When I meet people for the first time I very often get comments about how they love to cook at home, are addicted to the Food Network, and have a secret desire to be a chef. I also get the opportunity to work with students who are going to school “to be a chef”. These people always ask for advice and tips on what they need to do to work in professional kitchens. I always have difficulty explaining what’s needed in a sentence or two of polite conversation. What most are expecting is that chefs cook food, just tell me how to cook, share a recipe, or what knives to buy. But to really offer advice on how to succeed as a chef I want to take them back many years to the start of my career. I had the great advantage of stepping into my first professional kitchen as a 13yr old dish washer. This early start in kitchens allowed me to test my like or dislike for the life before I really needed to “get my career going” or before spending tens of thousands on a culinary education. What I found was I loved the environment, the frank brutal honesty, the competition, the lifestyle, and passion driven crazy people who surrounded me. These diverse and quirky people working beside me were interesting, dynamic, and unlike anyone else I had ever met. I liked the work hard/play hard fanatical aspects of kitchens and the people who made restaurants come alive. However I can tell you most people do not find “the heat” of the kitchen to their liking. Despite what they see on the Food Network or if you own a set of great knives & a robot coup, this is not for most people.
Many people have tried to describe what you need to be a chef. The culinary schools dedicate chapters in books to the philosophy of being a chef and professional conduct and once you work in kitchens you see and hear incomplete conversations with new cooks about what they need to bring to the team. Though many before me have attempted to share knowledge of what it takes, and probably have done it better, here’s my attempt and addition to the conversation.
TIME – In North America we often start too late in life for kitchen work. Our parents cook less and expose us less to food culture. We rarely got a job at an early age and so we washed too few dishes, never unloaded produce trucks into coolers, peeled too few potatoes, and prepped under few, if any, tough cooks before heading off to Culinary School. We think we can trade money for experience and this is simply not true. If you don’t spend time in kitchens and food culture it’ll cost you and those you need to support, time is a key to success in professional kitchens. Despite what todays culinary schools will promote and “sell”, you can’t learn and practice even close to what you’ll need to know in two or four years. In fact, you’ll spend a life time learning and refining your skills in a kitchen, two or four years is nothing. But many people come out of school or work a couple years on a line and think they’ll be a chef and unfortunately some will even get hired into the job well before they have the skills, patience, and poise to fill the role. The truth is in school they learned a bit about food, but never learned how to make a mistake in an unforgiving environment. They made a few sauces and produced a couple dinners, but never executed a set of skills repeatedly over time in various conditions. They were taught, but did very little teaching and now don’t know how to develop a pot washer into a prep cook. They were given time lines and resources, but rarely have had to make things happen with no time left, few resources, and come back in a few hours to face the same challenges again. My advice is worry less about the title stitched on your jacket and more about whats in your head. Take the time to develop skills and be honest with yourself about where you really are. But time is a contradiction in kitchens… you need to be patient, but driven… Practice skills until perfected, but be ambitious enough to take a leap at the right moment… Stay and learn all a chef has to offer, but move on to new kitchens & ideas. There is no set formula other than honest self assessment and the ability to glean the truth from criticism and advice from people you trust.
IMMERSION – This isn’t a job, it’s a life. You’ll need to wade in over your head and soak up everything you can from the industry. If your not wanting to think about kitchens, food, and restaurants outside of “work” then you better get out now. The best people I’ve ever worked with were immersed in a culture of food. To do this you’ll need to make friends and talk shop with cooks, chefs, servers, and sommeliers. You need to cook at home for yourself & others. Read everything you can, collect cook books & recipes, subscribe to magazines, and stay current with trends. Travel to various countries and regions and eat what their eating. Go out to eat where you live and really look at the operation rather than just dine. Visit farms, fish mongers, and markets and learn about products and production. After working a 14 hour shift if you find yourself making fresh pasta for Carbonara and working on new menus over a 1am dinner your getting close. Now just read a few pages from the Larousse Gastronomique thats sitting on your night stand as you kill the last of the wine in your glass. Don’t forget to set your alarm, your back in the kitchen in a couple of hours…. Now repeat.
