Tuesday, January 18, 2005

So You Want to be a Chef

There are a lot of us out there who enjoy cooking. Enjoy it so much that we have delusions of grandeur thinking we'll toss the career path we've chosen and dive into culinary school. Sounds like a good idea to you? Let's go over a bit of what will change.

1. Income - Chef's, especially Executive Chef's, make very good money. That is until you factor in how many hours a week they put in at work. Oh yeah don't forget that they work every holiday, every evening - usually six a week - and rarely have a weekend off. Do you currently get weekends off? Are they the days you live for? If so, then maybe it's time to rethink that resignation. Do you have a good supply of income available to you while you're in school? A good support system in place, you're going to be without income for a bit. Then it will take you a couple of years to regain stability and pat off those loans!

2. School - In the US it is a good idea to go to school and get your certificate. Europe has apprecnticeship programs that are very good, however, it is a long haul and we're more the instant gratification genre here in the states. Depending on what specialty you decide to pursue school can take as long as two years. And it isn't cheap. There are very good schools across the nation. Take your time to look into the programs to see if they 'gel' with your expectations. Take the time to visit the campus before you sign on the dotted line. Some of the more well known schools are:

The CIA Located in Hyde Park, NY and Yountville, Ca at Greystone
Art Institute Locations in 31 cities across the nation
The French Culinary Institue in New York City
Johnson and Wales on the East Coast and Denver
Scottsdale Culinary Institute A Cordon Bleu School in Arizona
The French Pastry School in Chicago
New England Culinary Institute in Vermont
California Culinary Academy in San Francisco

This is just a short list of schools whose names I know off the top of my head. There are also community colleges all over the states that have culinary programs. While not having a big name chef on the roster, you do get some valuable training. Culinary school is expensive, but worth the training. It's not like paying $25,000 to go to school to get your bachelors degree in psychology only to find out there is nothing but low paying minimum jobs available until you have your masters or doctorate. These schools will train you to work. That's the key, if you learn how to work, you'll never be unemployed again.
You may not always earn top dollar but you will be building a lifetime knowledge base to take you anywhere.

3. If you're thinking of becoming a chef because all your friends rave about how delicious your food is... Cooking at home, at your convenience in one thing. Cooking the same thing everyday, day in and day out (because it sells) can begin to become rote. Just like that day job you have now - if you're looking for excitement and accolades - throw more dinner parties. But if you wake up every morning with a yearning to serve mass quantities of food to people who may or may not like what you've prepared... maybe this is for you.

4. Becoming the celebrity chef. Don't believe everything you see on FoodTV. For every Bobby Flay, Emeril La Gasse, and Alton Brown out there, there are forty thousand people hoping to get their foot in that door. Before your dreams of becoming a famous chef someday - evaluate your goals. If the simple "my compliments to the chef" can ring your bell and extend satisfaction to you, that's great. Just don't think after a few years in the kitchen of a well known executive chef you'll going to break out and be "somebody". You already are somebody. Recognize that first!

5. Hard work. I mentioned this in a previous paragraph. It is long hours, tedious work and exhausting to cook. You'll begin at the bottom, cutting, slicing, plating. Someone has to put those little swirls of whipped cram on the top of the wonderful cake, the chocolate curls on that mousse, and those oh so lovely stuffed endive. Sometimes after graduating culinary school you'll be ready to take on that grill line. You'll get that first dream job, show up in in your best whites, and chop mushrooms all day in the back without ever getting a glimpse of the grill. It happens all the time. Remember, you're building a career.

Another thing to keep in mind about hard work. While you are in school it is best to extern a bit on your own. Most people call it trailing. What is trailing? It's going to the restaurant of your choice - you like the way the do things - the food is great, the people seem to have good attitudes, and asking if you can trail. Follow someone around all day, working where you're asked to work, plating, chopping, whipping, folding just about anything to gain some experience - for free. Most restaurants will allow you to trail. Remember though, if you set up a time to trail, be there on time and willing to work until they tell you to go home, it builds a good amount of experience and gives you a chance to show a chef how you work. Then maybe, when you get out of school, you'll have a chance to do a paid externship that could evolve into a full time job.

6. If you still aren't sure this is for you, go read a few blogs by chefs in training: Pastry Life is one, then there's Burning My Fingers In Boston and a great journal A Day In the Life of a Culinary Student by Logan Worley. These should give you a glimpse into their journey to becoming a chef. It will show you some ups and downs and definitely a lot of hard work.

I am sure there are those of you out there that could add tremendous amounts to this post. Feel free to comment and fill in the blanks where I left off.