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What's a sous chef?

A restaurant's sous­ chef is the brains behind the daily specials.
A restaurant's sous­ chef is the brains behind the daily specials.
©­iStockphoto/ Eric Belisle

If you've ever taken a weekday stroll down a quiet side street lined with bistros and restaurants at around 10:00 a.m., you've likely experienced the wonderful calm before the storm. During a rush, restaurants can be intense, busy places -- especially for the staff. But in the morning, after all of the workers are tucked in their offices and before they're released into the streets once more for lunch, a row of restaurants can be quieting.

On a humid day the scents of food cooking escape from the kitchen and drift to your nose. The sounds that accompany the smells are placid, a piece of cookery clanging or a pot of something simmering. And if it's a nice day, chairs and tables will be lined up along the sidewalks beneath awnings and umbrellas to shade the eventual guests. Usually about this time, too, you may spy a server seated in one of these chairs or at the bar indoors scribbling the day's specials on a chalkboard plaque. If you look a little more closely, you would find that server is likely copying the specials from a handwritten note. And if you were the utmost curious type and inquired just whose handwriting that was, you would almost surely learn that it's the sous chef's.

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­T­his position in the kitchen hierarchy falls below either the chef de cuisine or the executive chef (and, in an expansive enough restaurant, both). This is from where the term sous chef is derived. "Sous," in the French tongue means "under" or "sub," so a sous chef is an under chef [source: Nation Master]. The sous chef receives less glory than the chef de cuisine, and they also make less pay than an executive chef (sous chefs earn between $28,000 and $65,000) [source: Cooking Schools 101]. However, never underestimate the value of a sous chef. Creating the daily specials is merely one of the myriad responsibilities the position is tasked with every day. It's up to the sous chef to keep the kitchen from falling to pieces.

Restaurants are intense, fast-paced places. It's the sous chef's job to keep them from falling apart.
Restaurants are intense, fast-paced places. It's the sous chef's job to keep them from falling apart.
©­iStockphoto/­Huchen Lu

­Anyone who's worke­d in the restaurant industry can attest that most restaurants resemble a powder keg covered with a veneer of hospitality more than that of a business. Deadlines come hard, fast and constantly, and most restaurants maintain time limits for an order to be prepared and served. It's the sous chef's responsibility to keep the fuse that's lit with each order from reaching the powder in the dining room.

Since the kitchen is effectively under his or her command, the buck stops with the sous chef when it comes to unhappy customers. This makes the sous chef, in restaurant terms, the expediter -- the liaison between customer and cook. If a plate arrives late or an order is fouled up, the sous chef is expected to directly accept any complaint a customer may have and remedy the situation. This can happen often, but the sous chef is generally granted the power to maintain the kitchen the way he or she sees fit. The best way to avoid errors in the kitchen is to have a well-trained staff.

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It's up to the sous chef to cultivate the talents of the chefs and line cooks under him or her. Imparting wisdom requires experience, however, so sous chefs generally work their way up to the position. Often a sous chef will also need formal training at a culinary school before beginning work.

When arriving at the title of sous chef, it's a good idea to hang onto it for awhile. Some restaurants hiring a sous chef require candidates to already have several years of experience in the position. The Scalas Bistro in the legendary Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, for example, requires candidates to have at least five years of experience as a sous chef to become theirs [source: JobSeeker.com].

This reveals the importance of the sous chef position. No one wants a sous chef who isn't prepared to handle anything that can be thrown at him or her in a kitchen; it's too risky. Sous chefs require years of experience to learn the ins and outs of restaurant work. Should a line cook unexpectedly fail to show up for a lunch, the sous chef must be prepared to step in. This shouldn't be a problem; sous chefs tend to graduate from the floater position -- a key cook in the kitchen who can tackle any job required.

To maintain cleanliness, sous chefs may have their staff wash all of these pots each night -- used or not.
To maintain cleanliness, sous chefs may have their staff wash all of these pots each night -- used or not.
©­iStockphoto/­Ceneri

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­Clearly, the role of sous chef is to overcome the implications of the phrase "too many chefs in the kitchen." He or she is responsible for overseeing and executing the fast pace kitchen work demands.

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The bigger the restaurant, the more likely you are to find more than one sous chef. For example, restaurants that prepare their own desserts will often have a pastry chef. This position is essentially that of sous chef, but the pastry chef holds domain over desserts rather than standard fare.

Many restaurants are much smaller and employ only one sous chef to oversee all kitchen operations. A small restaurant may also demand even more. He or she may be charged with not only training and cultivating her staff's talents, but also the hiring and firing of kitchen help. Since he or she has the finger on the pulse of the kitchen, tapping him or her as the person who orders ingredients and food items is a good idea. Few people in any given restaurant are more aware of when the lettuce is beginning to go south or the supply of peppercorn is running low than a good sous chef.

A sous chef in charge of ordering supplies will have more of a direct role in finding the best ways to keep the menu's quality high and the costs low. It would be up to the sous chef to find vendors who can provide better ingredients for less money, not an easy task when you're also keeping a kitchen buzzing. Once that buzzing's done for the day, the sous chef is in charge of cleaning it once more (along with the rest of the kitchen staff), checking the stock to determine what orders should be placed the next day and, of course, creating the specials for the next day's menu. Tomorrow is, after all, another day, and sous chefs have little time to rest.

Why, precisely, would anyone put him or herself through these rigors on nearly a daily basis? One answer is that following a career as a sous chef, a person will have all of the experience (and references) needed to open a restaurant. The position of sous chef is somewhat like a final obstacle course before the money and glory of chef de cuisine -- the person on whose vision a restaurant is based. The other answer is that some people simply enjoy keeping fuses from reaching the powder keg.

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Sources

  • “Sous chef.” JobFinder.com. Accessed February 17, 2009. http://www.starchefsjobfinder.com/js-jobinfo.php?s=-1&t=j&v=186158&positionid=
  • “Sous chef.” NationMaster. Accessed February 17, 2009.  http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Sous-chef
  • “Sous chef: the kitchen’s second-in-command.” Cooking Schools 101. Accessed February 17, 2009. http://www.cookingschools101.com/careers/positions/sous-chef.aspx
  • “The chef’s ladder.” CuisineNet Digest. Accessed February 17, 2009. http://www.cuisinenet.com/digest/custom/restaurant/chef_ladder.shtml

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