Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What's Cookin'? A Career as a Chef

Do you love to cook? Do you receive lots of compliments on the food you make? Do you want to learn more about the art of cooking? Maybe you should think about becoming a professional chef.

                                     This is a restaurant in Berlin, Germany

Several years' experience at cooking, obviously, will be needed to become a chef; but education at a college or vocational school of 2 to 4 years is commonly required. These degrees or certificates likely have courses including:

  • Chemistry: How do foods interact in a recipe, and what to avoid
  • Biology: This would cover nutrition, how the body uses food, healthy and unhealthy foods to eat,  and things like food allergies
  • Cultural Studies: Why is food prepared differently in other countries? What foods do they never serve? Why do some countries use very little meat, and others use a lot of meat? What are religious observances regarding cooking, such as Kosher in the Jewish culture? What about regions of the United States and their commonly eaten foods?
  • Math: How much food to serve how many people, and what will that cost?
  • Accounting
  • Business Management
  • Economics: Importing and exporting foods, supply and demand
  • Politics/Public Relations: How would you handle, for example, a wedding reception where the guests are mostly from India?
  • The Food & Drug Administration and Public Health Departments set rules as to which foods are approved for consumption. They also have strict rules of safety and cleanliness anywhere food is prepared or stored. You need to know these rules and enforce them.
  • Human Relations: A chef typically is in charge of staff and will need to manage them effectively, and of course, must be able to relate to the people he cooks for, the customers
  • Art: Learn how to present the food in an appetizing way.

                                Cream puff swans, lemon-raspberry sauce. Nice presentation!

From a practical/hands-on standpoint, you'll need to learn
  • How to use knives to cut properly: Everything from raw vegetables to meats to breads
  • How to operate machinery both safely and with good hygiene
  • First Aid (employees may be burned, cut with knives, hurt using a machine, or have a reaction to something used in cooking or cleaning)
  • General food safety
  • Public Health mandates--being sure your kitchen up to code
  • Planning your supplies
  • Organizing the kitchen
  • Using the right tools and machines for specific food prep
  • Managing people you are supervising, including scheduling of staff
  • Menu development: What to offer that is in demand, will still make a profit, and is not too time-intensive to prepare

                                  The proper way to cut an onion
Any kind of experience preparing and serving food can be helpful. Working at a fast-food restaurant or in another setting will show you the process of ordering, cooking, finishing, presenting, and serving the food. You will also be familiar with proper food handling practices, working with others, and appreciating the hard work it takes. Even working in a school cafeteria can show you the process  of serving large numbers of people, public health policies at work, and the clean-up afterwards.
If your family owns a restaurant, you are fortunate: you can have hands-on training early on and have a big advantage over someone who is going to 'start from scratch.' You may continue to become head of the family business eventually, if that's what you want to do.

     A  spotless commercial kitchen. How great to work with all this high-quality equipment!!

You may even find training as a chef while serving in the Armed Forces. This could be great training to learn how to cook large quantities of good-quality foods.

You might be able to serve an apprenticeship under an established chef for valuable hands-on training.

Here is an innovative way for new chefs to gain experience: "Pop Up" restaurants. They rent a small and inexpensive place for one night, have their customers come and eat at long tables set end to end which encourages conversation, and then move on to another location (also called a "venue"): This one is called Dinner Lab:


You may want to specialize and be strictly a pastry chef, vegetarian chef, dessert chef, salad chef.

Where would you work as a chef?

Your first reaction would probably be to work at a restaurant, and this is probably the most common place to find work as a chef. You might, however, be employed in:

  • A private household, where you make food for the family every day and for special occasions.
  • A hotel: they employ chefs to prepare and manage their food for their own restaurants and room service delivery
  • You may become a caterer, bringing your food to the customer such as at a wedding reception, awards dinner, party or dance, holiday or business event
  •  Occasionally, an institution such as a private school or residence for seniors will employ a chef
  • A cruise ship, being responsible for food for possibly thousands of people all day, every day
-Did you know that a cruise ship with 2600 passengers uses 14,000 pounds of beef, 4,000 pounds of fish, and 12,000 eggs in one day?

Chefs typically wear a white jacket, typically made of cotton or non-flammable fabric, white to show how clean the chef and the kitchen are. It is usually double-breasted; that is, it has two sets of buttons and wraps around the front of the chest. A scarf is sometimes worn around the neck. Both the jacket and scarf are meant to protect against food splatters and spray from boiling water or oil.

The chef's hat, called a 'toque blanche' meaning white hat, is also meant to keep the chef's hair out of his/her face and out of the food. Traditionally, the higher the hat, the higher the rank of the chef. The toque is sometimes pleated with 100 pleats or folds. This is traditionally thought to be for the 100 ways one can cook an egg.

The order of seniority usually goes by these names:

#1 Chef de Cuisine, sometimes called a Sous Chef (chef of cooking or chef of everything)
#2 Chef de Partie
#3 Demi Chef de Partie
#4 First Cook
#5 2nd, 3rd, and Prep Cook or Line Cook

Imagine working at the White House, being in charge of food for the President, state dinners, award-winning servicepeople, and world leaders: An interview with Executive Chef at the White House as she and her assistants prepare a 5 course meal for the Queen of England:

...and other facts about the history of cooking at the White House:

                        Pastry chefs 'composing' trays of treats for a White House event
What kind of person makes a good chef?

Keep in mind that often, a chef does not begin his or her workday until later in the day and will be making food until after midnight. After that, there is cleanup and prep for the next day to be done. It is true that if you are the chef or head cook, you may not have these responsibilities personally, but it will fall on your head if the cleanup is not adequate.

You should be healthy and have a lot of endurance. You will be on your feet your whole shift and probably longer, every day. Some equipment you need to work with will be physically demanding and might be dangers, such as a meat slicer, large mixers, or deep fryers.

Obviously, you should be aware of foods people will enjoy eating and like to work with people, both staff and customers. You need patience and diplomacy for both.

Income expectations for an experienced chef were about $43,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plenty of chefs and head cooks make less, and a small number make more.

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