The Career Path of a Chef
There are few, if any, professions that have stood the test of the time, unchanged and unaltered by modernity. The career path of a chef has more options today than in years past. Technology and cultural influences force all things to naturally evolve or become obsolete–think switchboard operators.
Fortunately for the culinary industry, food is at the heart of everything we do as human beings. The way we obsess, glorify and think about our meals has undoubtedly taken on a new dimension in the twenty-first century; fueling a desire for creativity, innovation and a demand for higher standards of food quality, presentation and overall dining experience.
If your ambition is to carve out a successful career as a chef, there are now more opportunities and avenues to pursue than ever before; however, while there are certainly many ways to claim the head chef title, there is consensus about one thing: you have to be prepared to eat a lot of humble pie on your way there.
Learning on the job
The temptation to bypass the academic approach of entering the cheffing profession is understandable and in some cases more gainful. Not everyone can afford to attend elite institutions or take time out from earning a salary to enter full-time education. Also, some individuals learn better through experience and observation in fast-paced environments than they would in a more academic set up.
Learning on the job exposes you to the real dynamics of a kitchen from the onset so that you can develop more robust skills while building your network and acquiring mentors from the early stages of your career.
There are three things to consider if you choose this approach:
- There are no shortcuts – If you want to distinguish yourself as a chef, you will have to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of kitchen life. The only way to do that is to pay your dues. You will most likely start out as a commis chef or apprentice, chiefly concerned with food prep, cleaning and running errands. Showing that you are a dependable team player will go a long way to helping you work your way up from here.
- Low pay – Depending on your location, the starting salaries at the bottom of the rung can be relatively low. The experience and qualifications you are able to gain on the job will determine how quickly you progress up the pay scale.
- Sharp adjustment – For someone with no prior training or work experience, the long and demanding hours will undoubtedly take some getting used to. You need to ensure that you are a resilient and driven individual to keep motivated in this position.
Formal education is one of the best ways to enrich your knowledge of the industry, its requirements and most importantly, yourself in relation to all of these things. When you enroll on a catering course, you should expect to be provided with the tools, experiences and time to ruminate on your strengths and weaknesses – this is particularly helpful if you’d like to specialize in a specific cuisine or aspect of the profession. Many employers will value your achievements and experience, placing you in a better position to negotiate salary and progression.
On a culinary course, you will not only learn about food preparation, preservation, storage, science and hygiene; you will also explore elements of business management, marketing, leadership and research, making you a more well-rounded prospect for future employers.
Like everything else in life, you will get out what you put in. Some top chefs and restaurant owners have mixed opinions about the worth of a culinary degree or certification, but if you use your time wisely, make the most of the resources available to you and cultivate a determined work ethic, you will not only walk away with a degree or certificate, but also a well-developed resume or CV.
Something else worth considering when deliberating whether to get an official culinary qualification is whether you have ambitions to travel and work in different countries. Having accreditation will often be very useful when applying for certain overseas positions and, subsequently, the visas required to work in those countries.
Lastly, when choosing a culinary school, you need to make sure that you are making a worthwhile investment.
Here are three crucial things to look out for when choosing a culinary school:
- What is the feedback from current and past students? Are their alumni working in similar roles and establishments to the ones you aspire to? If this information is scarce, outdated or mostly negative, this may not be the school for you.
- Does the school have a good rapport with local restaurants and does it offer its students hands-on practical experience?
- What is the experience and caliber of the faculty staff? Do they inspire creativity, encourage learning and what do they bring to the table in terms of know-how?
Taking up a new role
The career trajectory of a chef usually goes something like this:
- Commis Chef
- Chef de Partie
- Sous Chef
- Head Chef and Executive Chef
Assuming that you are striving for the highest post, you will have to carefully map out your journey to get there. However, you shouldn’t let being strategic overshadow the importance of fostering good relationships and building up an appropriate length of work experience in any given kitchen.
It can be tricky deciding on the best time to spread your wings and move on to a higher level position. Your next step will largely be determined by your abilities and experience.
Unless you have been taking on contract work, your resume or CV needs to demonstrate that you are, above all else, reliable.
In an industry that demands a lot of dedication, employers will not be keen to invest training hours into someone who flits from one establishment to another every year or couple of months. Particularly while you are in the beginning stages of your career – commis chef, chef de partie – don’t scrimp on the opportunity to hone your skills and master your craft.
As you assume more responsibility in roles such as sous chef and, eventually, executive chef, you will begin to seek out positions that offer either better pay and working conditions or more opportunities for creative expression. Either way, you will have to commit to at least two years in a new kitchen to establish yourself and make a worthwhile investment in your career progress.
With all of this in mind, it’s also crucial to recognize when you are being siloed and move on before your name becomes too synonymous with one kind of restaurant, cuisine or level of capability. Growth is key to self-fulfillment, and you will have to choose wisely when accepting new positions or preferring to stay where you are.
What are the essential tips to successfully integrating into a new kitchen?
- Camaraderie is a word that often bounces around in the culinary vernacular. That’s probably because jobs in this industry genuinely require a one for all and all for one mentality. All roles are usually interdependent and directly affect the stress levels of one another. Being able to communicate and anticipate the needs of everyone, from the kitchen to front of house staff is essential.
- When you start your new role, tread carefully before beginning to enforce your ideas, opinions and suggestions on how you think things should be done. Study your co-workers and superiors; anticipate when they might need your help and establish yourself as an approachable, trustworthy member of the team. Every kitchen will have its own personality, idiosyncrasies and best practices – you don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way by harping on about how you did things at your previous job.
- Ultimately, the best advice when taking on a new role is to remind yourself of your goals and where you’d like to be in the future; then, align your intentions with your actions and be willing and open to learning at every level.
It’s not just about the destination
When choosing to work in this business, you need to really know what drives and motivates you. Negativity and poor work ethic can really destroy a kitchen and, ultimately, the establishment that kitchen caters to.
If you are passionate about working with food, the best way to find the most effective starting point for you is to get experience. Whether it’s through volunteering, taking on a low-level kitchen job or a short course, getting a taste for the environment is key.
Knowing how you learn and what drives you will help you to determine whether advanced training or learning on the job will be a more productive option for you. What matters most is that you choose a path which will keep you inspired but also present you with the opportunities to grow.