Attending culinary academy can be the first step in building a long and fulfilling career. Every job you take after school, from prep cook to sous chef, will teach you a great deal. Nonetheless, if you’re like many culinary students, you have your eyes on the ultimate prize: becoming an executive chef so you can craft your own dishes and run your own kitchen. Read on to learn more about what makes an executive chef successful:
Rising through the ranks
While networking and seizing your opportunities are essential to following a career path in professional cooking, there are no shortcuts. All new cooks, even those fortunate few who find their first jobs at the finest restaurants, have to learn the ropes of a professional kitchen.
As Chef E.J. Jimenez told USA Today, working as a line cook is when you find out if you have a career in restaurants ahead of you. “You really can get beat up on the saute line, and if you’re working that line and you can’t picture yourself doing anything else, that’s when it lies true,” he said.
Indeed, learning to take orders from others and execute them well is important experience for eventually becoming a leader in the kitchen. A strong executive chef can communicate well with the staff because he or she has done most or all of their jobs in the past. The chef understands the time and effort required for even the most basic tasks, like sharpening knives or peeling huge quantities of vegetables, and knows why it matters that they are all done correctly.
Setting a clear vision for your kitchen
Part of being a good chef is paying extremely close attention to details. Every dish must go out with the food properly cooked, seasoned and arranged on the plate. The executive chef, however, needs to take the big picture into account as well.
First and foremost, the executive chef sets the agenda for the kitchen, determining the professional atmosphere and culinary style. This means planning the menu, stocking ingredients and other inventory and ensuring there is sufficient staff. The executive chef works hours as long as anyone else in the kitchen, as he or she is present to oversee preparation and meal services. According to HCareers, this can often mean 12-14-hour days.
The executive chef may gather inspiration and ideas from any number of sources, such as exploring traditional regional cuisines, making seasonal adjustments to the menu, collaborating with cooks or just experimenting in the kitchen. In any case, he or she strives to take those elements and bring them together in a coherent set of dishes that the staff can execute many times over.
Developing management skills
The executive chef must always have one foot in the kitchen and the other in the front office. As Careerealism explained, the chef is part of the management team, and he needs to mediate between the kitchen, the front-of-house staff and the demands of owners or investors.
The sous chef can help a great deal with handing down orders so employees stay on task and keeping tabs on supplies. Still, the executive chef is responsible for giving direction to the entire team. Moreover, forming a tight bond with the sous chef and, where applicable, the pastry chef will make a tremendous difference for an executive chef’s leadership.
In kitchens that are especially large or run by prolific chef-entrepreneurs, the executive chef and the chef de cuisine may be two separate roles. In these cases there is more a split between the responsibilities for cooking and management. Nonetheless, a head chef will be expected to communicate and delegate tasks effectively, contributing to making the restaurant an overall success.