Remember when you were a kid and someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Sometimes the answers varied based on what cartoons you watched at the time, or perhaps you were influenced by a parent’s or sibling’s career.
In a survey of 500 kids by Fatherly, the second most common response from kids age 10+ was Chef/Baker (first was Athlete, Chef/Baker followed by Veterinarian). It’s no surprise that growing up to be a chef might be a kid’s dream job in this generation, since mainstream media has been promoting celebrity chefs and glamorizing the culinary world. And, after all, who doesn’t like food?
What Are Your Options?
While professions like veterinarians, lawyers, and doctors require years of education and training, the educational path to becoming a chef can manifest itself in different opportunities.
Ryan Gromfin, Johnson and Wales University alum and founder of The Restaurant Boss, explained in an interview that if you want to be a chef, it’s likely you fall into one of two categories: the type of chef that might want to go the corporate route and become a Food and Beverage Director, or the type of chef that lives and breathes food; one with tattoos of how to butcher a pig on one arm and feels a sense of thrill and excitement when it’s 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and the town’s most revered food critic just got seated at Table 7.
If you are the former type, it’s likely you will want to attend a four-year program at a culinary school, as you’ll learn the fundamentals of cooking. If you want to know why a roux is made the way it is, or the science behind the Maillard Reaction, culinary school is a great place to pick up the theory and practice your skills.
Now, if you’re the latter type, you’ll still learn how to make a roux, and know how to achieve the Maillard Reaction in your cooking, but it’s more likely you’ll start at the very bottom as a prep cook or dishwasher.
How Do You Start Your Career As A Chef?
Ryan explains that prior to his Johnson and Wales culinary education, he first started as an assistant for banquets at a hotel when he was still in high school. He worked hard to learn as much as he could throughout the summer, and continued his passion for cooking by signing up for Johnson and Wales. His advice for deciding which path to take to become a chef? Take the worst job at the best hotel in your area for six months, then think about what you want to do with your career.
There is a subtle wisdom to his advice: in a hotel, not only do you get exposed to a kitchen, where you'll see the fire and sweat and blood and swearing and culinary technique that goes into cooking delicious food for customers, but you'll also be exposed to more corporate aspects of the food industry.
Ryan continues to explain that spending six months in a hotel kitchen not only gives you an opportunity to cook a variety of foods, but allows a budding chef to juggle multiple tickets in a range of cuisines at all times of the day.
“You can be preparing a foie-gras dish for a party of 100 at 9 p.m., and a ticket for omelettes will come in, and you’ll make it because you want to give your customers what they want,” said Ryan.
In addition to the kitchen chaos and on-the-fly order management, there are a lot of decisions that are made by management behind the scenes or by remote executive teams. Decisions made by people who likely had to make this choice at some point in their careers: to be a part of a kitchen for the love of cooking and the joy of the kitchen, or to be a part of the industry because of a love of food and dining and business. A hotel kitchen will expose you to people who’ve walked both paths and made their choice.
Why Start Low On The Totem Pole?
If you see yourself wanting to be a Food and Beverage Director, go to culinary school, take advantage of the library, your professors, and use the resources around you to propel your education forward. If you want to work at an independent restaurant and perhaps hold a title of Chef de Cuisine or Corporate Chef, you’ll find a less debt-inducing path by working your way up the kitchen ladder.
While being a prep cook or a dishwasher may seem like a less alluring road than going straight into culinary school, there’s a lot to be learned from watching and listening from the sidelines.
When asked how he first started up his culinary career, Hunter Tandemillion, a chef at Tupelo in Cambridge, MA recounted taking up a dishwashing position at a local fine-dining restaurant when he was 18.
“I just thought the chefs were the coolest dudes ever,” he said with a laugh. What started out as curiosity and admiration for these chefs later turned into a drive and desire to learn and train when his team promoted him from dishwasher to garmo, and finally grill.
“Maybe if I went to culinary school first I would have already known the basics to cooking, but what you learn from being in a real kitchen is so different than being in a classroom,” Hunter shared. “The chefs I worked with didn’t think the price tag to culinary school was worth it, and four out of five of them went to culinary school!”
When asked about the pressure of being in a kitchen, Ryan agreed that it’s something culinary school doesn’t prepare you for: “Too many people go into culinary school thinking they’ll come out as a chef, but that’s just not the case. You have to learn your skill and commit to mastery.”
How Do You Decide What’s Next?
It comes as no surprise that Hunter and Ryan both agree that the real, tangible experience of cooking for customers and fighting through the (literal and figurative) heat of the kitchen strengthens your ability to handle the pressure, as opposed to the softer and more compassionate educational path to culinary success. Despite this, there are pros to attending culinary school, such as the connections and networks you are offered, and the variety of cooking styles you are exposed to.
While there is no right or wrong answer for how you should start your career, you should consider these questions:
- Where do you see your culinary career going?
- Are you willing to put in the long, hard hours? Being a chef isn’t all about the celebrity status, and often times you’re the first one in and you’re there until the last dish goes out.
- Are you going to work hard at your trade and continue to push the boundaries of what you can learn?
- Are you willing to pay an upfront cost for tuition (sometimes upwards of $100,000) when a position like sous chef earns a median salary of just over $40,000?
So, Will You Handle The Heat?
At the end of the day, being a skilled and great chef comes down to how hard you’re willing to work, and how many hours you’re willing to put in to perfect your craft.
Whether you’ve started as a dishwasher and worked your way up, or gone to culinary school to get a leg up in the kitchen, you’re going to have to anticipate working long days, getting less pay than most front of house staff, and continuing to push the boundaries of what you know in the kitchen in order to succeed.
Being a chef is no easy feat, but if you can withstand the pressure, the rewards are fulfilling to say the least, and the fruits of your labor are tangibly seen - er, tasted.
If you’re a chef that didn’t go to culinary school, do you think you would ever want to? Are you a chef that has gone to culinary school? If so, was it worth it? Did you go to culinary school and end up in a different career? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!