WILLINGNESS TO SERVE – Despite what you think this isn’t a food business, it’s a people business, food is just the canvass. Serving people and wanting to please is a necessary perspective to move forward in kitchens and deal with all the personalities you’ll meet. Guests who are paying for perfection while trying to close the deal with their date or business client. Servers who will be demanding and test your patience. Owners/investor who are making too little or no profit squeezing the margins. Purveyors who need your order phoned in and a check sent out. Cooks who claim “They want to learn, are ready for a promotion, and are the best in your kitchen…by the way I need Saturday night off it’s my girlfriends birthday”. These are the people you’ll serve, each and everyone the “most important person” in your restaurant. Oh yea, make sure you call back that Sous Chef applicant who’s not qualified, they left three messages in the office just today.
PATIENCE FOR GENTLE ABUSE – Working in a kitchen isn’t the “toughest” job in the world. Chefs & cooks aren’t special forces or smoke jumpers. We don’t take a beating in the “Ultimate Fighting Challenge” or make life & death calls in emergency rooms. The stress isn’t like choosing to buy a hundred million dollars of stock on Wall Street with one push of a button. No, kitchens are a more subtle “death by a thousand cuts” type of deal. It’s constantly hot standing over open flames or wet & freezing carving ice sculptures in a walk-in freezer. You’ll spend long hours on your feet often many days in a row to get through a Summer season or holiday constantly being pushed, stressed, and pressed to drive results one service at a time. The team is unconcerned with your back pain, burned arm, or bad nights sleep and will tell you so if asked. They’ll share insightful comments like “You only had 3hrs sleep and your feet hurt? Why don’t you pull up your panties and FIRE THAT SALMON PRINCESS! or can I get you a warm glass of shut the hell up?” You need to understand this is just them expressing Esprit de Corps and understanding of your plight while maintaining an I don’t give a shit perspective. But to show they love you they will buy the first round at the pub in a couple hours and you’ll realize theres no one you’d rather have beside you on a busy Saturday night. This is the crucible that great Chefs are forged in, if it sounds strange perhaps the kitchen isn’t the place for you.
FOOD – There it is, the food, the culinary art, the creativity. There’s no doubt that you’ll need to be passionate about food and creating with food. This is what’ll sustain you through everything else, the chance to make wonderful flavors, compose dishes, and design something beautiful to be consumed by adoring guests. You’ll be challenged though, as this is an ever changing “art”. You’ll have guests with food preferences, allergies, and dietary concerns and you’ll need to change your art to meet their needs. You’ll not just make what you want, you’ll craft dishes to meet food cost, labor cost, and guests demands. Hopefully you’ll find you love the challenge and are able to meet at a cross roads of skill, knowledge, and expectations to produce food that your proud of. If your really lucky you’ll be on the cutting edge, setting trends, the one to be followed. This will bring new expectations and demands like sourcing and enhancing the best products, constantly improving and developing ideas, and mentoring a team to support the vision. In the end the food isn’t yours, it’s what you share with others, it’s changed by feedback, experience, and financial drivers which requires you to be creative in ways you never expected. That’s food, that’s the art.
SACRIFICE – The sacrifices will not be world shaping or life altering on the level of joining the Priesthood. Again it’s far more subtle and sneaks up on you. But you soon realize you don’t go out on New Years because it’s amateur hour and you need to be back to start brunch in a couple hours. Valentine’s day is just the night you run out of two tops causing a wait at the door and long service so you can get home late to watch your girlfriend sleeping. You’ll see your mother on Mother’s Day for two minutes when you leave the kitchen to check her table. You work when everyone else plays and you’ll lose touch with friends that have regular jobs along the way. You’ll slug it out in multi-year apprenticeships or have thousands in student loans to get a pantry job to prove yourself in a new kitchen before getting a promotion.
So why do it? I have a hard time expressing what I love so much about being a chef. It’s something that’s in your blood as the Jimmy Buffet song says “I found a life to suit my style”. I don’t wear a tie, I stay up late, closed more bars than I can count, traveled, and don’t ride a desk. I’m rewarded for hard work and get immediate praise for a job well done. It’s constant change and challenge and I’m doing what I love… if asked theres nothing else I’d rather do, but I ask you… so you want to be a chef?