If you’re enrolled in a culinary arts program, you’ll probably be learning the many roles – and importance of – what makes a good sous chef.
It’s one of the most vital jobs you can hold in a professional kitchen, so understanding how to be a good sous chef will help you build a solid career in the culinary arts. If you hope to be an executive chef commanding a team in your own kitchen, this understanding is crucial.
What does “sous chef” mean?
The word “sous” is French for “under” – a sous chef is second-in-command to the executive chef or chef de cuisine. Large hotels, convention centres and high-volume restaurants will have many sous chefs working a line, whereas smaller restaurants would usually have one kitchen lead and one sous chef operating between that lead and the rest of the staff.
A good sous chef will straddle the line between a chef and a cook, according to author Michael Gibney, a celebrated chef who started at 16 in the kitchen and was a sous chef by the time he was 22. Gibney described it as one of the most intense jobs you would hold – because it’s essentially two jobs.
What makes a good sous chef?
The role requires a range of skills, and a specific mindset…here’s a rundown of the ingredients you’ll need to be a good sous chef.
It seems obvious, right? But an effective sous chef needs an exceptional level of cooking prowess. He or she must be prepared to jump into any part of the line, for any reason: When the line is missing a cook, to speed up the line when meal service peaks. A good sous chef will have the skills to execute a wide range of dishes – from salads to complex entrees, using a variety of culinary techniques in rapid succession.
- A good sous chef is extremely organized, because their tasks will vary. They’ll include:
- Assisting the executive chef with meal planning.
- Keeping tabs on kitchen supplies and ingredients when it comes time to prepare the meals.
- Making sure the kitchen is up to sanitation standards in time for daily service.
- Scheduling the other kitchen staff and making sure they arrive on time, and filling in personally if someone calls in sick or is late.
The sous chef must be quick-thinking, adaptable and calm under pressure. They’re often responsible for making changes on the fly when certain supplies – or staff – don’t arrive in time for service. They are the link between the lead chef and the entire team. It’s a vital role in any kitchen environment.
Leadership and communication skills.
These two skills go hand-in-hand. While the executive chef is technically in charge of the kitchen, it’s the sous chef who performs much of the hands-on management. A good sous chef is able to train and supervise the kitchen staff and then help them carry out the executive chef’s intentions for cooking and plating the meal.
The sous chef must project confidence and an air of authority required to manage staff in an often busy, loud and stressful environment. Keeping the entire team working as a team towards a common goal is a big undertaking. It requires clear communication and an ability to motivate and guide everyone, all while performing their own tasks as a cook on the line.
A successful sous chef can juggle all of these demands, even when the team is feeling overworked and stressed.
This is the foundation of a successful working relationship between the executive chef and the sous chef. For any kitchen to succeed, the lead chef must trust that his or her “right hand” is competent, trustworthy and loyal. What makes as good sous chef is the ability to earn and maintain this trust, and there are many ways to do this when starting out in a new kitchen. Arriving early, staying late, completing tasks ahead of schedule…these actions will set you apart.
You’ll be expected to work up to 12 hours a day, and the job will likely be thankless. Your reward will be the satisfaction that comes from earning the trust and support of your lead chef, the respect of your coworkers and being part of a successful restaurant.
Your culinary education can take you in many different directions, and will require you to continue learning on the job. Learning how to become a good sous chef takes dedication and perseverance, but is a very rewarding career if you have the personality and drive to pursue it.
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This article was originally published on December 3, 2015, and has since been updated.