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I want to be a chef

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 
Hello all, this is one of my first posts here... I actually posted in the welcome forum but was redirected here. My situation is this... I am considering changing professions and I would like to begin a career in culinary arts. My problem is this... I don't know where to begin. I don't know if I should attempt to enter the culinary arts program at the local community college or if they will want experience before they accept me. I have some experience in the kitchen. I spent a year as an intern in a kitchen at the college I attended but that was really nothing more than making sure that the food was brought out and that everything was hot. It was not learning how to cook. I also cook at home for my new bride, I can follow a recipe and I can cook OK but I want to learn how to cook better. Any of your advice would be greatly appreciated, as I really respect your many years of experience. Thank you so much.
post #2 of 13
The very first questions you need to ask yourself are: #1. Can I really afford to make this change? #2. Do I really know and understand what it means to get into the restaurant business? Let's face it, if you want to become a chef, then you are going to have work your way up. That means a number of years working for $8-10 per hour (depending on where you live). Secondly, are you willing to work weekends, nights, holidays? Do you mind 50-60+ hour weeks? If you are willing to do all this, I would suggest trying to get a job in a decent restaurant as a prep cook and double check to see if this is really for you. After a year of that, if you still like the business then you can decide whether culinary school is the route you want to go, or if you want learn "on the job."
post #3 of 13
I agree with Pete. If you spend a couple of years in the industry, you'll develop a pretty good idea as to whether or not you want to invest for the future by going to culinary school ... and if you do go to culinary school, in some respects, this will be like a "finishing school" that will simply add to what you already know and/or fill in gaps in your existing knowledge.

As things stand now, culinary school by itself won't qualify you to really do anything more than take an entry level cook's job in a restaurant. The training will be useful but there's really no substitute for spending time "on the line."

Will you be able to handle the pressure of being in a kitchen when tickets are piling up in the window and you're "in the weeds?"

Do you have the customer service skills to expedite recooking an entree to the exacting specifications of a guest while orders continue to accumulate in your window and servers badger you to know when they'll be getting their orders?

As Pete pointed out, are you okay with working long hours on weekends and holidays?

There's an old saying in the food service industry. "We work while everyone else plays and we play while everyone else works."

Can you handle having Monday-Tuesday or Wednesday-Thursday as your "weekend?" Will you be okay with working Thanksgiving? Christmas? New Year's? Valentine's Day?

Will you be okay with going into work before the sun has risen and going off shift long after the sun has set?

There are many easier ways to make a living ...
post #4 of 13
Thread Starter 
Thank you so much for your advice, it is good to know that that is the way to start. My wife bought me, as a Christmas present, a course at the local adult education center called "Beginning Cooking" that starts in January. I think I am going to go through the class and see what my thoughts are, I will hopefully be able to learn a few things. As it stands right now, the thought of getting into the kitchens and working from the ground up really excites me. My wife is very supportive, she just wants me to be happy in what I do. I do want to point out that the two of you seemed to be a little bit discouraging in your posts. Is that because you are trying to show me the reality of the job or because you wish you had done something different? I understand that it will be a long and grueling process but right now, I think I am up for the challenge. It will be a bit scary completely changing careers though, that's for sure. Thank you again for all of your information. If you have any more advice, please let me know. Also, if there's anything I can do in the meantime before I actually get into the kitchens, stuff I can do at home, I would love to know what more I can learn.
post #5 of 13
These are all great explanations. You need to get the dishtank down so you can teach it,so you might as well get that training out of the way first. Then move on to the pantry,and I bet you will know by then if you want to give up a huge part of your life to cooking for people. I have had a great time doing it for the past 25 years. :chef: :beer: :chef: :cool:
post #6 of 13
I absolutely love what I do. I love this industry, but it is not for everyone. So many people see the glamorous side of this business, a la Food TV and think that they want to become a chef. Sorry but for every celebrity chef there are 1000's of us working "the trenches" where there is little or no glamour. I also hear many career changers who think that they can go to culinary school, graduate and make $30,000+ a year. I also know many, many people who went to culinary school, because they loved to cook for friends and their friends told them they should become a chef. Well, reality is restaurant cooking is very, very different from throwing dinner parties.

