by Annabelle Carter Short
How to Become a Sous Chef
The sous chef position is one of the most important jobs in a professional kitchen, and it’s a stepping stone to becoming an executive chef commanding your own team. There are 3 primary paths to become a sous chef. One is enrolling in a culinary arts program which will make you wear many hats – and help you gain necessary experience with each of them – to become a good sous chef. The second common path is building your resume by working your way through various kitchens and gaining the skills needed by working up the ranks in the kitchen, learning the different stations, and taking on leadership roles as a lead cook or supervisor. The third path is through apprenticeship programs such as the ones offered by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). And of course some people will do a mixture of each of these.
First Things First, What Does “Sous Chef“ Mean?
A sous chef is the second-in-command to the executive chef. In fact, the word “sous” is the French word for “under-chef.“
Think of the position as somebody who is between a chef and a cook. They are the right hand of the chef.
Despite being under the head chef, you’ll have a lot of responsibilities, working as a sous chef. And we aren’t exaggerating when we say that the job is intense! Additionally, as you’ll be working very closely with the head chef, it’s important to maintain a cordial relationship to avoid creating a tense working environment.
A Step-By-Step Guide to Become a Sous Chef
Cooking skills aren’t enough to become a sous chef in a good hotel or restaurant – what you need is training, preferably from a good institute.
The following is a step-by-step guide to securing the right educational qualifications to get the job:
Step 1: Completing High School
If you are young and still in school, you should consider taking electives in cooking, health, nutrition, biology, chemistry, business, and math. At the same time, start researching relevant career and training programs to improve your chances of getting accepted into a reputable training program or restaurant.
We would also advise you to take up an internship in a restaurant to begin gaining cooking experience to build your resume.
Step 2: Completing a Professional Training Program
Culinary schools, community colleges, and vocational schools – each one of these offer training programs for chefs that can help you in your endeavor. Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts programs have a two-year duration, while other certificate programs for sous chefs and apprentice chefs can take around 1-2 years.
Completing your training will help you acquire vital skills, such as menu planning, knife skills, nutrition, food storage, and safety procedures, along with important culinary and baking techniques.
Step 3: Taking Up an Apprenticeship
You can enter an apprenticeship program in addition to, or instead of, other formal training programs. For instance, the American Culinary Federation (ACF) often sponsors apprenticeship programs across the nation, which combine classroom instruction with hands-on knowledge.
These apprentice programs last for around 2-3 years and give you the chance to earn money while getting the practical experience of cooking in an industrial kitchen.
Step 4: Getting the Relevant Certificates
Getting a certificate isn’t necessary, but it shows a higher level of professionalism, which can be beneficial in landing a job. If you meet the education and experience requirements of the ACF and pass a written and practical exam, you can get a certified Sous Chef designation.
Keep in mind that you need five years of experience as a culinary and 50 hours of education credits, along with taking courses in nutrition, food safety and sanitization, and supervisory management.
Step 5: Attaining Work Experience
After completing your training, you should start looking for jobs to gain more experience. You can’t expect to become a sous chef just out of culinary school – you need at least four years of work experience. In fact, most of these chefs have worked for several years more than that. The position has lots of responsibility and therefore requires a lot of practical, successful work experience.
Choose restaurants with a good reputation to work in, as well as ones which prepare cuisine which you are interested in learning. Be sure they are restaurants which create recipes mostly from scratch and don’t just open cans or boxes of prepared food. Stay for 1 to 2 years before moving on to a new or better restaurant.
Skills You Need to Become a Good Sous Chef
You need to have the right mindset and a wide range of skills to become a good sous chef. Here are a few absolutely essential ingredients that you require:
Of course, you need exceptional culinary skills or cooking prowess if you want to be a good sous chef! You need to taste everything and develop your palate to discern nuances of flavor, balancing sweet, sour, salty & bitter.
Whether it’s getting the recipe right or speeding up the process without compromising the taste to deliver the orders on time – you must be prepared for everything. Train yourself to master a variety of culinary techniques in quick succession ranging from complex entrees to healthy salads.
A True Leader and Well Spoken
Communication and leadership skills go hand-in-hand when you want to be a sous chef, especially since you have to do more of the hands-on management. You should be able to train and supervise the kitchen staff while simultaneously following the executive chef’s orders for cooking and plating the meal.
You need to be confident and hold an air of authority around you to ensure the staff is managed despite the busy and stressful environment.
As for communication, the entire team needs to work together to achieve the common goal of serving delicious meals in a short span of time. They also need to know what to do when things go wrong on the Line. A sous chef needs a plan for when you are short-staffed, or the oven goes down, or a VIP is in the restaurant, etc. Motivating and guiding every member of your team, while performing your own tasks smoothly are all crucial.
You will have all sorts of tasks when you take on the role of a sous chef – from assisting the executive chef with meal planning to keeping an account of the inventory to scheduling tasks and maintaining discipline – you need to juggle all these demands effortlessly.
It is equally important to remain calm under pressure and be a problem solver. Don’t be afraid to take responsibility for making changes in case of any discrepancy and try to solve problems as quickly as you can. Never bring a problem to the chef without having at least one possible solution. A sous chef solves problems, or prevents them from happening.
Competent and Reliable
The relationship between you and the executive chef needs to be healthy, where the latter should be able to rely on you for fulfilling tasks.
Keep in mind that you need to earn and maintain the head chef’s trust. Start with arriving early, completing tasks ahead of schedule, staying a little late, and taking the extra initiative to set yourself apart.
A sous chef’s ability to be reliable is one of the most important needs of the executive chef. Plan ahead, make as few mistakes as possible, and ALWAYS take responsibility for mistakes you do make. If you do make a mistake and lie about it, or worse, blame someone else for it, then you are not ready to become a sous chef. Take ownership of mistakes, learn from them, move forward, and don’t make the same mistake twice.
Remember, being a sous chef is a demanding, stressful job, and you will be expected to work up to 12 hours a day.