If becoming a chef seems like a path you would like to venture down then read on. I have been cooking professionally for over 18 years. All chefs have different journeys within their careers and no two are exactly alike. This is a testament to the art that is cooking, however dirty, mundane, arduous, and hot it can be.
Starting at the beginning I grew up with four brothers, a sister, mom, dad, and tons of extended family. My father’s side is a large Sicilian family who eats wonderful Mediterranean foods. We have some great family recipes and I was always intrigued by how simple flour could be plied into so many things from pasta to biscotti.
Being the eldest girl, my brothers often requested I cook them something for them to eat. Pitfalls were had, such as reading a recipe incorrectly and adding WAY too much salt to oatmeal cookies. That stunt ended with me hiding in a bathroom from the brothers who felt betrayed and tricked into eating said cookies. After years of making meals and making my friends and family happy I knew that I enjoyed cooking.
When an older brother took a cooks job at a ski resort so he could snowboard all day and cook all night, I was mesmerized by his stories of kitchen life. I decided in the first month of my senior year to decline my scholarships at UCLA and instead fast track my last year of school and head straight into a Le Cordon Bleu certified campus, much to the dismay of my father I might add. My initial tour of many campuses showed me that there were few if any women in the kitchen. Boys were no issue for me having been raised with so many brothers and I knew I had to get in and work this profession.
My externship for culinary school was at a fine dining restaurant of great prestige at the time, Top of the Cove, in La Jolla, CA. I stayed there for 3 years and continued to move upward and onward usually staying at a restaurant or business for 2 years or more. This helped me to make a lot of contacts, build relationships, and stretch my cooking knowledge in various concepts and genres. So now after 18 years and counting I have held the following positions: Chef di partie, Garde Manger, Lead Line Cook, Tournant, Kitchen Manager, Saucier, Sous Chef, Executive Sous Chef, Catering Manager, Executive Chef, Owner Chef, Corporate Chef, R&D Chef, Restaurant Consultant, and countless other writing, recipe, and cookbook stints. After all these jobs I now know what I like. I know what I am actually really good at and how I can play to those strengths to help me succeed at any job within the food service industry. And I love it. But it is not for everyone and we will discuss in detail why it maybe is not for you.
Common questions I get asked about becoming a chef are: “What are the qualifications to become a chef?” “How much can a chef earn a year?” “How much does it cost to become a chef?” “What type of education is needed to become a chef” “What skills are needed to cook professionally” “Should I go to cooking school?” “Am I too old to become a chef?”
So Let us start with the first question, what are the qualifications or requirements for becoming a chef? The answer is that there are no set requirements for becoming a chef. Rather there are qualifications to become a chef that will help you earn more money than a simple cook. The basics of any food service professional are to be food safety savvy and better yet you need to be food safety certified. You can get certified locally within a county for instance. You could get certified by a state. Or you can take a larger and more expensive test and be nationally certified. Any will do to start your career.
My best advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in cooking is to work. Just go get a job right away. It will be a humbling experience for sure. Let’s be clear that cooking is, even after all the shows and fancy photos, a blue color job. And as such the starting pay is paltry at best. Minimum wage at your first job is what you should expect. You have to prove to your employer that you have the skills and reliability to earn more over time. The skills will come if you are truly working. And you will know when the time to leave a place is coming. It could be after your year mark when other cooks have been promoted over you, or when you’ve been turned down for a raise when you need more. Then you will move on. There will always be available cook’s jobs as long as people need to eat.
There is a way to fast track your knowledge and a little skill, but it will cost you anywhere from $12,000 to $90,000 on average. This costly fast track is what is now called a “cooking school” or “culinary school”. Not all students who come out of any school have the same set of skills; try as the instructors might to impart their wisdom. A lot of success for any culinary student is personality. If you work hard, study much, have good attendance, and are teachable then you have a better chance of succeeding.
Most culinary schools are 2 years. Others are set up more like a university and require 4 years for a degree. This time may include an internship or externship, both of which are on the job training with little to no pay for a set time frame or hour accruement. Some schools offer trade degrees, others are bachelor’s degrees. There are also master’s degrees programs that will help you specialize in a certain type of food industry department. You could get a degree in food science and get a job as a food scientist or research and development chef making new and inventive salad dressings for Heinz. You could go to chocolatier school and learn to make the most perfectly tempered truffle in the known world. You could take a food styling class and start an amazing blog about cooking over open fire. You could go on to get a nutrition degree after cooking for a year and develop a food service plan for a school lunch program. There are so many aspects to the food industry the issue is picking which path to take. I believe strongly, that any knowledge is good, and you never know when it will come in handy down the road.
