifications are not always required but can lead to career advancement or specialization. Examples include:
- Certified Culinary Professional (CCP) credential
- ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification
- Foodservice Management Professional (FMP) Certification
- Certified Sous Chef (CSC) Certification
- Certified Pastry Culinarian(CPC) Certification
Once you become an entry-level chef, remember that 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 culinary industry is a tight-knit community, so it's a good idea to make contacts that may help you progress in your career.
- Put in the work: To really succeed at your craft, you must be willing to work hard -- both mentally and physically -- every day.
- American Culinary Federation, http://www.acfchefs.org/ACFSource/Education/Postsecondary.aspx
- 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