Everything You Need to Know to Become a Chef
Just as a chef is much more than someone who cooks, food is more than just what we eat. Food mirrors a society’s current trends and how they’re influenced by economics, nutrition, multiculturalism, and headlines. A chef’s personal preference might be for something as simple as a grilled steak and a baked potato, but professionally, the person beneath the white hat had better know how to prepare a tasty vegan entrée or meet the needs of folks with specialized or restricted diets. The versatility of the kitchen requires chefs to know what people are eating. Several decades ago, cholesterol was a topic on everyone’s mind, and diners wanted to know if their food was prepared with butter or margarine or olive oil; today the theme might be free-range chickens and growth hormones in cattle. The menus prepared by a chef reflect what people are looking for when they dine out.
Thanks to cable programming, the role of the chef has entered the realm of popular culture, inspiring a generation of career aspirants to think that this is the job they’re destined for. Food Network shows feature a panel of critical judges who appraise the competitive dishes of ambitious young cooks. This exposure has led many to believe that becoming a chef is the culinary version of survival of the fittest, where a fallen soufflé winnows out the weak and the last person standing dons a victory apron like it’s a Purple Heart.
The truth is that a chef occupies a very demanding and very multidimensional role. He or she has a vast knowledge of not only the food that will be cooked but also of its nutritional composition. Chefs must also be current with government regulations on food handling and safety. There are educational requirements that accompany the knowledge a chef is expected to have mastered; a successful chef needs to have both experience and a post-secondary degree in order to be a candidate for employment in the hospitality or food service industry.
A chef does more than just cook. Menus need to be maintained; new recipes must be developed while existing recipes are prepared. Eating patterns are undergoing a dramatic explosion of change, and a chef needs to be versatile enough to respond to the clientele’s changing palate. The chef’s kitchen is a workplace, with managerial tasks in addition to supervising other employees. The best role model for the modern prototype of a chef is probably not TV chef Gordon Ramsay or Rachael Ray; instead, it’s likely to be the person you never see who’s working behind the scenes in the kitchen of your favorite dining location.
According to Simply Hired, there are seven skills that a chef needs to have:
1. Ability to handle criticism
2. Passionate about the culinary arts
3. Attentive to detail
5. Willing to practice
6. Be a team player
7. Possess a sound business sense
How’s your olfactory sense? A chef needs to have a keen sense of smell because taste and smell are key to food preparation. Personal hygiene is a must; most states require health certification proving that food service workers are free from communicable diseases.
Many a chef started out in a more humble station along the food service line. They may begin as kitchen assistants or line cooks. As they gain experience and demonstrate ability, they often advance. However, even a highly skilled master of the kitchen will need to acquire formal education in order to become a chef.
Chefs don’t start out at the top. They usually hone their skills by working as cooks and developing their skills and techniques as they gain experience. Members of the armed forces learn their job via the military’s apprenticeship program, but the course of training is different for civilians. Training to become professionally proficient in the field can be obtained at a culinary arts school, a four-year college, a technical school or community college.
If you feel that you’re cut out to be a chef, you have the advantage of being able to begin your training while still in high school. High school often includes courses in cooking. But classes that are also useful for future chefs include mathematics (knowing how to measure out a teaspoon of this and a quarter-cup of that means that fractions are a daily part of the work routine); and nutrition and health classes that address diet. For many students, their initial entry into the workface comes courtesy of a stint at McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken or Wendy’s. Use this time as a way to learn the nature of food, familiarity with cooking times, food safety; and preparation. Fast food restaurants have broadened their menus from the traditional burgers and fries, and knowing how to prepare a vanilla-flavored iced coffee is worth your time.
After graduation from high school or the acquisition of a GED, an aspiring chef can choose to obtain certification at a trade or vocational school or a community college. The typical certification program lasts 9-12 months and combines classroom instruction with hands-on training. Students will learn baking and pastry skills; ethnic cuisines from Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Americas; Garde Manger; and principles and theories of cooking. After passing a practical examination, graduates may move on to entry-level employment or choose to continue their studies in pursuit of a higher degree.
Associate degree programs deliver a two-fold educational curriculum: they expand the culinary arts instruction while offering training in food, staffing, and managerial techniques. The student will be introduced to culinary mathematics (because while a dash of this and a pinch of that works in your grandmother’s kitchen, it won’t fly in the precise world of professional cooking); modern banquet cookery; ethnic cuisines; gastronomy; wine studies; identification and fabrication of meats and seafood; development of baking and pastry skills; food purchasing and cost control; menu development; high-volume production cooking; and the hospitality industry.
A four-year degree program delves into the food service and business industries. Bachelor’s degree students will learn nutrition; food composition; interaction and form; career management and professional development; business statistics; microeconomics and macroeconomics; marketing; finance; customer service; microbial food safety and sanitation; commercial food production; fundamentals of Italian, French, American and vegetarian cuisine; butchery; culture and gastronomy; and food styling.
Degree in hand, employment is the next step. Because there are no higher degree programs in the culinary arts, would-be PhD’s will need to pursue education in a related field. The education that the student has received is the foundation for a position as chef, where the former student, now professional, will put in practice their work and leadership experience. That experience leads to supervisory positions if those skills prove satisfactory.
