Culinary Careers: What Does It Take to Become a Chef?
No matter how bad the economy becomes, culinary professions will always be in demand. After all, humans have to eat. Dining out is a pastime favored by people from all walks of life. A myriad of food jobs are available today in most areas. The popularity of television cooking shows has exploded over the past few decades, and the term "celebrity chef" has become a part of pop culture.
Flipping through cable channels the other day, I came across a program called Top Chef in which skilled chefs compete against one another in various cooking challenges. They have to rely on not only their cooking skills and knowledge but also on their creativity and time management in order to succeed. I was hooked on the show almost right away. I once considered pursuing a cooking career myself. Being a granddaughter of a chef, I was somewhat inspired to follow in my grandmother's footsteps. However, I did not follow through on that career whim. I enjoy spending several hours preparing one special dish, but I don't feel comfortable making a number of dishes in a short period of time. I can easily sit in front of my computer all day and finish five articles under a tight deadline, but I might go insane if I had to complete five orders within minutes in a hot kitchen among the clangor of skillets and spatulas.
Being a chef, even in a fancy restaurant, isn't all about glory and the almighty dollar. It also involves burns, blisters, cuts, sore muscles, pressure and a great deal of sweat. If none of these sound too hard for you to handle, then go for it. It is very unlikely, however, that you will begin your culinary career as a top chef in a high-profile restaurant. Before reaching that level of success, you have to start small and build up your experience little by little. In addition, you should understand the "kitchen hierarchy," the basic responsibilities of different cooking jobs, what employers usually look for in a potential chef, and how to create an impressive resume to help you land your ideal cooking career.
Kitchen Hierarchy (From Least to Most Responsibility)
- Prep Cook
- Baker and Pastry Assistant
- Line Cooks
- Chef De Partie
- Sous Chef
- Pastry Chef
- Chef De Cuisine
- Executive Chef
Not every restaurant hires people for all of these positions. Many medium-sized eateries have no need for a chef de partie at all. In a small diner, the prep cook, butcher, and line cook might be the same person. Only very big and upscale restaurants will have large enough budget to employ individual professional cooks to perform each of these jobs.
Within the kitchen hierarchy, each worker has a unique role, a different level of responsibility, and a different set of tasks to complete. The exact job descriptions for each position vary from restaurant to restaurant, but these are the basics.
It is one of the entry-level food jobs. Some people might be able to become a prep cook with no culinary degree or formal training whatsoever. (Probably not in a high-end restaurant, though.) The prep cook's resposibilities mostly include the tedious tasks that require almost no talents, such as peeling potatoes, pitting olives, mincing garlic, chopping lettuce, squeezing lime juice, etc. In fact, it is quite an important position on whom the entire kitchen staff depends, yet unfortunately, most prep cooks receive only a minimum wage.
The butcher is not that much higher on the totem pole than the prep cook, though this food job actually needs to be done with quite a bit of accuracy and sleight of hand. In the old days, most restaurant butchers would have to clean and cut up large carcasses themselves. Nowadays, however, it's more likely that the butcher won't have to touch any carcasses at all but only has to divide big chunks of meat into precise serving sizes.
Baker and Pastry Assistant
They usually start working earlier than other kitchen sections. There are batters to mix, doughs to knead and several basic elements to prepare for the desserts. Luckily, bakers and pastry staff tend to have less hectic time than line cooks do, unless the restaurant is renowned for its sweet treats.
Almost all new graduates from culinary schools land their first job as a line cook. Most celebrity chefs also started their cooking careers at this level. It is a crucial step to take before you reach for the stars. Some first-class restaurants may have up to five line-cook stations with the following categories:
- Grill Cook
- Saucier (meat and sauce cook)
- Entremetier (vegetable cook)
- Poissonier (fish cook)
- Garde Manger (cold appetizer and soup cook)
Besides good cooking skills, line cooks should also demonstrate promptness and ability to follow directions, as well as possess a tremendous amount of energy. They are the ones who actually cook the foods.
Chef De Partie
The chef de partie is also known as the head of a line-cook station. Huge restaurants with several line cooks in each station usually hire experienced chefs to perform this job. The chef de partie is supposed to supervise line-cooks at his station, keep the cooking process going smoothly and timely, and make sure the foods are properly prepared.
You have to enjoy micromanagement to some degree in order to be a competent sous chef. The sous chef is responsible for all the little details including ordering food ingredients, training new kitchen staff, scheduling staff working shifts, planning staff meals, making sure that each table's orders will be ready to be served simultaneously, etc. In case two of the three orders have gone cold before the third dish is done, it is the sous chef's job to tell the line cooks to prepare those dishes all over again.
The pastry chef supervises pastry staff and "assembles" all the elements for the desserts. In most first-class restaurants, the pastry chef will have to be a food artist as well. His sweet treats, especially the cakes, not only have to be scrumptious but also inventively designed and complexly embroidered with edible materials. There are higher demands for pastry chefs/cake artists nowadays. If you are talented at creating multi-dimensional flavorful flowers and have superb skills in cake piping, you could become a "rock star" in the culinary world.
Chef De Cuisine
I like to call this position "the kitchen big boss." The chef de cuisine oversees all the kitchen staff members, calls out orders for food as the waiters bring them in, and examines the basic qualities of every single dish before it exits the kitchen. Whenever the executive chef is absent or on vacation, it is usually the chef de cuisine who has to step in and perform the executive chef's duties.
Often times, the executive chef is also the owner or a co-owner of the restaurant. Although he is in charge of all the major decisions regarding the kitchen business, he may not spend much time in the restaurant kitchen at all. His responsibilities usually include:
- Planning the menus
- Making final decisions about the presentation of each dish
- Coming up with the proper food portion on each plate
- Ordering new kitchen equipment and overseeing the installation
- Building a network of reliable suppliers who are willing to do business with the restaurant at favorable costs
- Hiring, promoting and firing staff members
How to Get a Cooking Job
According to ShawGuide's recent survey, the following qualities are what most executive chefs in both Europe and America would like their new employees to have:
- Professional demeanor (including decent people skills as well as knowing when to ask questions and when to keep their mouth shut)
- Culinary knowledge and experience (And it's always a plus to have an insightful knowledge of the regional cuisine.)
- Years of training in an accredited culinary school
- Being a good team player, eager to learn, passionate about cooking, and able to stay calm under pressure
Besides those basic qualities, it will be helpful to have excellent references from your previous employers. Try not to switch from one restaurant to another too often. A resume showing your experience in three different eateries in one year won't get you very far. A culinary career is not suitable for a flighty person. Plan to work at one restaurant for at least one or two solid years. Career commitment is what executive chefs love to see in their potential employees.