Up The Food Chain: Becoming A Chef

Ready to turn your passion for the culinary arts into a career? Want to become a chef? Long hours, physical labor, and heavy competition don’t scare you? You may be a chef material!

Before you decide to enroll in a culinary school, get some real experience in the restaurant. Cooking for a living in a restaurant setting is a completely different experience than cooking at home. To become a chef, you are going to need up to five years of experience, so it’s wise to start as early as possible.

Let’s be clear: you don’t necessarily need a formal education to become a cook, and you don’t need a degree to become a chef. Still, having completed some kind of culinary art schooling is optimal in order to compete for top jobs in the field. To call yourself a chef, you must have professional culinary training, otherwise you are just working as a cook.

There are different education programs available from trade and vocational schools, colleges, and culinary institutes. It is important to choose a school that is highly regarded in the world of culinary arts, and has a campus that can facilitate your learning. You don’t want to find yourself deeply in student debt while working for minimal wage in a place that is never going to matter in your resume.

Typical courses a student enrolled in a culinary arts program may take include culinary techniques, butchery, nutrition, regional or specialty cuisine topics. Some of these programs offer internship or cooperative education opportunities, where a student immediately applies the knowledge from the classroom into a real-life work setting.

Alternatively, you may choose to become certified by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). American Culinary Federation offers apprenticeship programs that typically last for two to three years, and give aspiring chefs the opportunity to work full-time with experienced chefs. During your apprenticeship, you are going to have a variety of jobs, which should help you decide what you want to do as a specialty.

Although there are no state or federal mandates for chef certification, some chefs decide to earn multiple certifications in order to boost their job prospects. American Culinary Federation certifies chefs at fourteen levels! Each level comes with its own requirements for past experience and expertise. A Certified Master Chef is a distinction granted to chefs with many years of experience who pass an eight-day long exam.

Today, many chefs earn associate and bachelor degrees in the field of culinary arts, or in a program with similar training.

What about the tools of a trade? When you enroll in a culinary art program, you are going to need a toolbox with all the basic cooking equipment. You cannot just bring a knife from home! If you are not going to be provided with the tools by the school, you are going to be given a recommendation where to buy them. You are also expected to buy a uniform: an apron, a chef jacket and trousers, a hat, as well as have adequate shoes.

What skills does one need to become a chef? Having a keen interest in food in unfortunately not enough!

Let’s start with the obvious: a chef must possess a refined sense of taste and smell. He must be ready to work in a hot, humid, busy – and unforgivable – environment of a commercial kitchen. This job calls for adaptability, discipline, organization, as well as creativity and imagination. A chef needs to be able to multitask, and work long hours on his or her feet. He must not mind working flexible hours, often working early mornings and late evenings, weekends and holidays.

Possessing technical skills is – of course – a given, but a chef also needs business skills, management and leadership skills, as well as good time management and dexterity. Today, a chef may also be expected to work with culinary software, so possessing computer skills is a must.

Finally, let us remember that cooking is an art: a master chef is always learning and growing! He or she may, for example, decide to learn a language that is relevant to a culinary world, such as French or Italian, or travel abroad to learn the cuisines of other countries first-hand.

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