Those who are serious about holding the chef title some day; the ones who are “in it, to win it”, are always wondering what’s the best path to take. Is it culinary school, working in well-known restaurants, finding an established chef to mentor them, or is it something else entirely? I can only advise from my own experience which may not be appropriate for everyone, but here goes:
Start by building an understanding of what a chef does, what the position calls for, and the type of chef you hope to become. Remember that being “the chef” will take you away from much of the day-to-day cooking, the adrenaline rush, and the team excitement that drew you to the kitchen in the first place. The chef, above all else, is the manager of a business; a very complex business requiring a broad array of skills: accomplished cooking, menu planning, marketing, budgeting, cost controls, purchasing, hiring, training, and in some cases – firing; leadership and team building, setting the stage for personal motivation, concept development, equipment maintenance, and the list goes on and on. So where will you get exposure to much, if not all of that? This is the biting question, the one that helps a young cook decide what path to take.
If you can afford the cost and the time, of course a culinary school would help as an integral part of your plan. A well-designed program will instill an understanding of discipline, the foundations of cooking, passion, structure, the how and why of cooking, and the professionalism that will help to define the type of chef you may become. But, if this is not in the cards for you, then there are other ways to get to that end. It is the decision of where to work, who to work for, and how you will invest in the opportunities that come your way that is most critical at this juncture.
My money is placed on working in a quality hotel, resort, or club. Of course, restaurants are great places to build your bag of tricks, ones where the chef has very high standards and is willing to share, but dollar for dollar, a club, hotel, or resort provides the package with the best value. Let me explain.
 A BETTER CHANCE AT A FULL BRIGADE:
Clubs, hotels, and resorts offer dynamic kitchens where cooks are constantly multi-tasking. Oftentimes these properties boast a few a ’la carte restaurants, room service, special property events, banquets, weddings, buffets, and three meals a day in at least one of their outlets. This requires a complex organization of independent operations that are still required to communicate, share, and fall in line with the mission of the property. Each of those “departments” will require some level of unique kitchen management (sous chef) and specialists to support the uniqueness of function. Additionally, these properties are far more inclined to have support departments no longer found in restaurants: full bakeshops, a pastry chef, meat fabrication, full garde manger, and even a saucier in some cases. If you want to build an understanding and even a level of competence with a variety of specific skill sets then clubs, resorts, and hotels may be the only place where that can happen.
A very busy, well-branded restaurant might generate 5of 6 million in annual sales, where a club or hotel can easy boast four or five times that volume. Volume and task repetition are necessary if a cook is to become accomplished with any task whether it be consistently producing excellent soups or sauces, cooking steaks to specific degrees of doneness, or quickly and efficiently boning chickens or filleting flat fish. The ability to execute events of more than 500 persons helps to build competence, speed, efficiency, and confidence. Very few restaurants can provide this, and culinary schools are not positioned to do so.
 DIVERSITY OF OPTIONS
Only in a club, resort, or hotel might you negotiate a formal or informal apprenticeship cycle that moves you from department to department with more time in areas where you think you might want to specialize. As an example – garde manger really only exists in these types of properties where cold food can rule the day with banquets and special events. Want to learn about cold charcuterie, more about a full array of cheese, platter design and presentations, making centerpieces, buffet set-up, cold sauces and dressings, marination, and fermentation, etc.? Then the choice to work in hotels, resorts, and clubs is your best option.
To be a chef at some point in your career will require an understanding of all these areas even if you are not a master at any of them.
 DIVERSITY OF TEAM
The best chefs appreciate and seek out diversity in their kitchen. Diversity brings loads of tradition, culture, ethnic influences, styles, and history. This is what makes a team robust and supportive as an ecosystem. I don’t know of many restaurants that can hold a candle to the opportunity for diversity as one would find in these type properties. A restaurant may have a kitchen staff of a dozen or so cooks where a club, with all of its options can be home to 50 -100 cooks from all over the country and beyond. What a great learning environment.
 STANDARDS AND CONTROLS AND THE PEOPLE TO DO IT
Restaurants may be able to run loosely, operating under checkbook management where the goal is to see money coming in faster than it goes out. As long as the checkbook has a credit balance they are in good shape (until predictable sales slump and cash flow turns the corner). Large scale properties like hotels, clubs, and resorts must know where the pennies are going, so they operate under strict control measures that include weekly and sometimes daily inventories, formulas to determine selling prices, menu analytics, standardized recipes, portion control, well-designed plate presentations, daily labor projections, sales per seat, sales per hour, average check monitoring, and the list goes on an on. Oftentimes, clubs and resorts can support a separate department whose job it is to monitor all of these controls.
 LEARN THE CHAIN OF COMMAND
Just like in the military or on a professional sports team – organization and respect for such is paramount to success. This is very apparent in clubs, resorts, and hotels. Just like in Escoffier’s kitchen there will be upward reporting through lead cooks, sous chefs, executive sous chefs, pastry chefs, executive chef, and food and beverage directors. In these operations a young cook can learn how a defined system works and how it leads towards mutual success and achievement of goals.
 BETTER FACILITIES
These properties typically have stronger budgets for equipment purchase, replacement, and repair and may even have extra staff for deep cleaning designed to keep the kitchen sparkling and operational.
 PAY AND BENEFITS
To maintain the large, sometimes self-monitored staff of specialists who work in a kitchen – clubs, resorts, and hotels are more likely to pay better, and offer benefit packages that smaller restaurants are unable to afford. There may even be scheduled bonuses or pay raises based on longevity or performance. Most of this is less common in individual restaurants.
 THE VERY BEST, ORGANIZED, EFFECTIVENESS PROVEN CHEFS TO LEARN FROM
Because of the complexity of operation, these properties are far more likely to recruit and attract the very best chef/managers with the experience to thrive in a complex environment and the background that can feed cooks willing to learn and grow.
 HUMAN RESOURCE DEPARTMENTS & IN-SERVICE TRAINING
The typical issues that plague the restaurant industry such as abusive schedules, inequality, hostile work environments, poor training, and a lack of opportunity for expressing frustrations and ideas are less likely in hotels, resorts, and clubs because they will have a professional Human Resource Department manager present to intervene and insist on adherence to company policies. Training is paramount to attracting and retaining great employees, so these properties typically invest heavily in teaching and training.
 A NETWORK FOR GROWTH
And finally, the next step in a cook’s career might not be at the club where he or she is learning. But through their network of like properties. Those opportunities to move or grow might just be a drive to the other end of town, or a short flight to the next hub of culinary activity. In clubs and resorts, it behooves a chef to open doors for good cooks to grow so that this reputation helps to attract the next wave of cooks to his or her door.
Know what you want and chart a path. Anything and everything is possible if you have a plan and are committed to staying the course.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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