Another route that chefs took for hundreds of years before culinary school came along is to dive in head first and work as an apprentice. These days, "apprenticeship" simply means getting work in a kitchen doing whatever you can. The restaurant industry in the United States alone employs roughly 13 million people, and you can bet many of them have their sights set on a career as a head chef [source: National Restaurant Association].
Even with a culinary degree, you may have to start peeling potatoes, but you'll be guaranteed to do so if you start with no previous experience. This shouldn't deter you, though. Many people work their way up through the kitchen ranks while learning on the job. Some argue that four years working in a good restaurant and actually getting paid for it is a better route than spending a lot of money for four years of schooling. In school, you may learn how to make the perfect soufflé, but in a restaurant you may get to make 200 a week. If you're lucky enough to have a head chef take a shine to you, you could burrow under his or her wing and learn firsthand what it takes to be successful.
Count on working long, hard hours on your feet as a kitchen underling, but take heart that the sous and executive chefs will be right there beside you. Once you get a job prepping vegetables and cleaning up, pay attention to the chefs around you without getting in the way. Chefs are notoriously cranky and the last thing you want is to be a nuisance. You can't force mentorship, but you can look out for a potential mentor and ingratiate yourself.
Start with reasonable expectations -- you won't be noticed by the executive chef for a while, if ever. Pick an element you're interested in and help out the chef de partie of that station as much as you can, as quietly as you can. Don't make a big show of it -- your goal is to fit in and allow people to get to know you through your work ethic. If you do this, the station chef will notice and before you know it, will be giving you advice or teaching you some technique. Practice this technique at home by trying to replicate dishes from your restaurant [source: National Restaurant Association].