If you cook in a serious way, if you have defined the process of cooking as something that you want to invest in, if you find that the passion of working in a professional kitchen is something that inspires you, then you will have an undeniable desire to become a chef. What many do not understand is that the difference in responsibility and what a chef will face is monumentally different from that of a cook.
“I call all chefs ‘cooks.’ They’re all cooks. That’s what we do – we cook. You’re a chef when you’re running a kitchen.”
Running a kitchen is a whole different ball game – a game that too often takes a person away from what he or she started in this industry to do – to cook. A chef, when the term is used correctly, is a manager and a leader. This is the person who builds teams, nourishes a restaurant concept, defines the standards, manages the execution of cooking, leads the business forward, and sets the stage for profitability.
Of course the passion for food and the teaching of others does allow the chef to cook, but not at the same level as those who work the line every day. To reach the pinnacle of a cook’s career and become a chef means that a new set of skills, challenges, and opportunities rise to the surface. Here are some of the things that make a chef’s job so much more challenging:
 THE CHALLENGE OF THE RIGHT MENU
Every cook that I know dreams of the day when he or she can put their stamp on a menu. “Finally, I will be able to cook what I want to cook and put my mark on the restaurant.” While this is certainly true at some level – the right menu is often times a departure from this ideal and rather becomes the menu that will attract guests and keep them coming back. Sometimes the chef’s vision and the customer’s reality are one in the same – typically this is not the case.
 THE NEED TO BE UNIQUE
While the reality of customer preference is always a top consideration the chef still needs to find a niche that defines the restaurant as unique – different enough for people to go out of their way to choose that operation over another. The chef’s signature is crucial to the individual cook and to the restaurants reputation.
 THE RESTRAINT OF KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Chefs love to build menus that define who they are and what their team is capable of. Typically, we like to push the operation to see just how robust the menu and individual presentations can be. The reality is that well executed, simple, clean and flavorful preparations and presentations are often the ones that are well received. Complicated doesn’t always mean better so chefs need to show some restraint.
“As I mature as a chef, I no longer aim to pack multiple techniques and ingredients into a single dish. Realizing that restraint is more difficult, I find it often renders incredibly beautiful results.”
-Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison)
 THE CHALLENGE OF THE SOURCE OF INGREDIENTS
Chefs know that the success of their menu relies heavily on the quality and consistency of the ingredients available. Chefs are constantly working with vendors, farmers, fishmongers, and sources of quality meat to set the stage for success in the kitchen. There is never enough time to do this, yet the time must be invested.
 THE COMPLEXITY OF BUILDING A TEAM
By far one of the most difficult tasks of a chef, and the most important to the restaurants success is identifying, finding, training, and retaining an exceptional crew. The chef knows that how this team gels will determine how well the food is received. To this end, the chef must be an excellent recruiter, a mentor, teacher, trainer, coach, disciplinarian, and role model.
“There’s a bond among a kitchen staff, I think. You spend more time with your chef in the kitchen than you do with your own family.”
– Gordon Ramsay
 THE CHALLENGE OF CONSISTENCY
It has been said that even relatively mediocre restaurants can be successful as long as they are consistent, yet inconsistently excellent restaurants are doomed to failure. Chefs must respect the quality of ingredients, build systems to ensure the same approach to handling them, and work with recipes yet train and teach cooks how to adapt to those factors that can push a menu in the wrong direction. Consistency must be the goal.
 THE RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD AND MANAGE
Leadership and management are distinctly different. Chefs must know the difference and be able to offer both. Managers are excellent at guiding the successful completion of tasks to meet predetermined objectives while leaders inspire others to invest their very best in this process and follow the chef in the direction that will define the operation.
“A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook. To marry all three together is sometimes difficult.”
 THE SHADOW OF WASTE
Waste is the enemy of efficiency and the opportunity for waste is present everywhere in a kitchen. The chef must first build a menu designed to fully utilize every ingredient while the cook must be always conscience of the evils of waste. As Chef Marc Meneau from the former 3-star restaurant L’Esperance in France once proclaimed: “You don’t make money from the onion, you make money from the onion peel.”
 THE BURDEN OF FOOD COST
Just as cooks are measured on their ability to execute consistent preparations within the timeline expected and do so with the energy of a distance runner and the finesse of a painter – the chef is measured on his or her ability to keep customers happy and coming back and the ability of the restaurant to meet certain specific financial parameters. One of those is food cost that is controlled through waste management, effective purchasing, inventory control, and standards of preparation.
 THE CHALLENGE OF PERFECTION
Since every meal that leaves a kitchen carries the invisible signature of the chef, he or she is oftentimes overly focused on details and impatient when these details are not dealt with in the same manner. Perfection is something to strive for, yet something that is impossible to reach. The chef knows if the team strives for perfection at least they will achieve excellence.
“The hardest thing for a chef is to become comfortable with what you do. Not to be too neurotic and worried with what you are doing and how wrong or right you are.”
 THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR FOOD SAFETY
Every chef understands the importance placed on food safety and proper sanitation. The health and wellbeing of the restaurant guest is a moral and ethical responsibility as well as a legal one.
 FINDING THE TIME TO TRAIN
Effective training takes planning, research, and time spent on developing the right execution. It is very obvious to all involved when a chef fails to invest the right amount of effort here.
 THE CHALLENGE OF PROFIT
No matter how talented the chef and how dedicated the team – if the restaurant fails to earn a reasonable profit then the operation will have a short life. Chefs are always focused on this.
“I don’t have any interest in being a chef without being on the business side of things, or vice versa, because if you don’t make money at the end of the month, you’re going out of business.”
– Tom Douglas
 THE FEAR OF CHANGE
Change is one of those factors that everyone talks about and everyone fears at some level. Whether it is change in concept, menu, method, presentation, customer base, staff dynamics, or vision – chefs must learn to accept the reality of change, occasionally invite it in, and manage it effectively. This is NOT easy.
 THE CHALLENGE OF TIME
Time is one component of life that is very difficult to manage. There is only so much time and in a kitchen we find that this is challenged constantly. With too much on his or her plate a chef may be faced with the need to compromise – something that chefs abhor. There is always a constant battle between the need for consistently high quality execution and the need for owners to maximize business volume. Many chefs part ways with very successful restaurants because they do not want to compromise what they believe in.
 THE KNOWLEDGE THAT NOTHING IS CERTAIN
No matter how organized, how well planned, or how well defined every detail in a kitchen is – there will always be curve balls. Chefs, over time, are able to scenario plan and anticipate the unanticipated. This is where a well-seasoned chef/leader is able to shine.
 THE DIFFICULTY IN HAVING A LIFE
Of course, this is the age-old challenge – how does a chef give 100% all of the time and manage to have a life outside of work. This is easy to complain about, but hard to solve. Some are able to do it and should thus become role models in this regard – most chefs have somewhat shallow lives after work as a result.
Every job has its challenges – the chef’s job does seem to be one that is the poster child for complexity.
***PICTURE: ADAPTED FROM CHEF EAMON LEE’S PHOTO DURING A SCANDANAVIAN TRIP OF A LIFETIME
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and training
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