In another week or so the hundreds of culinary schools across the country will welcome a new class of freshmen with visions of becoming a chef. It is interesting to note that many if not most of these aspiring cooks have failed to give adequate thought to the reason for this career choice. Having spent many years in restaurant kitchens and culinary classrooms I am convinced that “why” has rarely been asked enough.
Why do you want to commit to a life in front of the range? What would the answer likely be? The question is rarely asked by friends or family, and never asked by admissions counselors looking to meet their enrollment goals. Ironically, it is this simple question that is most important in setting a course for success.
I would suggest that anyone who enrolls in a culinary program before they have worked in a restaurant environment, a serious restaurant environment; unless they have taken the time to have significant discussions with career chefs and cooks about what to expect; unless they are prepared to work harder than they can imagine – physically, mentally, and even emotionally, then they might find themselves questioning that decision sooner rather than later.
Those who are already a part of the kitchen culture, working day in and day out in the dynamic, hot, oftentimes intense world of a cook will be familiar with what I am about to point out, but to those who have not given their decision adequate thought – here are the realities – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- PHYSICAL CONDITIONING (good, bad, and ugly):
The job of cook and chef is physically demanding with loads of lifting, hours on your feet, and miles of walking from pivot steps on the line to countless trips to the walk-in, storeroom, warewashing, etc. Those who are intent on a career in the kitchen need to stay fit to meet the physical demands of the job.
- MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL CONDITIONING (good, bad, and ugly):
Cooks and chefs need to make split second decisions throughout the day, act and react to changes that inevitably come their way, problem solve, and deal with the emotional tug of war that comes with the turf of being a perfectionist, artist, and committed professional.
- SERIOUS TACTILE SKILLS (good):
Of course, the job requires a significant breadth of knowledge about ingredients and process, but even more importantly the tactile skills using knives for numerous hand skilled tasks. Dexterity and speed are absolute requirements.
- CURVE BALLS EVERY DAY (ugly):
A good portion of the job of chef is predictable – methods of cooking are well defined, steps and procedures are time tested, and presentations in most restaurants are well thought out and prescribed. On the other hand – the chef is oftentimes unaware of who will arrive in the restaurant, in what numbers, and what they will choose to order. Vendor’s response time and the consistency of the ingredients they deliver may vary, and the dependability of equipment can have a mind of their own.
- THE MOST UNIQUE CULTURE OF DIVERSITY (good):
By far, one of the most enjoyable parts of working in a kitchen is the opportunity to work with people of different ethnic backgrounds, gender, age, size, color, and beliefs. There are very few environments that provide such diversity.
- IN THE BEGINNING THE PAY SUCKS (bad):
Sorry, but the fact is that restaurants are not that profitable while at the same time they require a significant number of qualified hands to get the job done. The end result for those starting out (yes, even with a college degree) is that pay scales are quite low and benefits are nearly non-existent. For those with the stamina to continue to learn, invest in their own growth, work hard, and show patience, this will change as they move up the ladder to the position of chef.
- GETTING TO WHERE YOU WANT TAKES TIME (good and bad):
Patience is a virtue and with patience comes an understanding that the skill set that a person needs to hold the position of chef is quite broad. Build this portfolio of skills takes time and experience. From line cook to chef can easily take 8-10 years.
- DANGER IS AROUND EVERY CORNER (bad):
Kitchens can be dangerous places to work for anyone who fails to pay attention and take safety seriously. Cuts, burns, falls, twisted ankles, pulled back muscles, and swollen feet are commonplace in kitchens. It will happen!
- YOUR JOB IS SERVICE (good and sometimes ugly):
Cooking is a pleasure and a gift, but it is also a service to others. Successful chefs must learn early on that their job is to meet and exceed the needs and desires of the paying guest. Yes is the answer – now what’s the question.
- STRESS IS A WAY OF LIFE (bad and ugly):
By definition, stress is the mind and body’s DIS-EASE with factors that have an impact on a person. The factors that come into play in a kitchen are: time, customization to meet a guest request, anxiety over the ability to meet those needs, operational expectations, a personal need to do great work, and the understanding that an individual cook’s performance impacts every other member’s success – this is stress personified.
- YES CHEF (good, bad, and ugly):
One of the most important things for a young cook to learn is that organization and chain of command are essential if a kitchen is to run efficiently. There is always room for input from every member of the kitchen team, but during times of demanding business it is critical that everyone accept the chain of command and respond with acknowledgement that they are prepared to do what is necessary and abide by the system in place.
- YOUR PALATE IS THE KEY (good):
On the road to becoming a chef every young cook must invest in building his or her palate. Being always willing to try new foods, and recording flavors to their subconscious are critical steps in building the profile of a successful chef. Chefs need to understand how foods and specific dishes are meant to taste.
- THIS MAY BE YOUR ALL TIME JOB (good, bad, ugly):
Whether it works out that way in the long run – every cook must approach his or her job in the kitchen as if this was where their careers will be built and time spent. When cooking is your “forever job” then it is approached with a level of zeal that will push the individual forward.
- YOUR SKILLS ARE TRANSFERABLE (good):
Always keep in the back of your mind that nearly everything that you truly learn in the kitchen can be transferred to a different job in the future. Organization, strong work ethic, passion, problem solving, a team attitude, commitment to excellence, and an understanding of the importance of consistency are attributes that are highly desirable in nearly any profession.
- YOUR LIFE ALWAYS EVOLES AROUND THE JOB (bad and ugly):
A chef is required to understand that his or her job will always come first. Anything else in a chef’s life must work around the demands of the position. This is a difficult pill to swallow, but it is true.
- YOUR BEST FRIENDS WEAR APRONS TOO (good and bad):
Since most of a cook’s or chef’s time will be spent in the kitchen, it is only natural to find friendships there. Cooks and chefs hang out with cooks and chefs. These kitchen folks are great – very interesting people, but nevertheless there will be little time for friendships outside of the kitchen world.
- RELATIONSHIPS ARE A CHALLENGE (bad and ugly):
Friendships are one thing, but finding the time for romance will be even more challenging. Unless a chef finds a saint or a partner who fully understands the demands of the kitchen, the odds of a lasting relationship are not in your favor.
- IT DOESN’T GET EASIER (ugly):
Those who think that as they move up that kitchen career ladder the job will get easier to swallow and their ability to delegate will open the door for a more balanced life will likely be very disappointed. It rarely gets easier.
- YOU MAY BE A GRANDPARENT BEFORE THOSE STUDENT LOANS ARE PAID OFF (bad and ugly):
If you have student loans you understand this point.
- IF YOU GET PAST EVERYTHING ELSE – THIS IS THE BEST JOB ON EARTH (good):
In the end, if you can accept the challenges, working in kitchens with the unique people who call it home, demonstrating your talent every day, making customers happy, and feeling that positive soreness of doing a great job will make it worthwhile. Those career cooks and chefs that I know are typically of the mindset that as bad as it can be at times, this is what they truly love; this is the job for them.
Are you thinking about culinary school or starting your first classes next week – then start with a study of the points above? If you can live within these parameters then you have likely made the right decision. If you are now questioning your decision – it is not too late to adjust: talk with a few restaurant chefs, have a serious discussion with your college program director, take a deep breath and defer your school start for a year and apply for a job in a solid restaurant, or at the very least – get a part-time restaurant job while in college. Experience is the best way to validate your career choice.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
*Are you interested in stories about the kitchen? If so, here are three books definitely worth a serious read:
THE EVENT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING:
TASTING SUCCESS: Your Guide to Becoming a Professional Chef: