Chef is among those professions that people dream about, imagining leading a crack platoon of sous chefs in a glamorous, stainless steel kitchen and presenting fabulous meals to hundreds of people. Parts of this description are true, and those who become chefs have very high levels of satisfaction with their professions. One chef said his career “is only for the very crazy. It is hard work, it is grueling work, it is important work, and still, I would do nothing else.” Many mentioned the long hours, the painstaking attention to detail, and being constantly surrounded by food as parts of a job they love. The profession rewards the talented and the daring who can see opportunity and grab it.
The best thing in urban centers, chefs were quick to mention, was the support of the community of chefs. “You start out knowing absolutely nothing and these experienced, exciting chefs you’ve idolized all your life will show you how to run your kitchen. It’s like having a living library at your disposal.” Rural chefs said the sense of isolation can be discouraging. Chefs work long and unusual hours, making it difficult for them to socialize outside of working hours. One mentioned that “only doctors and truck drivers work the 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. shift.” This leaves limited opportunity for meeting others, particularly if they are in a part of the country with few chefs.
The first few years are an education. Few chefs survive cooking school who don’t understand the physical requirements of the profession: Lifting heavy pots, being on your feet for eight hours, stirring vats of sauces, rolling pounds of dough. Many chefs specialize in a certain type of cuisine. It is difficult for new chefs to have their skills recognized without an established history of success in a variety of workplaces. Those who leave the profession do so with heavy hearts; they genuinely enjoy the companionship of fellow chefs, the creativity involved in working with food, and the aesthetic beauty of sound presentation. But they leave anyway due to the lack of opportunity, the daily pressures (which can be considerable), and the low wages for those who do not advance immediately to positions of authority.
While the profession used to offer a direct progression for new entrants--begin as a preparation chef, move on to assistant chef, then get a chance at becoming your own chef--it is becoming more difficult to become a head chef unless you demonstrate exceptional talent and an extremely creative mind and can inspire financing. There are over 550 cooking schools in the country, and employers are beginning to impose higher culinary academic standards on their prospective employees. Some are even turning to organizations such as the American Culinary Federation, which has certified a mere 70 of these 550 schools, for recommendations. Most training programs are practical; cooking, preparation, working as part of a team, instrument maintenance, and personal hygiene (yes, that is a course) are all taught by example and as part of basic cooking principles. Programs last up to four years. Specialization is important in this industry for those looking to work at swankier restaurants, those interested in entree preparation (the most sought-after work), aspiring pastry chefs, and those specializing in a geographically distinctive type of cuisine.