In just a few weeks thousands of graduates from culinary schools across the country will begin their real education. Others who were not as fortunate to attend a school for this trade will continue on that same arduous journey from cook to chef. In both cases, some will be successful and many will not. What differentiates those who grab the prize and those who struggle?
The path to becoming a chef is not automatic. Kitchen leadership is not randomly assigned simply because an individual has a degree or because he or she has invested the time and gained seniority. The skill set that defines a successful chef is different than that of an accomplished cook, different than a graduate with a high grade point average, different than most anyone else in the restaurant business. To be a chef, a really good chef, requires a breadth of knowledge that spans the gamut from a full understanding of cooking, a palate that goes beyond a single cuisine, a broad textbook knowledge of a number of cultures, a psychologists understanding of what makes people tick, a keen eye on marketing techniques, an ability to plan menus to suit countless environments and needs, the communication skills of a TED presenter, and the business savvy of a company CEO.
With this in mind, the culinary graduate or member of the school of hard knocks is faced with developing a map for his or her future. This will take a significant amount of planning, a methodical timeline, and loads of hard work. But make no mistake – anyone with the foundational skills, the desire, the determination, and the right map – can reach the goal they set their focus on.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
The formula then is relatively simple – the execution and the strength to stay the course is the challenge. A MAP TO SUCCESS + THE STAMINA AND DESIRE TO STAY ON TRACK = ACCOMPLISHMENT OF GOAL.
“The only place where SUCCESS comes before WORK is in the dictionary.”
-Vince Lombardi or Mark Twain-
So, what are the stops along the way on the road map to becoming a chef? This is a partial list from my non-scientific observation of chefs who are truly exceptional at what they do.
The first rule of thumb in developing your road map is to understand that reaching your goal will take time. To the culinary graduate – your degree is the price of admission. It will, and should, take years before you are ready to take on the role of chef. To the graduate of the school of hard knocks – you are on an equal playing field with that culinary graduate as long as your road map reflects what your current training lacks.
 ALIGN YOURSELF WITH THE BEST
A common denominator of very successful chefs (this is almost 100% true of everyone that I know) has included working with or for the very best chefs. There may only be one skill from his or her bag of tricks that you want to assimilate, but without aligning yourself with that individual, your own skill set will be lacking. Know who these individuals are, research why they are successful, make the contact and humbly ask for the opportunity to learn from them.
 SEEK TO LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY
Look at every day as an opportunity to add something important to your toolbox. It might not always involve cooking, but rather a chance to learn something important about people management, cultural influences, business management, wine, craft beer, farming, geography, or even political influences on food. Don’t waste any opportunity to learn and grow.
 TRAVEL AND EXPERIENCE OTHER CULTURES
You might say that you can’t afford to travel. Your road map requires that you find a way. There are countless superb restaurants with opportunities to learn from coast to coast and abroad. If you have solid foundational skills, there are always opportunities to join a restaurant team. Those same opportunities may not exist in your hometown. Moving is scary and challenging, but invigorating at the same time. You can always return to your roots at a later date. Be daring – seek opportunities to work with a diverse team of cooks. This cultural immersion will help to build your skills and even more important – your understanding of other people. Rick Bayless – arguably the chef/owner of the best authentic Mexican restaurant in North America (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) is not from Mexico, yet he and his wife chose to live in Mexico for seven years to learn about the culture before they decided to open an ethnic restaurant.
 RE-DISCOVER YOUR HERITAGE
To a degree, you cook best from an understanding of your own heritage. Take the time to discover where you came from, where your relatives called home, what they enjoyed eating, how they prepared food, and the connections that those foods have with their own history.
 GIVE MORE THAN YOU RECEIVE
From my informal study – the best chefs are generous with their time, and when they are able, with their money. Start early on by offering your time and expertise to others who might benefit. This giving attitude is what allows you and others to grow professionally and personally.
 STUDY SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE IN OTHER DISCIPLINES
Don’t limit your education to the study of cooks, chefs, and food history. What can you learn from other successful people about managing others, running a business, dealing with vendors, negotiating a deal, communicating with different audiences, writing proposals, or training your team? Find those people who you admire for their skills and dig into their methods.
 ASSOCIATE WITH OTHERS WHO SHARE YOUR PASSION
If you associate with energetic, passionate, focused, hard working individuals you will find a constant source of inspiration and drive. Associate with people who make you work with a renewed level of determination.
 READ – IF YOU DON’T KNOW – FIND IT OUT
There is no excuse anymore. If you do not know the answer to a question – then do the research. When you find inspirational people to emulate – read about them. If you want to increase your vocabulary and in turn your ability to effectively communicate with others – then read anything and everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, business journals, magazines, newspapers, studies and reports – anything and everything.
Great chefs understand that they can never know everything and others may very well have the answer that they are looking for. Listen to employers, employees, friends, adversaries, industry experts, competitors, and restaurant guests. Good listeners are better decision makers.
 WORK HARDER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
Be the example to others – always. Your team will work hard to emulate what they see in you. You will get ahead by demonstrating how important work ethic is to success.
 WORK SMARTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
At the same time you don’t want to waste your time or lose sight of your unique skill set. Spending 15 minutes every day helping out the dishwasher is a great investment in team building. Spending more time every day at this task is a failure to understand that your skill set is needed elsewhere. Delegate, teach and train, critique and demonstrate how to improve, inspire and recognize if you want to fill the shoes of a leader.
 VOLUNTEER TO LEARN SOMETHING NEW (STAGIER)
Early on and even occasionally throughout your career – taking a step back and working with a peer or an extraordinary chef who is writing the book on how to define a modern restaurant is time well spent. Working for short stints for the sheer fun of it, or to focus on learning a particular skill or even a specific dish is something that even the most accomplished chef can benefit from.
 DEVELOP A SOPHISTICATED PALATE
Some may be born with exceptional taste buds – most of us have to work on developing the ability to distinguish flavors and train our palates to build flavor profiles. Great chefs ALWAYS have palates that are sophisticated enough to build great menus, pair with appropriate wines, and excite guest experiences.
TASTE-SEASON-TASTE is a great rule of thumb, but it assumes that you know what you are tasting and where you want to go with a flavor profile.
 NEVER FORGET WHERE YOU BEGAN
As you travel down your roadmap towards the position of chef, always remember how hard it is and how others preparing to start as you did will need your support, patience, and encouragement.
 CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR
Now that you are a chef, whether it was a path that took 8 years or 15, no mater how hard you worked to get to this point, regardless of the obstacles that were thrown in your path, and in spite of the massive number of skills that are part of your toolbox – you are only effective as a leader if you respect everyone else for who they are and where they are. Be proud of what you have accomplished but leave those inflated egos somewhere outside the kitchen. Leaders need followers who are willing and excited about doing just that – following. No one has any interest in succumbing to a person who feels that they are more important than anyone else.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training