I don't like to think that I am discouraging these people who want to get into the restaurant world as a career, but I do want people to understand what this business is like. It is not all smiles and happy feelings that Food TV often portrays it as, nor is it the crazy world of ****'s Kitchen and Top Chef. But if you truly have a passion for food and you understand and accept the life you will lead as a chef, then go for it.
post #7 of 13
When I graduated with my bachelor's degree back in '82, I worked as an elementary teacher. During the 17 years I was a classroom teacher, I spent half of my career teaching at international American schools overseas. When I came back to the United States and got a job in a public school, I found that I couldn't adjust to the teach-to-the-test mentality that has largely pervaded core academic education since the inception of NCLB, the No Child Left Behind legislation.

I opted out and decided to pursue a 2nd career. I did what you're contemplating. I got a culinary arts degree, graduated with honors, and found that I really wasn't qualified to do anything other than to work as a line cook.

I knuckled under, got a job as a line cook, switched jobs to become a breakfast chef, and eventually became a working chef in a small fine dining restaurant. I loved my job but the hours were long. As the business grew, the staff should have been expanded but the owner was cheap and I eventually found myself working double shifts and pulling 84 hour weeks.

I suppose I could have gone to another restaurant. By this time I could have applied for a position as a sous chef. Having once been a teacher, I thought about going back into the classroom. When a friend suggested that I combine my interest in food with teaching, the answer seemed clear. I became a high school culinary arts teacher and soon discovered that I had found my niche.

As with Pete, I really like what I do. In addition to teaching three classes, I get to run a restaurant ... but since we're a non-profit, I don't have to worry about flipping tables or making a profit. With the exception of two paid staff members, I don't have to worry about hiring people as our restaurant is largely operated by students. The district business office takes care of insurance, utility payments, and wages for paid staff members. I take care of food and non-food costs and my financial goal is simply to break even on food costs as the sale of food products funds our culinary program.

I'm not making as much as I was as a working chef. As Pete pointed out, most chefs are not terribly well paid ... and it doesn't help that Arizona has one of the lowest teacher salaries in this country. On the brighter side, my district credited me with 11 out of 17 years of experience, so I didn't start out being paid the pittance earned by a first year teacher. I only put in 45-50 hours a week. I get weekends, holidays, and a three month summer vacation.

In terms of sounding negative ... I could give you a song and dance routine about how wonderful the food service industry is, but this wouldn't be honest.

The hours are long. The pay (especially when you're just starting out) can be meager. You generally work weekends and holidays.

This is the reality of the food service industry.

If you have a passion for food and you and your wife don't mind the long work hours or the days you have off, fine and well. If you enjoy working with food but also think that you'd like to have a life outside the restaurant, this might not be the best career choice for you to pursue.

In the end, you will have to be the person to decide what's best for you.
post #8 of 13
Thread Starter 
Once again, I just want to thank you for your vast wealth of knowledge. That is my reason for posting this because you have the experience I don't have. I want to than you all for NOT painting an unrealistic picture of what the industry might look like. My wife understands the life of a chef, she was with a chef for a year or so and hardly got to see him when she was with him. As stated previously, she is very supportive of me and my consideration of this career, however, she just wants me to think it through and make sure that this is something I want to pursue. Your knowledge is invaluable to me and yes, the thought of working as a prep cook or a line cook excites me greatly. I understand that this is something that would be a humongous change and for now, I am just going to consider it for now, as my life had JUST changed greatly with in the past month (I just got married). You seem to agree unanimously that the best education is a "real world" education and that I should pursue culinary school only after I have done my work "in the trenches" so to speak. Do you think that taking classes like I am going to be taking from the adult education center are good or are they just a waste of my time and money? Is this the kind of school you teach at DC? If so, I would really appreciate your opinion on this since it is a class that you would most likely teach. Thank you once again for all of your input.

post #9 of 13
I am the chef instructor of a high school culinary arts department with an attached commercial restaurant. When I took over the department last year, I had a total of 16 beginning and "advanced" students. My supposedly advanced students didn't know what a chef's knife was or how to use it. They had never made sauces or gravies from scratch. They didn't know how to make basic side dishes like mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, or rice. My predecessor was much too heavy on textbook instruction. Hands on activities used frozen foods and instant mixes.

