How do chefs become chefs?
It takes a lot more than a fancy hat and a crisp white apron to earn the title!
In fact, the life of a chef is one of hard work, discovery, and innovation. It can take several years for a chef to reach the top of the field, but cooks and chefs get to enjoy the unique challenges of the kitchen and the rewards of a job well done along the way.
If you’re dreaming of a life on the line, here are the steps you must take to become a chef.
Step 1: Education
All future chefs have to start with the basics. They must know seasoning techniques, sanitation standards, culinary terminology, and how to perform certain cuts on both meat and produce. They should know how to manage inventory and do portion control and recipe costing. They need to understand bakery staples, the characteristics of some world cuisines, and how to design a menu.
How can an aspiring chef learn all of this? There are two primary ways. They can learn on the job, or they can learn in culinary school.
Learning on the Job
Trusting that you’ll learn the culinary basics on the job is a gamble. You have to hope that there’s someone in the kitchen who is willing and able to teach you, and that they won’t be teaching you bad habits or encouraging you to cut corners.
Learning on the job also takes longer. Here’s why: Your first culinary job will often be in prep. You’ll be responsible for chopping meat, veggies, and herbs, and maybe making some food elements that can be prepped ahead of time, like soups or sauces.
The instruction that you receive will be in service of your daily tasks. For example, a supervisor will teach you the best way to clean shrimp for that night’s special — but they won’t teach you how to shuck oysters if there are no oysters on the menu. A mentor in the kitchen will make sure you know how to to complete every step in your tasks…but they may not have the time to teach you other techniques.
In order to gather enough information about different cuisines and techniques, you may have to spend many years working in a wide variety of kitchens. And even then, there may be large gaps in your knowledge.
Plus, a busy kitchen is not a great learning environment. The kitchen is a workplace, not a classroom. Young cooks may be told what to do, but not necessarily why. A chef needs to understand the “why” behind the food!
“Neuroscience shows that a high-pressure environment isn’t conducive to acquiring skills. The part of the brain responsible for thinking shuts down in service of survival, making learning impossible.”
Tracy Teichman, Escoffier Corporate Partnerships Director
Learning in Culinary School
Contrast learning on the job with culinary school. In school, your Chef Instructors are there to teach you everything they can. Your responsibility is to read, practice, and ask questions. Curiosity is encouraged!
Future chefs can absorb so much more information in a learning environment than they can in the same amount of time on the job.
At Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, some programs also include courses in business, communications, and management — information that any manager (which is what a chef is) will need to know.
When they graduate, students will be ready for an entry-level job in a kitchen. But instead of starting out as complete novices, they’ll have a baseline of knowledge that they can start building on throughout the rest of their career.
“Some of the things that I really took out of culinary school were the basic fundamental skills that everyone needs in the kitchen, like the mother sauces and especially my knife skills. I’ve had sous chefs come up to me and compliment me on how I would cut onions. And also I learned how to present yourself professionally.”
Douglas Rhoades, Escoffier Boulder Graduate & Chef in Antarctica, McMurdo Station
Step 2: Experience
After completing culinary school, graduates are ready to join the workforce. But they’re not chefs yet — the title of chef comes from a combination of education and experience.
Everything in the kitchen builds. Take the five mother sauces, for example. When you know the basics of these foundational sauces, you know the starting point for dozens of sauces. Cooks are always building on what they learned the day, the week, the month before.
“Let’s say you miss the day where they’re teaching emulsions. And in the next block, the Chef asks you to make a hollandaise. If you weren’t there to see how it was done, you may have no idea what’s going on.”
Escoffier Chef Instructor John Hummel
Cooks must begin the process of working their way through the ranks, building on their culinary school foundations along the way. They’ll often start as prep cooks before being promoted in the kitchen. Then they may work as line cooks, which is where they’ll hone technique and improve speed and decision-making skills. After a few years, they may be promoted to a supervisor position or could become a sous chef. And one day, they may get the opportunity to be in charge of it all as the executive chef.
There are new things to learn at every step along the way. Since culinary college graduates already know many of the basics, they can start to absorb more advanced lessons on the job. They may therefore be able to earn the title of chef more quickly than colleagues who didn’t attend culinary school.
Step 3: Mentorship
What about career guidance, encouragement, someone to bounce ideas off of?
A mentor can be invaluable in helping you to navigate your path forward and find your place in the culinary world. Experienced mentors can provide inspiration and help chefs avoid missteps and bad habits. Many chefs have such great mentorship experiences that they, too, become mentors to upcoming cooks.
Escoffier students have access to Chef Instructors who often serve as mentors to students after graduation. They also can access the Escoffier Alumni Association where fellow graduates offer mentorship to each other and share stories and advice.
“One of our responsibilities as professionals is to pass on our knowledge. And knowledge you get from practice, education, and mentorship.”
Michael Pythoud, Culinary Director and Escoffier Employer Partner, Walt Disney World Resorts
Step 4: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Training as a chef is never complete. There’s always more to learn, whether it’s new technology, a classical technique you’ve never tried before, or new business skills.
That’s why these steps of education, experience, and mentorship will be repeated many times throughout your career. On the education front, a chef may choose to take a specialized course to expand their knowledge of charcuterie or advanced baking. Or they may read books on cooking and watch videos on YouTube to learn new skills.
Chefs can earn more experience and expand their horizons at food festivals and charity events. They could volunteer to cook with a colleague for a few days to help them out and learn some new techniques. And of course, they’ll continue to gain experience day in and day out at their jobs.
And for mentorship, there’s always someone out there who knows more than you or has more experience. Your mentors will change and grow along with you throughout your career.
A Life-Long Pursuit
Training as a chef is a delicious, life-long pursuit. While the paths to excellence can vary, they’re all a combination of education, experience, and mentorship.
Whether you choose to get your education on the job, or kick-start your career with education at culinary school, is simply a matter of how quickly you want to achieve your goals.
Start your culinary journey at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts! Our degree and diploma programs offer practical and business-focused curricula to prepare future culinarians for a delicious career in the world of food.
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