Becoming a Chef
The foodservice industry is one of the largest, most diverse as well as the fastest growing industry in East Africa and it is estimated that the restaurant industry would keep growing in the foreseeable future. This, combined with the large selection of types of jobs to choose from, makes a career in food service a very appealing prospect. Before you start pursuing a career in foodservice, you should know the various positions in a traditional kitchen, how to go about getting an education, and the different career paths that are available to you.
Jobs in a Kitchen
If you’ve never worked in a kitchen before, the hierarchy and different job titles can be confusing at first. There are many job titles that you might encounter when doing research, so here are descriptions of a few of the most common ones you’ll encounter:
- Executive chef: The executive chef is the person in charge of the kitchen and all of the various stations. Contrary to the title, executive chefs do not do much food prep. They spend most of their time managing the kitchen and creating new and innovative recipes for the menu.
- Sous chef: The sous chef is second in command in the kitchen. Their duties include managing each station to make sure the food is being cooked properly. Some sous chefs also work with the executive chef to create new recipes and design the menu.
- Station chef/chef de partie: Station chefs are in charge of various stations that cook specific dishes, such as salads, grilled foods, and soups. They are also in charge of several line cooks that work at their station.
- Pastry chef/patissier: The pastry chef is in charge of preparing all of the desserts, cakes, and pies. In addition to desserts, many pastry chefs take care of baking bread and other baked goods.
- Line cook: Line cook is the entry-level position for many people starting out in the foodservice industry. Line cooks are the front line of the restaurant, and they handle the preparation and cooking of the food under the supervision of a station chef or sous chef.
Education vs. Experience
There are a lot of different ways to learn to become a chef. The traditional route to becoming a chef is to go to culinary school, but more and more chefs nowadays are forgoing culinary school and learning the skills of the trade by experience. There are even some famous chefs who have skipped culinary school in favour of experience. Here are some pros and cons of formal educations versus learning by experience to help you decide what works best for you:
For many aspiring chefs, going to culinary school is the best way to attain their goals and move up the ladder. But, a culinary school may not be the best option for every person in the foodservice industry. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of going to culinary school, so you can decide if it’s the right choice for you:
Pros of Culinary School:
- The culinary school teaches you the correct techniques, so you don’t create bad habits.
- Some schools help their students find positions in reputable kitchens, so they get work experience.
- Teachers are a valuable resource and a great way to find potential jobs after you graduate.
- Having a culinary school background helps to hone your palate and teaches you how to combine flavours, which is beneficial if your goal is to become an executive chef.
Cons of Culinary School:
- Enrolling in culinary school is a big-time commitment, and not every chef will be able to set aside several years to devote to studying before working.
- Culinary school can be very expensive, requiring lots of funds. Carefully consider your finances before jumping into anything.
Learning from Experience
Another route would be to learn the tools of the trade from experience and working in kitchens. While you won’t learn in a structured setting, you can become a great chef without ever stepping foot in a culinary classroom. Here are some pros and cons of learning from experience to help you decide if it’s the right option for you:
Pros of Learning from Experience:
- The biggest pro to learning by experience is that you can make money while you’re learning.
- Working in a kitchen will teach you how to work in a high-pressure environment. Kitchens are hectic and fast-paced, and as a chef, you need to know how to not only cook but also cook with time constraints.
- Many chefs are willing to mentor line cooks and teach them the proper knife techniques and skills they need to improve as chefs.
Cons of Learning from Experience:
- Learning by working in a kitchen won’t give you the same access to contacts and connections that culinary students have.
- Having a certificate from a culinary school looks excellent on a resume, and having a diploma from a well-known school can open a lot of doors that may not be open to you otherwise.
- Chefs who learn by working will not have the same structured education that culinary students have, and your quality of experience can vary drastically depending on your employer.
There are some other options that you can choose from to gain an education and experience. One of these options would be to work as an Intern.
As an intern, you would work in a kitchen under the tutelage of a chef, and you would usually be paid a small stipend or be given room and board. It’s a similar concept to learning from experience, except your instruction will be more structured and the chef will work with you more closely. Internships combine the best of both worlds because you’re getting one-on-one, informative instruction, but you’re also getting hands-on experience.
Unique Foodservice Jobs
- Restaurant Owner: Chefs make great restaurant owners because they have worked in kitchens before and understand how the foodservice industry works. But, if you’re planning on opening your own restaurant, it may be beneficial to take some business classes at a local university or college.
- Food Stylist: Working as a food stylist is excellent for chefs that have an eye for design. People working in this field are responsible for styling and arranging food for photoshoots for commercials, magazines, and menus. Working as a food stylist requires a formal education and a portfolio of your work to present to employers.
- Caterer: Being in the catering business can sometimes feel very similar to working in a restaurant. You’ll spend a lot of time in the kitchen creating new and interesting recipes and working in a fast-paced environment. But, catering provides variety, and it’ll allow you to work with clients, travel to different locations and events, and constantly create new menus.
Personality-Based Foodservice Jobs
- Celebrity Chef: We all know their names. Being a celebrity chef is a glamorous lifestyle filled with television appearances and magazine interviews. But, as you would expect, it’s a difficult path that requires years of hard work, a talent for cooking and networking, and tons of luck.
- YouTube Chef: As our culture has become more Internet-focused, many aspiring chefs are turning to the video platform YouTube to make a name. Becoming famous on YouTube requires many of the same qualities as becoming a celebrity chef, such as a talent for cooking, a warm and friendly personality, and years of hard work. If you’re looking to get your start on YouTube, learning some video editing skills and digital marketing can help you get off on the right foot.
The food service industry is constantly evolving and changing, making it an exciting time to become a chef. Becoming a chef is not easy, and it requires years of practice, study, and experience to be successful. But, the field of food service is expanding, and there are more unique opportunities outside of traditional kitchens available to aspiring chefs than ever before.