From Student to Chef in a Restaurant

An old adage claims that men make the best chefs. This is problematic since cooking is an art and men and women alike may or may not have a certain affinity for this art. On the other hand, cooking may be considered a trade as well and almost anyone can learn to be a good cook. The preceding idea may actually stem from the realization that kitchen work can be difficult with long hours, heavy lifting, and other physical demands that may be easier for a man than for the average woman. But kitchen helpers are there for that reason: to help.

Often the point that separates average chefs from the famous chefs is that the latter possess a certain creative mind that constantly visualizes new dishes or new ways to prepare an older dish.

In reality, however, many fail to appreciate these innovative presentations, preferring the good old cooking they expect and like. In any case, while a very few learn to cook from their talented mothers, the majority of children don’t really pay attention and by the time they’re in high school they know very little about the art of cooking. Why bother, many will ask. After all the markets are overflowing with prepared dishes that need only a few minutes in the microwave to prepare.

Later, many do begin to develop an interest in cooking. That may stem from a summer working in a restaurant and enjoying the atmosphere, or simply from getting into the habit of watching cooking shows on television.

In any case, many decide at one point or another to go to a culinary school and prepare themselves for the top restaurant jobs or even better, one day they may be able to own and operate their own restaurant(s).

Most culinary schools require applicants to have a high school diploma or at least a GED. In some cases, scholarships may be available and it would be wise for an applicant to look into the possibility of obtaining aid.

If you’re seriously considering a career as chef in a restaurant or hotel you might first want to find an entry-level job in a restaurant. Any position can be helpful to start. Busboy, dishwasher, pot washer, kitchen helper; anything to get a foot in the door and begin to get a feel for what goes on in a commercial kitchen.

Sometimes there may be conflicts with supervisors, but it’s important to remember that the supervisor is not going to accompany you to the next job, so that should be discounted.

If a given period of experience there encourages you to want to learn more, then you may be a good candidate for culinary school. But there is a great deal more to becoming a chef than just knowing how to cook.

1. Kitchens can become unbearably hot, especially during peak hours.

2. Those hours can really stretch, particularly for the chef who normally has to supervise the entire kitchen staff, and it can be large. Ten or twelve hours a day are not uncommon.

3. Being the chef with the responsibilities that accompany this position can be extremely stressful and many chefs have developed a reputation for being ill-tempered and abrupt. This reputation is not entirely unfounded, but a good chef should understand that those around him do not always understand exactly what is required of them, and patience can be very rewarding.

4. Some people are naturally lethargic. They talk slowly, they think perhaps thoroughly, but slowly, and they move slowly. That in itself is not bad, but for those working in a kitchen, it can prove disastrous. Not only the chef, but every person in the kitchen has to learn to move and do it quickly. If you pay attention, you’ll see cooks in other establishments and you should notice the way they work. Slicing meat or vegetables can be done with lightning speed without danger of losing a finger, but this has to be learned.

5. A chef is not just the head cook. The chef is the kitchen manager. The chef will inventory supplies and order as needed from vendors who periodically come by. The chef is the supervisor for all who work in the kitchen and assign their duties and, aside from cooking, must keep an eye on everyone and everything else that is going on in the kitchen at all times.

6. Although the chef personally can’t do everything in a kitchen, he or she must have learned the art of baking, of pastry-making, preparation of salads, vegetables, and pasta among other items. He or she must understand food preservation, sanitary procedures and a good chef will eventually throw away timers, having developed a “feel” for cooking times.

7. In culinary school, the student will pass through all these steps, gaining real hands-on practice. A chef may never make a pie i te restaurant, but when an employee attempts this, the chef must know whether it’s being properly done, and in the same way, every step in an entire kitchen should be familiar to a chef and, when necessary, he/she should be perfectly capable of stepping in and doing it.

8. A good chef trains staff. When new people come to work, even though experienced, the chef needs to train the new employee in the way this particular restaurant works and does things. Again, this takes patience and understanding.

9. In a culinary school, the student will be introduced to a new world. There’s an art to filleting fish, slicing beef, cutting up a chicken without destroying its form and arranging food on a plate in an attractive manner. In prisons and the army they may throw food onto a tray and more food on top, but in a restaurant, one must learn to make every dish a presentation, a feast for the eye which will enhance its flavor in the mouth.

10. Perhaps the most difficult demand made on a chef is food cost. Since the chef is responsible for ordering all the food that comes into the kitchen, he/she is also responsible for negotiating prices as much as possible. Then comes the responsibility of watching every kitchen person to make certain that nothing is wasted. The chef will decide on the sizes of portions and make employees follow the rules. A chef must gauge the expected traffic. Having far too much of a given dish prepared on a slow day can mean having to throw out a good portion, meaning throwing out money.

If you feel truly drawn to the culinary arts, then culinary school may be for you. But once entered into this world of aprons and “toques” as the French call those tall white chefs’ hats, you’ll find it’s a great deal more challenging and complicated and also rewarding than you may have dreamed. Once you have cooking in your blood, it will never leave you. Order up!

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