When choosing a school there are a few things to consider besides the cost and year requirements and that is location and prestige. Will a degree from this school make more difference in the jobs I get based on the name the school holds? If not, consider also the location of the school. If you must stay in the area you are in, consider a junior college with a culinary class. You can get basic food handling certification, learn how to properly hold a knife, as well as some basic kitchen terminology such a mise en place, cater wrap, 200 pan, and emulsify. If you can venture away from home, then consider where in the world you would like to go. If you want to work with a certain chef in a certain city then look at schools in that city. The reason is that the likelihood of working an event or getting hired locally is much higher than applying for a job from a great distance. Most culinary schools have relationships built with restaurants so they can place their students as workers when they are ready. And when a food establishment needs a cook, they usually need it right away and cannot wait for you to move across country and start work a month later.
May I offer another cheaper way to gain some skill and knowledge? Don’t worry they all require long hours and hard work. Find someone who has the job you want. Ask them incessant questions. Show them you are interested in learning their skills. Offer to work for free or do special events or projects. Soon they will be mentoring you without realizing it. I often tell individuals who say they want to cook for a living to get food safety trained and then go get a job. If after a month they still like it, then consider some school. Better yet though I say, “Who do you look up to in the food industry, or who’s food do you love to eat? Go ask them for a job”. It really is that simple. Put yourself out there and try to be at the right place at the right time.
It could be years before you are running a kitchen and making a decent salary. And speaking of salaries there is a lot of variation. There are many different kinds of jobs within the food industry. Most brick and mortar restaurants cannot pay as high of salaries as large corporate chains or hotels. As stated above starting wages for cooks are usually minimum wage and may only cap at $20 an hour. A sous chef at your favorite fine dining restaurant may only make $38,000 a year and work almost 70 hours a week. On the flip side a food and beverage director for a conglomerate of hotels may make $280,000 a year. The two jobs are vastly different. And there are different skills needed for each job. That F&B Director whose salary you may envy most likely worked as a cook, then bartender, general manager, then a sous chef, then catering manager, and finally the food and beverage director all over 20 years to get there. A lot of corporate chefs I know do a lot more paperwork, meetings, and public relations than they do actual cooking.
To get a little more personal with you I will give some examples of work and pay relationships I have experienced firsthand. In my younger days I had a line cook job that I worked 6 days a week from 3pm until 1am at $12 an hour. That was the norm at the time. I had just Sundays off and all mornings, expect I usually slept until 11am, then surfed for an hour and headed to work. As a single chick that lifestyle worked for me, until I knew it was time to move on and up, always asking for a bit more money in interviews from what I was currently making, and I always got it. It does not hurt to ask. I also owned a food truck, and as owner I had zero days off. I worked about 90 hours a week, while pregnant and then tending a newborn and it was hell. But if you looked at the books, we were in the black within 6 months of running, so at least the hard work paid off somewhere. My mental health at the time is another subject. But also something to consider for yourself and loved ones who have to deal with you while “becoming a chef”.
This goes back to what do you want from becoming a chef? If you like to help people consider a hospital or assisted living setting for your culinary expanse. Infirm people need to eat too and you’ll feel like a celebrity when they applaud your take on a healthy clam chowder. Maybe it’s not cool, but the pay will be better than a small restaurant and the hours steadier. Or perhaps your dream is to one day open a doughnut shop all your own. Then specialize. Go work at a doughnut shop that you like. Learn all the aspects of their business. Take notes of what you would do differently. And go to business school. If you are going to own something, then you should know your books, costs, food waste percentages, local labor laws, and health department requirements. If you want to be a show chef and be on TV, that is a whole other subject and I for one cannot help you there. Good luck with that. But if you want to work hard and absorb as much food knowledge as possible, then becoming a chef could be in the books for you. That is exciting. The world will always need good food. And if you have what it takes then you could well be on your way to becoming a chef. Best of luck!