My department now has 46 students. Come next year, I think we'll be at maximum enrollment capacity with 60 students.

Since last year, students have learned to prepare everything from scratch. In addition to a daily static menu of assorted burritos, flame grilled burgers, and pizza bread, we offer a daily plated meal as well as a daily changing specialty burgers.

Specialty burgers have included patty melts, double bacon cheese, and "meat lover's" burgers (a burger covered with 2 pieces of crispy bacon, American cheese, and chicken fried steak topped with more cheese.)

Daily specials have included a variety of international comfort foods such as: chicken chow mein, beef stroganoff, shrimp pasta alfredo, and enchiladas with Spanish rice and beans.

post #10 of 13
P.S. There's also no rule that says you have to be a restaurant chef. You could work for a catering company, develop initial experience, and then start your own catering company.

You could become a personal chef. If you developed a steady clientele, you'd have fairly steady work hours. By day you'd shop for groceries and prepare meals for families within their respective homes. By the time the kids were out of school and mom and dad were home from work, you could be home for the evening.

You could become a demo chef in a supermarket. As a demo chef, you'd prepare simple meals at a demo station using ingredients available at the store. As a side note, did you know that this is how Rachel Ray got her start? While working as a demo chef in an upscale supermarket, she appeared in a television news story. The producer liked her so much that she was offered a weekly 30 minute slot. When a producer for the Food Network saw this program, she was recruited to work for the Food Network and the rest, as they say, is history.
post #11 of 13
Dc, I'm glad you expounded on alternatives. There are many different sides of making a living by food. That don't include being in a restaurant kitchen.
some alternatives would include:

Personal Chef
Private chef
Caterer....onsite or offsite
food writer
food stylist
food photographer
adventure chef, a group goes biking/hiking/mountain climbing and you feed them
teacher, I've had a few work for me when they were available to suppliment their salarys
farmer's markets.....several have bakers, chocolatiers, cookie makers, pasta makers
private class teacher....you need chops to do this one
stage manager....culinary stages need staff to make sure the talent has all they need
food scientist....you gotta have a science background and put in alot of years of school
kitchen designer
culinary camp instructor
rental equipment salesperson
restaurant supply sales person
pastry maker
Registered Dietician

My compatriots have experience, but they've shown you a narrow vision of possibilities. I've done the majority of the gigs above, most in conjunction with several things. I did not go to culinary school, yet have consulted with universities and been on decom boards (professionals asked to venture thoughts on the future needs of culinary students, what equipment/skills they'll need) Talked/cooked at national conferences etc.....
If you can envision it you can do it. JMTPC
cooking with all your senses.....
cooking with all your senses.....
post #12 of 13
Like all the guys have told you, its no picnic,
I am asked why I got into this racket, it was by accident but I grew to love it..
You have to attend HKU (hard knocks university) for the basics.
I have been doing this 45 years and still see something new and learn everyday. One thing you will never starve, but it is demanding and rough on family life..Your weekend is Monday and Tuesday, thats providing everyone shows .up and they dont call you to come in and cover. Again it is rewarding to a point, but you have to decide what that point is. GOOD LUCK :crazy::crazy:
post #13 of 13

New cook? Hope you're tough.

Andy- the chefs on this forum have been very nice to you. The crew you meet in a decent restaurant kitchen will not be as kind. In my experience, cooks are very territorial. I have six years as a pro cook. I did not attend culinary school, but I've got stripes from HKU. I just moved to a new area. I went from sous chef to salad boy. I'm almost 26, my boss is 21. Trust me, it ain't easy. There are 19 yr old kids that will dress you down in front of the whole staff... for no reason at all. Don't worry about the chef, the dishwasher will curse you if you slip up. That being said- Don't ever let anyone tell you not to cook professionally if that's what you want to do. Emeril didn't graduate from culinary school. He either failed or got booted, I can't remember. Get a good knife or two, learn how to keep 'em sharp. Buy good shoes, it's money well spent. If you go into a kitchen with a sense of true URGENCY, everything else is trainable. They wil teach you to cook- they will not teach you to MOVE. Oh, and get your best friend to call you twice a day for two weeks and tell you horrific things about yourself, your family, your deceased relatives, that goat you thought nobody knew about, ect... And enjoy every minute of it. If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. Good luck.
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