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This is a question that weighs heavy on the minds of many who are contemplating a career in the food business. With the requirement of time without pay, and the high cost of tuition, many people have mixed feelings about investing in college as a portal to a career. Many others who have the desire are unable to find the means to afford a college education at all. Should this limit a person’s ability to be successful in restaurants or other food related businesses?

In some kitchens there even exists a bit of animosity towards those who could afford a degree and those who could not. Externs are typically recipients of hidden and sometimes: blatant jokes about their lack of experience, lack of endurance, and certainly lack of speed. In most kitchens this period of indoctrination only lasts a few weeks, but in other cases this resentment can last longer, creating uncomfortable work environments. What cooks fail to understand is that there is room for both career tracks, and depending on the individual and the environment of the kitchen, both can lead to equal amounts of success.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both career approaches:


[] To my way of thinking, the best cooks and eventually chefs, started in the dish pit. Understanding how important this job is to the success of a restaurant is paramount. Any cook or chef worth a grain of salt spends some time, nearly every day, helping out the dishwasher.

[] There are no short cuts to experience. Even the best culinary school education is improved dramatically with the addition of “real life training”. Those who start from the bottom know the kitchen. They understand the pulse of the operation, become one with the equipment, relish the importance of mise en place, treasure any tools that they have, know that everyone else in the kitchen depends on them and they depend on others as well.

[] Those who started at the bottom understand that no job is beneath them– everything is everyone’s responsibility.

[] Those who start at the bottom live the chain of command, understand that world, and respect it. When they become chefs, it is this chain of command that creates effective teamwork, leading to positive results.

[] Hard Knock Cooks get paid while they learn.


[] Quite often great line cooks in a restaurant are such because they have been conditioned to produce items exactly the way that the chef requires. This is, of course, essential, but without an understanding of why foods work a certain way cooks can lose sight of the gateway to individual problem solving and later on – creativity. Great cooks respect process and standardization while understanding how to vary from the baseline because they have the knowledge that gives them the freedom to do so.

[] Although exceptional line cooks can evolve from a bottom up process of learning by doing, if these individuals seek to rise to the position of chef, manager or owner, they must understand that the breadth of knowledge necessary to be successful goes way beyond the ability to cook well. It is this secondary portfolio of skills and knowledge that set the stage for cooks to become chefs. This includes human resource management, menu planning, cost controls, budgeting, marketing, recipe development, and training. Unless the property has a built in training program it is not likely that cooks will be exposed to this development.


[] Most programs are designed to provide a foundation for good cooking and expose students to that second portfolio of knowledge and skills.

[] Many organizations recognize the value of a degree and fair or not, create opportunities for those with a degree to advance.

[] Culinary schools typically have strong networks with restaurants and food companies. This network becomes a true asset to all who complete a degree – it is the portal to the job market.

[] A degree will provide opportunities for graduates to move from one segment of the industry to many others, where the School of Hard Knocks is often self-serving to the business that trained the individual.


[] The cost: it is quite common for culinary graduates to incur a debt that can take decades to pay back. Initial salaries are never high enough to accelerate pay back.

[] Unrealistic expectations: even though most colleges stress that graduates will still need to prove themselves and continue to learn on the job, the cost associated with a degree tend to convince graduates that their career should be jump started. This can lead to disappointment and in some cases place graduates in roles that they are not ready for.

[] Schools tend to underestimate the importance of time in the trenches. Even though most programs require internship or externships, it is a steady diet of 60 hour weeks behind the range that separate the driven from the also ran.

So…what is the answer? There is a need and a place for both approaches in the food business. It should never be assumed that a degree is the only way to establish a real career in the food business. What those who want or need to follow the Hard Knocks Approach must focus on is finding the right restaurant and the right chef to work for. Every chef, if they are serious about their work, is a teacher. Finding the operator and the operation that understands this role and emphasizes the importance of developing staff members becomes the first and most important step. As I have stated numerous times, seeking out formal or informal apprenticeships, working for highly demanding people, committing the extra time on the job and spending free moments reading about and experiencing different food, can be the key to success that would rival many culinary education programs. Working with culinary school graduates and embracing their presence will also help. They can learn much from the seasoned cook and the seasoned cook from them.

Here is a reality check and the real base of knowledge that separates successful cooks and chefs from those with a shorter career shelf life. These apply to both the college graduate and the seasoned cook who worked his or her way up from washing dishes:

[] THE WORK IS DAMN HARD: Physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It is an all in or nothing type of career.

[] YOUR JOB IS TO PLEASE THE GUEST: With all of the hype surrounding celebrity chefs nowadays, it seems that far too little emphasis is placed on our job of service. Any cook (school or hard knocks) must understand that as much as we want people to experience “our food”, sometimes that is not what they are looking for.

[] YOU MAY NEVER GET RICH: If you are going into it for the money – think again. Once you move up the ranks to a position of chef or manager, you can make a respectable living. Don’t ever divide your salary by the hours worked – a discouraging analytic.

[] YES IS USUALLY THE ANSWER: When the chef, the manager, the owner, or the guest asks for something to be done a certain way or makes an unusual request for food, every cook must learn to grin and say “of course, or: yes chef”.


[] NO, YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING: This applies to everyone.

[] 85% OF YOUR DAY WILL BE DEDICATED TO REPETITIVE TASKS: Mise en place only changes when the menu changes.

[] COST CONTROL IS EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY IN A KITCHEN: The financial success of the business cannot simply fall on the shoulders of the chef, manager, or owner. Everyone has a part to play from following recipes, to watching waste, to proper portioning, and checking every raw material that comes in the back door.

[] RESTAURANTS DO NOT MAKE A LOT OF MONEY – REALLY! It is a business of pennies, thus the reason why cost control is everyone’s responsibility.



[] MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY IS COOL AND EXCITING, BUT….Most guests are looking for well prepared food that relies on those foundations that you learned on your first job in the kitchen or your first year in culinary school.

[] KNOWING THE INGREDIENTS, THE SOURCE, THE SEASONALITY, AND THE PROCESS BY WHICH THOSE SUPPLIES ARRIVE AT YOUR BACK DOOR IS IMPORTANT. This is not a fad; awareness of the source and the quality of ingredients is on everyone’s mind.

[] LINE COOKS ARE THE HEROS OF THE KITCHEN. Chefs are more often than not – managers, facilitators, trainers, and visionaries for the restaurant. Line cooks make it happen.

[] RESPECT IS EARNED – EVERY DAY IT MUST BE RENEWED. Without trust, the kitchen does not function.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Regardless of how cooks got to the kitchen, these important rules, knowledge and skills apply equally. Everyone starts from this reality.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC