The role of sous chef is one of the most important in the professional kitchen. For students enrolled in an online culinary arts program, understanding how a sous chef contributes to kitchen management and the cooking process can be a major factor in building a successful career. This is especially vital if you hope to someday be an executive chef commanding your own kitchen, as you will almost certainly need to gain prior experience as a sous chef first.
The word “sous” means “under” in French, and the sous chef is second-in-command to the executive chef or chef de cuisine. In large restaurants there may be a more expansive hierarchy with multiple sous chefs. However, in most cases the sous chef is one person operating immediately between the kitchen’s leader and the rest of the staff.
Michael Gibney, the author of “Sous Chef,” discussed the unique nature of the job in an interview with “Here and Now” on National Public Radio.
“That’s a position where you find yourself doing probably the most work you’ll ever do in your career, because you have to sort of behave a little bit like a cook and also behave a little bit like a chef,” Gibney said. “You’re somewhere in between the two. So you have to do the jobs of both.”
The role requires a variety of skills and a specific mindset. Read on to learn more about the qualities that make a good sous chef:
It may seem obvious, but a successful sous chef needs an exceptional level of cooking prowess. He or she must be ready to jump on any part of the line to cover for a missing cook or speed up the process during a busy meal service. This often means executing a wide range of dishes, from simple salads to complex entrees, and employing a variety of culinary techniques in quick succession.
Organization and quick thinking
It frequently falls to the sous chef to help the executive chef plan the menu while also keeping tabs on the kitchen supplies and ingredients necessary to deliver the intended dishes. He or she must make sure the kitchen is up to sanitation standards and prepared for meal service each day. The sous chef is also frequently in charge of scheduling the other kitchen employees’ shifts and making sure they show up on time. If someone calls in sick, the sous chef must arrange for a fill-in or personally take on additional tasks.
All these responsibilities call for strong organizational skills and the ability to think on one’s feet. The sous chef therefore needs constant awareness of all aspects of the kitchen. He or she makes adjustments at a moment’s notice when necessary to avoid problems with menu planning, inventory or staffing, any of which are potentially disastrous for a restaurant.
Leadership and communication
While the executive chef is technically in charge of the kitchen, the sous chef performs much of the hands-on management. He or she must train employees and supervise them, helping to carry out to the executive chef’s intentions for the cooking and plating of food.
This means the sous chef must project the confidence and air of authority to take control of a team of workers in an often busy and stressful environment. Kitchens are noisy hubs of intense activity, and it’s the sous chef’s job to make sure everyone is working toward the business’s shared goals. To keep the line cooks on task and working cooperatively, a sous chef needs to make him or herself clearly heard and understood, even when other employees are feeling overworked and stressed.
Above all, the executive chef must trust that his or her right hand is competent, trustworthy and loyal. The sous chef has many opportunities to display those qualities over the course of each day. Fulfilling his or her myriad tasks can mean both being present in the kitchen well ahead of time to prepare for service and working exceptionally late. According to Hospitality Careers, sous chefs are often expected to work up to 12 hours per day. The position calls for unwavering commitment to the success of the restaurant, even if the responsibilities involved are often difficult and thankless.