If you love to cook so much that you want to make it your profession, consider becoming a chef. The path isn’t easy – it involves long hours, physical labor, and heavy competition – but the reward is the opportunity to design creative dishes, run a kitchen, or even manage a restaurant. Learn what education and experience you need to start your career as a chef.
Part 1 of 3: Decide to Become a Chef
- Get a job at a restaurant. Whether you’re still in high school or are thinking about transitioning to culinary arts from a career already underway, the first thing to do is get exposure to the conditions, techniques, equipment, and culture that surround restaurant work.
- Your first restaurant job doesn’t have to be prestigious. Apply to be a server at your local cafe, or work for your college’s catering service. Experience is important in the restaurant business, so start getting it as soon as you can.
- Practice cooking at home. Cooking in a restaurant is very different from cooking at home, but you should take every opportunity to get familiar with as many foods and techniques as possible.
- Become confident with a knife and other kitchen equipment. Form opinions about which tools are useful and which are unnecessary gadgets.
- Learn everything about the food you love. More importantly, learn about the food other people are willing to pay money to eat. Organic, free range, kosher, Kobe – gain an understanding of these important terms.
- As you practice at home, think about what type of cooking best suits you. Do you see yourself working with a particular type of cuisine? Do you enjoy making desserts more than main courses? Your interests will determine where you seek education and experience down the line.
- Practice cooking for other people. Chefs are under a lot of pressure to perform well. If people’s expectations aren’t met, they send dishes back and write negative reviews. Find out early whether you’ll be able to hold up under close scrutiny of your work.
- Have a passion for the culinary arts field. Not just anyone can be a chef. It takes dedication to becoming an expert on how to cook, but also an obsession with new flavors and trends and an awareness of your competition.
- Visit good restaurants to get a sense of how they are run. If you can, pay attention to the roles the staff are playing, and how they work together to make the restaurant run smoothly.
- Read restaurant reviews, cooking magazines, profiles of head cooks and chefs, and other literature related to culinary arts. Gain a deep understanding of the field you are entering. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, The Professional Chef from the Culinary Institute of America, and Becoming a Chef by Dorenburg and Page are all great resources.
Part 2 of 3: Get a Culinary Arts Education
- Enroll in a culinary arts program. Going to cooking school isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a chef, but it can give you a leg up when it comes to getting hired at good restaurants.
- Programs are offered at trade or vocational Schools, colleges and culinary institutes.
- Most programs offer a broad education in nutrition, sanitary food preparation techniques, butchery, pastry making, and other basic cooking knowledge.
- If you plan to eventually start your own restaurant, find a program that offers classes in business, management, human resources, and other areas of knowledge that will come into play.
- Find an internship. Some culinary arts programs have relationships with local restaurants and offer internship positions to students. If you have this opportunity, take it. You’ll continue learning new techniques and skills while also acquiring experience you can put on your resume.
- If your program does not offer internships, pursue one yourself. Talk with the head cook or chef at your favorite restaurant and ask if he or she would be willing to let you help out and ask questions.
- Get certified. The American Culinary Federation (ACF) offers a generalized certification as well as certifications in specialized areas, like pastry making. A certification from the ACF will help differentiate you from other candidates trying for the same job.
Part 3 of 3: Work Your Way Up to Chef
- Apply for jobs. Now that you have years of education and experience under your belt, find a job as part of the kitchen staff at a restaurant that appeals to you.
- If possible, use some of the connections you made through your culinary program and internship. If you’ve already worked with people before, you may be able to move up toward chef status more quickly.
- In Europe, the interview process involves working at the restaurant for a day for free. You see what their staff can do, they see what you can do, and if it’s a good match, you’re hired.
- Understand you’ll probably have to start at the bottom. Many chefs start working at a lower rung in a restaurant and work their way up over the course of ten or more years. The competition to become a chef is fierce, so if you want to succeed, be prepared to put in long hours and a lot of labor to show your dedication.
- Even people who have a culinary arts degree usually start with “scut work” – peeling potatoes, processing meat, and other physically taxing work that requires standing for hours on end.
- People who do well with scut work are promoted to garde manger, and are in charge of preparing appetizers, soups, and cold dishes.
- The next step up is to become a line cook, working directly with entrees.
- Talented people are promoted to sous chef, the head chef’s second in command.
- Finally, an executive chef manages the entire kitchen, and sometimes owns the restaurant. This level is achieved after years of hard work.
- Stay at the top of your field. As you’re climbing the ladder, keep yourself abreast of the latest food trends. Eat at excellent restaurants, get to know other people in the business, and keep your culinary skills sharp. Start thinking creatively and with an eye toward what ensures the success of a restaurant. When the time is right, you’ll be promoted to executive chef, or you’ll have the knowledge and skills to branch off on your own.
- Eat out! Cooking at a restaurant is nothing like cooking at home, and there is a lot of good information and ideas on menus.
- Be nice to everyone in the kitchen. The pot washers and guests you meet today may be opening the hot new fusion restaurant tomorrow.
- Check out culinary programs at the community colleges in your area. More and more schools are offering night classes, certificate programs, and full culinary degrees.
- Working in a kitchen is hard work, especially if you’re not the executive chef. Be prepared to be yelled at a lot if you’re just starting out in a kitchen.
- Use caution when working with knives, as it is easier to cut yourself once you become good with a knife since you trust yourself more.
- Stuff the ego, nobody wants to hear you ramble incessantly about how good you think you are, or why your food is more technically sound than the competitors. It’s about humility and using food as a medium to express yourself.