If I wasn’t told to choose a career now, I wouldn’t have. Although I’ve had the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” constantly in the back of my mind for the past 4 years, I never really came up with a definite answer. Last September I started the culinary arts program at the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center and since then I’ve realized that I really enjoy cooking so I started to consider being a chef as a career. In order to become an executive or head chef you must have a relevant education, training, and be willing to work hard. With all these attributes getting a position as a chef in a nice restraint is not difficult, and is very rewarding.
After doing much research and talking to a few chefs I found out that higher education is not required to become a head chef, but it wouldn’t hurt either. Many people considering becoming a chef as a career decided to go to a culinary college. One of the most well-known culinary institutes is the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. A full academic year at the CIA in 2011-2012 cost $39,440 (CCIA). There is no GPA requirement in order to apply to the CIA but you must have your high school diploma. According to the CIA’s web site before you can start classes it is required that “you gain relevant experience in one of two ways before enrolling: by working in a non-fast food establishment with a professional kitchen for six months or by completing culinary classes at either the high school or college level” (AR).
Although education is important, proper training is even more essential. Some training a chef is expected to have are knife skills, food preparation and sanitation. Training of a chef usually consists of an internship, apprenticeship, or externship, during which time the aspiring chef will work in all areas of the kitchen, mastering all aspects of food preparation. Many culinary colleges have an internship program in place to experience the culinary industry while gaining skills and on the job experience. On top of education and training if you expect to go far as a chef there are certain skills you should have such as; high stamina, organization, flexibility, teamwork, customer focus, and the desire to learn (SPCTP). Chefs work really long days under high pressure and should be able to maintain a clear mind and continue to be productive.
A really big part of being a chef has to do with the customers; after all, without them you wouldn’t have a job. “A good chef knows that customers want fresh, delicious food that’s presented attractively, and does his or her best to make sure that happens for every customer that enters the restaurant” (SPCTP). I did my job shadow with the head chef, Julie, at St. Andrews Place in Port Angeles, WA. When I asked her what the most important skill needed to be good at her job was she said, besides from knowing how to cook, time management. Having been in the culinary arts program and experiencing the pressure of getting done to get what needs to be done, I agree. Time management is a very important skill to have in the culinary industry.
Most high schools have a culinary program that you could attend in order to obtain these skills, or you could simply learn through on the job training. A typical day for a head chef is different than that of an executive chef. An executive chef works in more of an office style; leading other chefs, doing more meal planning, and a lot of paperwork. Executive chefs are hardly on the line cooking except occasionally during dinner rush. Head chefs may be involved with the meal planning and some paper work but mostly work in the kitchen the majority of the time. Being a chef means working mornings, nights, weekends, and holidays. “Depending on the size of the restaurant or establishment, a head chef may arrive as early as 9 a.m. to begin planning the day’s menus and not leave until the dinner rush is over, sometimes at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.
Most chefs work at least 12-hour days and many times six days a week” (Buchan). Not only is the workday long, but the work itself is hard as well; almost the whole day is spent walking or standing. In order to be a chef you have to love what you do. “Passion. This is what is going to make all the sacrifice, low pay, and long hours worth it. You have to have a defined, passionate goal; something you want to work towards. And you need to have passion about food and someday being a professional chef. Without true passion, you will never succeed in a restaurant kitchen”. (WIAPK) Being a chef can be a very stressful job and take quite a mental toll as well as physical. Although the work is difficult, the rewards are well worth it.
The level of pay for head chefs varies depending on where you work and who you work for. Those who get paid most often work in upscale restaurants and hotels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the median annual wage of chefs and head cooks was $40,630 in May 2010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,260, and the top 10 percent earned more than $70,960” (CHCP). “Seventy percent of chefs working for employers reported receiving health care benefits: 69 percent received medical care, 51 percent received dental care and 36 percent received vision care” (SBC). This does not apply to self-employed chefs. Although the pay is decent, if you are going to pursue a career as a chef you shouldn’t do it simply for the money. Being a chef has personally gratifying rewards as well as financial, such as the satisfaction you feel when people love the food you’ve created.
The culinary industry is only expected to grow 14% in all occupations between now and 2020 (CHCJO). Although the projected growth isn’t a lot, the culinary industry is always in need of new employees. I feel like this would be a good fit for me because I have many of the skills needed to be successful in the industry already. I have been learning these skills though the Culinary Arts program I have been taking at the North Olympic Skills Center. I have been exposed to customer service, knife skills, food preparation, sanitation, HACCP logs, dish-pit, and have been told by my instructor that I have great time management skills.
As you can see, with a proper education, training, and hard work, a career as a chef can be an extremely rewarding experience. The preparation of food is not only a job that satisfies peoples hunger, it is also an art, and the chefs are the artists.