A Day in the Life of a Chef

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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Chefs were once under the sole command of nobility because they were the only people who could afford to pay professionals to prepare their food. The rise of commercial eating establishments in Europe allowed others to benefit from chefs’ skills. Restaurants trained young chefs, often under the supervision of head chefs. Head chefs who achieved international fame, such as Auguste Escoffier, began their own cooking schools. Opportunities for chefs are expected to rise by more than 20 percent over the next ten years due to the restaurant industry’s experiencing sizable growth.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many start out as cooks, assistant chefs, preparatory chefs, and unpaid interns, sacrificing long hours for low wages to gain the practical experience necessary in a number of fields before they can assume positions of responsibility in a professional kitchen. Some gain these positions while finishing up their second, third, or fourth years at culinary academies. Those who are successful cite being able to listen carefully, work hard, and grab any opportunity to demonstrate skills as factors in their advancement.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five years into the profession, many chefs have moved from cook to assistant chef, or from assistant chef to chef with a special area of responsibility, such as vegetable chef or saucier. Years four to nine are the most active portion of prospective chefs’ careers, both in terms of amount of work and job movement. Many manage staffs of assistant chefs and preparatory chefs. Salaries, responsibilities, and hours all increase. Many find their fates tied to those at the head of the kitchen; if the head chef is fired from his job, entire staffs may go too.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year professionals who have attained the position of chef have had experience in a number of different areas and have held a variety of positions managing and overseeing sub-chefs and prep workers. Many have found positions that offer them significant satisfaction, although the majority attempt to open their own establishments during years ten through fifteen. A chef must have a unique and clearly explainable vision of what her restaurant should be to work well with a financial restaurateur. Networking with both chefs and patrons is at its peak, and a significant number of professionals spend free time away from their chef duties researching other restaurants’ menus, prices and service. For most, wages rise.