Certification within a specialized culinary field leads the way to higher-paying, more prominent positions for skilled and experienced chefs who have demonstrated the ability to turn their education into practice. The American Culinary Federation (ACF) offers certification to chefs, culinary educators and pastry professionals.
The American Culinary Federation accredits over 200 formal academic training programs, as well as sponsoring apprenticeship programs. A typical apprenticeship lasts for two years and delivers a combination of classroom training and work experience. Accreditation shows that the program meets recognized standards for its course content, facilities, and quality of instruction.
Although certification for chefs is not required, it is a benefit to a chef who wants to prove that he or she has satisfactorily met the standards of the positon. Certification standards are based on experience and formal training.
A chef’s routine is anything but laid-back. Typically, chefs work early in the morning, late in the evening, on weekends, and holidays. It’s usually full-time work, with a pace that’s hectic and sometimes stressful. Chefs hire, train, and supervise the kitchen and often non-kitchen staff as well. They prepare budgets, maintain food inventories and supplies, schedule staff work assignments, all with the goal of maximizing efficiency and profit. One requisite talent that has nothing to do with what’s served on a plate involves human interaction. A kitchen staff needs to function as a smooth team if the operation is going to be cohesive; despite the drama on the Food Network, a competent chef knows how to manage situations when the human emotions are running as high as the temperature in a deep fryer.
Upscale restaurant chefs work longer hours because food preparation takes advance planning. Chefs may work 12-hours days if they oversee the delivery of the food early in the day, then plan the menu, and prepare the specialty items on the menu.
Kitchens are hot; many restaurant and institutional kitchens have air conditioning along with modern equipment and comfortable work areas, but smaller kitchens in older establishments may require staff to work in tight quarters where the stoves and ovens are hot. A frenetic environment combined with cramped quarters can affect interaction among the staff members.
KINDS OF JOBS AVAILABLE
The range of food service work sites includes fast food restaurants, cafeterias, casual dining restaurants and formal restaurants., country clubs, hotels, resorts, caterers, and private households.
For a graduate, the likely options for employment are country clubs and hotels that offer a good living and stable employment, with reasonably working hours and conditions, which typically also offers benefits and health insurance.
In addition to preparing food within a limited time frame, a hotel chef also deals with special events and functions, including weddings. You may work as a line cook or in banquet food preparation but because hotels promote internally, a cook who has demonstrated talent and reliability can rise to higher level positions, or move to more prestigious restaurants.
Chefs may choose to work as caterers, or open their own restaurants. Grocery and specialty food stores sometimes employ chefs to develop recipes and prepare take-out meals for customers. Research chefs with knowledge of food science are hired to develop recipes for chain restaurants and food manufacturers. They are the ones who test new formulas and flavors for prepared foods, determining what are the most efficient and safest methods for new food preparation.
There are also private household chefs who prepare meals based on their client’s tastes and dietary needs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook, there are 115,400 chefs and head cooks and 807,800 food preparation workers. The number of chefs and head cooks is expected to increase by 6,000 by the year 2022. The restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer, and as double-income households continue to enjoy eating out and experimenting with new cuisines, it’s a safe bet that the industry will continue to offer employment. But not all those positions are held by chefs.
The job growth for chefs from 2012-2022 is projected to be five percent, which is slower than the average projected growth for all occupations. The job opportunities that are available will rise as workers leave the field and need to be replaced. Competition for positions is expected to be fierce, particularly at the higher-paying upscale restaurants, casinos, and hotels.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay in 2013 for chefs and head cooks was $46,620 annually.
YOUR CHEF’S DICTIONARY
The cool, well ventilated area where salads, appetizers, canapes, pates, terrines and hors d’oeuvres and other cold dishes are prepared and other foods are stored under refrigeration. This area is the province of the chef garde manger or pantry chef.
Works directly under the head chef and may substitute when the head chef is off; the sous-chef may also be responsible for doing the staff scheduling and or performing other administrative tasks.
Also known as the chef de partie, the line cook oversees a particular area of the kitchen production process and answers to the head cook or chef.
There are two categories of kitchen assistant; one helps with basic food preparation such as peeling potatoes; the other washes dishes and cleans up.
The famed chef’s hat, called a toque, has its unique design for a purpose. Its height allows air to circulate above the head so that heat has a way to escape. The hat also helps to prevent sweat and hair from falling onto the food the chef is preparing. The chef’s jacket is white both to repel heat and to display cleanliness, and double-breasted to prevent serious burns and scalding injuries; it can also effectively camouflage stains because one side can be rebuttoned over the other side. The apron reaches to the knee for the prevention of burns. Hair nets are a requirement in the kitchen for food sanitation and safety.
American Culinary Federation
Established in 1929, the ACF is the largest professional chefs’ organization in North America. With over 22,000 members, the organization is the established authority on cooking in the United States.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A CHEF?
Celebrity chef, author, television host and world traveler Anthony Bourdain has this important advice to aspiring and young chefs. “You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.”