Want to be the next Rachael Ray or Emeril Lagasse? It takes a lot of work to get that cool white hat. Chefs work long and sometimes unconventional hours, oftentimes between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m.--and almost always on weekends and holidays. Their social lives are significantly altered as a result. Pay is relatively low, though executive chefs and culinary wizards at large city restaurants earn tasty salaries. Becoming a chef takes about 10 years of study, beginning with culinary school. Aspiring chefs usually work as unpaid apprentices while they're still in school to decide on a specialty of their own. Some people labor for years as prep chefs or sous chefs, looking for any opportunity to demonstrate their prowess to the head chef.
The years working toward chefdom aren't spent poring through cookbooks, either. The physical strain is enormous, as chefs must stay on their feet constantly. Cooking involves kneading, chopping and stirring, as well as lift heavy pots. Besides the stress associated with preparing food for hungry, critical customers, chefs also order food, create menus and manage large kitchen staffs.
In addition to the head (or executive) chef, the kitchen of a large restaurant is crowded with other chefs and cooks, including the sous chef, pastry chef and short-order cooks. A garde manger focuses on preparing cold foods. The sous chef, who is just underneath the executive chef, manages the logistics and staff of the kitchen. Some individuals, known as a chef de partie, or station chef, specialize in preparing certain types of foods or techiques--such as pastry or sauces. All positions in a kitchen are building blocks towards a career as a head chef.
An aspiring chef must spend either two or four years at an accredited cooking school, followed by at least five years of working under head chefs at different restaurants as an apprentice. Most chefs start out as support staff in the kitchen, with a special task to perform, such as preparing vegetables. Young chefs aim to be sous chefs under the top brass at the best restaurants, particularly in large cities. They often work at several restaurants, acquiring experience under different mentors before they decide on a specialty.
People who are able to withstand the high stress and pressure of the job will probably find themselves at the helm of a kitchen as head chef within 10 years. A head chef will direct a kitchen staff, in addition to preparing meals, or strike out to start his or her own restaurant.
The outlook for would-be chefs is good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that job openings for cooks, chefs and other food preparation employees will be ample through 2016. But, as always, competition will be steep for the top jobs in the kitchens of fancier, trendier restaurants.
Chefs view themselves as "bringing quality to life," and treat the profession as seriously as any corporate job. Professional cooks love the creativity of their careers. One insider explains, "I like spending my time at the kitchen and experimenting with new recipes."
Being surrounded by the "beauty and the sensuality" of the food is "what every chef lives for" and why most of them would not dream of another profession. "For most of us, we have no other choice in life," explains one chef. "It is grueling and heartbreaking," but the rise up the ladder can be exhilarating, says another.
Aspiring chefs train under mentors they have "patterned their whole careers after." The training process is "so grueling, you think you can do anything when you come out--even major surgery." The dinner rush, between 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., turns the kitchen into an "intensive care unit"--high stress, high precision. If everything is working--and even sometimes when it's not--this is the time all cooks feel a head rush. One chef describes the routine as "exploration" because "you can truly forge your own route."
One source says that chefs are currently in great demand. The insider says that, as a result, there are lots of opportunities "all over the world" and in a variety of settings. The chef adds, "I can work on a cruise liner or in a five-star hotel."
Prestige; Constantly surrounded by food; Camaraderie
Long hours; High stress level; Potential for career burnout
Organized; Opportunistic; Creative
Average about 50 per week
Median salary for head cooks and chefs: $34,370; Median salary for restaurant cooks: $20,340
Certification from two- or four-year cooking school (preferably one certified by the American Culinary Federation); On-the-job training in kitchens