How to Become a Chef
Your mother loves your eggplant parmesan. She loves it so much, in fact, that after each time she’s scraped her plate clean of second servings, she proudly proclaims, “You could serve this in a restaurant.” (And by the 100th time you've heard the compliment, you've started to believe it.) But before you apply to culinary school or cruise the want ads for restaurant jobs, read this advice—from pros who’ve earned their tall, white hats—to learn how to become chef who earns compliments from more than just family.
1. Choose the right school for you. There are two ways to “graduate” to a chef role: attend culinary school, or learn from the school of life—i.e., working in a kitchen, in any role, until you can move up the ranks. If you choose the latter, “you pretty much have to start at the bottom and work your way up to fully embrace and appreciate the process of being a chef and running a restaurant,” warns Anna Bran-Leis, executive chef of Taqueria del Barrio. “But it builds character and helps you appreciate the people doing the more painstaking jobs, like dishwashing. Every part of a kitchen has its own important role.”
If you choose to attend culinary school, you will gain “a baseline skill set that will benefit you immediately,” says Bran-Leis, and your new diploma could score you a better kitchen job from the beginning. “Continuing education while working is another good way to build your resume as you climb the ranks,” Bran-Leis also suggests. “Many culinary schools offer single classes or specialized diploma programs that you can complete part time.”
2. Move on so you can move up. The restaurant you start working at should not be the same establishment you retire from, says Bran-Leis, who encourages newbie chefs to work at a variety of restaurants before settling down, so to speak. “If your first job is in a steak house, don’t leave that [job] to work in another steak house,” she says, adding “working in different types of restaurants adds diversity to your resume and your knowledge base of ingredients and techniques. Michelin-starred Aureole’s executive chef Gabriele Carpentieri agrees, suggesting that, “maybe you move from a small kitchen to a large kitchen or a French kitchen to an American kitchen. Either way, the change will only help you grow.”
If, for some reason, you can’t change kitchens in your career, then explore different kinds of food in your free time, Carpentieri suggests. “Research and try all types of food, especially food you are not familiar with or have always been curious about,” he says. “Go to different restaurants to try different cuisines that other chefs in your community are creating. And try to travel so you can see other culture’s delicacies first hand.”
3. Take on management roles whenever possible. Being a chef—and certainly a head or executive chef—isn’t all about cooking. Chefs spend a chunk of their time managing staff, sending and paying invoices, holding meetings, and doing a bevy of other business-related tasks that have nothing to do with preparing dishes. That’s why Dan Bufford, the chef de cuisine of Cleo at the Redbury Hotel South Beach, recommends that any wannabe chef also accepts managerial roles whenever possible. “In order to advance at Cleo, I started taking on responsibilities on the business side to showcase my versatility and challenge myself to learn new things,” he shares.
4. Network, network, then network some more. Like in any industry, sometimes it’s not what you know about food but who you know in the food world. Networking isn’t always easy—and it’s rarely fun—but Bran-Leis insists you won’t regret meeting the movers and shakers of the culinary world. “The day to day life of a chef can be grueling and on the rare chance you have a full day off, it’s easy to just stay home and binge on Netflix,” she admits. “But if there’s an industry event or some other networking opportunity, then go! Chefs are always seeking new talent and getting your phone number in the right hands and making a good impression will often get you further than even a culinary degree.”
5. Take a job as a sous chef. You’ve gone to school, you’ve worked in more than one kitchen, and you’ve collected several business cards along the way. “Now,” says Carpentieri, “it is time to become a sous chef in a kitchen you believe in and a kitchen that you believe there is room to grow.” Why, you may wonder, is this the last step to head chef-dom? “When you’re a sous, you already have a large food knowledge and your technique is perfected, so this is your chance to share your ideas and contribute new dishes to the restaurant’s menu,” Carpentieri says. “After few years of doing that, you arrive at a point where your knowledge on how to cook grows year after year, and when it is all said and done, you will be ready to become a [head or] executive chef.” Finally.