How to Become a Chef


Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse kicks it up a notch with tennis star Andre Agassi.
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse kicks it up a notch with tennis star Andre Agassi.
Scott Gries/Getty Images

­Working in a restaurant or catering kitchen isn't what it was 20 years ago. One of the big reasons is the popularity of television's Food Network. The all-food, all the time cable channel has grown a lot since its debut in 1993, boasting 100 million subscribers in 2008 [source: Wheeling News Register]. Food Network chefs Emeril Agassi, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, Bobby Flay and Paula Deen are culinary superstars. "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio already had his successful Craft restaurants and was well-known in the culinary community, but it was his jump to television that made him a household name. The reality show set a personal record with 2.7 million viewers tuning in for the season five debut episode [source: Huffington Post].

­Food Network and other cooking shows have made cooking cool. TV chefs are rock stars -- funny, personable and wealthy. Home chefs are tantalized with the fame and fortune that awaits a successful chef when they tune in each day. The life of a chef isn't quite as glamorous as it appears to be, though. Fame and fortune only await the best chefs. The restaurant business is risky and fraught with horror stories of failure and bankruptcy. Working as an executive chef is an all-consuming endeavor. There's no such thing as a 40-hour week or weekends off. It's physically demanding and stressful. Cooking is only a small part of the daily life of a chef. Kitchen management, scheduling, menu planning, food ordering and the hiring, firing and training of staff are just a few of the responsibilities of an executive chef.

All those factors aside, many people still have designs on a career as a chef. It's hard work, but if you're successful, it does pay off. Respect, notoriety and wealth could be in your future if you're talented, passionate and work really hard. There isn't just one road to culinary success. If you want to become a chef, you have some decisions to make about your approach. We'll break it down for you on the following pages.

Types of Chefs

Attention to detail is one trait every great chef should have.
Attention to detail is one trait every great chef should have.
Inti St. Clair/­Getty Images

­When some amateur cooks daydream of a culinary career, they're thinking executive chef. The executive chef is the top dog, and there's typically only one in a restaurant. But not everyone has executive chef aspirations. While you're in culinary school or working in a restaurant you may find that you're either really good at one element of cooking or that you love one aspect enough to do only that. It works out nice if they happen to be one in the same.

Many chefs specialize in these fields and become well-known and successful within that specialty. French chef Pierre Herme is a good example. He's known as the "Picasso of Pastries" -- not a bad title.

Some of the following jobs are stepping stones to becoming an executive chef, also known as chef de cuisine, but some are great stand-alone careers:

  • Sous chef -- the executive chef's right hand
  • Patissier -- or pastry chef, works with pastries and desserts only
  • Chef de partie -- or station chef; they're in charge of a particular part of the kitchen
  • Saucier -- prepares the sauces and sautés
  • Poissonier -- works with seafood
  • Entremetier -- in charge of soups, vegetables, starches and egg dishes
  • Rotisseur -- cooks roasted, braised and broiled meats and gravies
  • Gard manger -- also known as pantry chef; prepares cold items
  • Cook -- works under the various station chefs

Some kitchens are even broken down more specifically with separate chefs in charge of soups, cold desserts, vegetables and bread, to name a few. The fact that these jobs all have French names is no mistake. The basis of fine dining is French food, and when you hear about a chef being "classically trained," that means French cuisine and techniques. Even if it's not fine dining, chances are there's a lot of French technique involved, so unless you have some experience with it, you won't have much success as a chef.

Culinary School

Culinary school will teach a future chef the art of food presentation.
Culinary school will teach a future chef the art of food presentation.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

­So now that you know what jobs await you, it's time to go to school -- culinary school. This is a great option if you­ want to become a chef and you have the time and money required to make it happen. There are three different types of culinary schools -- vocational, two-year and four-year schools. Some cooking schools offer certifications; others offer college degrees.

The plus of a vocational school program is that it typically lasts less than a year and involves a great deal of hands-on experience. At the end of the program you'll get a certificate you can tout when trying to get an entry-level kitchen job. The downside is that there's a lot of information crammed into the classes, and cooking theory is largely abandoned in favor of technique training.

Culinary-only institutions like the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA) are another way to go. At the CIA, you'll get one of the best culinary educations in the world. You'll have plenty of hands-on experience, with over 1,300 kitchen hours completed by graduation. The curriculum for two- and four-year culinary school varies, but you can count on classroom work, including:

  • Cooking theory
  • Menu planning
  • Food cost control
  • Purchasing
  • Storage
  • Sanitation and public health laws

When you graduate from culinary school, you'll have a bachelor's or associate's degree under your belt and a network of connections. This won't guarantee you a job but it's a good thing to have in your favor. Getting a job is your responsibility and even with a degree from the CIA, you'll probably have to start near the bottom and work your way up.

Tuition varies and like with anything, you get what you pay for. The CIA is the most famous culinary school in the world, and that distinction costs some serious cash -- about $11,000 per semester for the eight-semester program [source: Culinary Institute of America]. Lesser-known schools cost less, though, and you can still get a great education. You can explore your options for culinary schools in your area at culinaryed.com.

Chef Apprenticeships

French chef Pierre Gagnaire demonstrates during the World Summit of Gastronomy 2009 at the Tokyo International Forum on Feb. 9, 2009.
French chef Pierre Gagnaire demonstrates during the World Summit of Gastronomy 2009 at the Tokyo International Forum on Feb. 9, 2009.
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

­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].

Certified Master Chef

A career as a chef is grueling work, and you may have to earn your keep at first by stirring the pot -- literally.
A career as a chef is grueling work, and you may have to earn your keep at first by stirring the pot -- literally.
Todd Warnock/­Getty Images

­Becoming a certified master chef (CMC) is another thing altogether. You can be a chef-owner of a dozen four-star restaurants without earning the distinction of CMC. You can only become a CMC through The American Culinary Federation (ACF). It's the highest level of achievement for an American chef, and it's not easy to earn the honor -- there are less than 100 [source: Chef2chef.net].

The first thing required to become a CMC is certification as an executive head chef or pastry chef. Then you need to pass the exam, held only once a year. The test is a grueling eight-day experience. Candidates are expected to know and execute just about everything dealing with the classical technique. And it's not just about the cutting board and sauté pan. You also need to have exceptional skills in food preparation and be well-versed in kitchen safety and sanitation.

The cost of the certification is between $4,000 and $6,000, depending on travel and boarding costs, and it's the responsibility of the master chef in waiting to cover it. The exam fee itself is $3,300, and there's a nonrefundable $300 application fee.

If you think you have what it takes, you can find the application at the American Culinary Federation Web site. In addition to the application, you're required to send a letter of intent and two letters of recommendation from other certified master chefs. If desserts are your thing, you can also become certified as a master pastry chef. The cost and time make it difficult to acquire the title, but you'll be in select company if you make it through. Becoming a CMC will give you notoriety, the potential to earn more money and gain investors for your own restaurant. It's a nice feather in your cap, to boot.

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Sources

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