A chef is someone who gets paid to cook.
Cooking is a hobby to many, a joy to some and a profession to the lucky few. To become a professional chef requires countless hours of work and sweat that quite frankly will prove too much for somebody who isn’t inspired.
There’s no set path to becoming a chef. Remember, cooking is an art form. To support yourself as an artist, a painter let’s say, you have to be popular enough to sell paintings.
I recently heard an anecdote about the legendary painter Pablo Picasso. In his seventies, Picasso was working with a student. By this time in his life, Picasso was considered by many to be one of the best painters that ever lived. His student was working on a sketch, but made a mistake. Picasso tried to explain the mistake, but the student didn’t understand, so Picasso took out a blank sheet of paper and sketched a "proper" sketch himself. The student’s jaw dropped open. The student said, “Pablo, how’d you sketch that so quickly?” Picasso responded, “How long did it take me?” The student said, “Thirty seconds.” Picasso said, “No, it took me sixty years.”
Since Picasso was a child, he had been putting countless hours into perfecting his craft. It’s not magic that he was able to draw a perfect sketch so quickly; it was a result of half a century of repetition and hard work. The same goes for cooking. If you want to be a successful cook you need to practice for hours every day. You also need to study the greats. Study their recipes. Study their work habits, their philosophies. Read books about food; read food blogs that center around dishes or types of cooking that you love. Watch documentaries and movies about cooking. There’s this great television series on Netflix right now called Chef’s Table. Each episode is a mini documentary about a different chef. It’s very interesting to listen to each chef outline his or her path to culinary stardom. One common thread throughout each story is patience and persistence.
How To Get Good At Cooking
Practice and research. Practice for at least four hours a day, but also shadow people in the kitchen who are good cooks. If your mother, for example, is a good cook, take every chance you can to shadow her in the kitchen. Write down her recipes and cooking procedure every time you observe her until you have it all memorized. Ask her questions. Why are you adding this? Why did you leave that in the oven so long? Why did you add the salt first? Be a sponge; absorb everything that you can.
If you don’t know anybody who’s good at cooking then get a job at a restaurant working in the kitchen. It will probably be a menial job at first. You’ll be washing dishes or something of that nature. But if you’re really serious about cooking, your passion will be noticed, and eventually you’ll work your way up the ladder.
If you can’t get a job in a kitchen, volunteer somewhere. If you do a good job as a volunteer, it’s very likely that the restaurant will start paying you at some point. If the restaurant doesn’t start paying you, then you can leverage this volunteer experience into a paying kitchen job elsewhere.
Even if you have friends or family who are great cooks that you can learn from, you should get a job in a kitchen somewhere so that you’re able to observe professionals in the heat of battle. The demands of a restaurant chef are unique and more stressful than leisurely cooking at home. You’ll also observe how a restaurant works. The flow of each dish and the working dynamic between different staff members of the restaurant, i.e. how the waiters communicate with the chefs, how the chefs communicate with each other, etc. If you want to be a chef, it’s important to understand the working dynamic of a restaurant because a lot of chefs start their own restaurants centered around their brand.
Although not required, many chefs attend culinary school in addition to undergoing apprenticeships in kitchens. Culinary schools are normally diploma or certificate programs that differ in length. Some are one year long whereas others are four years. In order to attend culinary school, you need to have a high school diploma. Some schools offer scholarships and financial aid, which you should try to get because a culinary diploma can be quite expensive with tuition ranging from $30,000 to $100,000.
There are several advantages to attending culinary school. You learn new recipes, cooking procedures and the science behind taste. You’ll also have the opportunity to specialize in something. For example, you could specialize in pastries and center your brand around pastries. You’ll also be able to network like crazy and make potential lifelong friends who share your passion for food. Most importantly, you’ll be able to find higher paying jobs at better restaurants with a culinary diploma. This diploma isn’t required, but if you’re struggling to get your foot in the door as a chef or if you have some extra money, culinary school could be a really good way to gain some traction in the industry.
Salary and Lifestyle
The median salary for a chef differs by state but falls within the $40,000-$50,000 range. The life of a chef can be hectic with untraditional hours and late nights. At the end of the day, being a restaurant chef is the same as being in the service industry. You’re providing a surface in return for a fee, so you have to satisfy the client who’s paying you.
Many established chefs will branch out into business. For example, if you’re a pastry chef who makes killer cookies, you could mass produce those cookies and sell them in grocery stores across the world. That way, you’d be raking in cash while not bending over backwards to please clients like a restaurant chef has to. Of course, if you choose to go this route, you’re turning into a business person more so than a chef.
Another way chefs make money is by perpetuating their brand on television. Guy Fieri is notorious for doing this and so is Emeril Lagasse—BAM! Emeril Lagasse’s face is plastered all over pasta sauces from the East Coast to Hawaii.
If you love cooking, then consider becoming a chef, but don’t expect to make big money overnight. You need to start small. Break into the industry any way you can. Continue to practice and learn as you work your way up the ladder. And focus on your brand. What are you especially good at cooking? What dish, what aspect of your cooking style makes you special?