“How do I become a chef?” In my travels as a Chef at Large I
hear this question more than any other. I’ve heard it from
eight-year-olds busily whipping up a batch of pancakes. I’ve heard
it from teenage Food Network fans searching for glamour and
middle-aged executives bent on career change. I’ve heard it from
professional cooks with years of experience. I’ve even heard it 50
kilometres off shore from the commanding officer of a Canadian
warship.

I’m not surprised by the question. I love being a chef and I’m
glad other people are inspired to become chefs too. So let’s take a
look at a culinary career road map.

You don’t have to cook in a professional kitchen to be a chef.
Amateur weekend warriors often qualify for the honorific title of
chef-some with kitchens worth more than most restaurant chef’s
annual salary. I know a lot of passionate home cooks who cook
circles around many professional line cooks and richly deserve the
Chef’s title conferred on them by appreciative-and
hungry-friends.

In a professional kitchen there may be many cooks but only one
is the chef. Somebody’s got to be in charge so even in a one-man
kitchen the cook is the chef. Someone’s got to oversee the
dishwasher!

Large kitchens need more management so they deploy a
military-like system, complete with career advancing politics.
First cooks, second cooks, chef de partie’s, day chefs, night
chefs, and sous chefs all toe the General’s line. The fellow
carving the roast beef on the hotel buffet is not the chef although
he may have met him once!

Creative geniuses astounding the world with expensive
originality and impeccable surroundings often cook their way to the
top but in reality it’s a lot easier to cook that way at home than
in the confines of a restaurant budget. The artist’s kitchen is
probably losing money while down at the diner the fryers are
churning out reliable profits. The unsung fellow keeping an eye on
the chicken wings inventory knows how to manage a small business
and took another route to the top.

The ultimate kitchen title is Executive Chef but these guys
hardly ever cook. They’ve got more important things to do like
overseeing the soap budget. Careful what you wish for, you might
end up a chef and not be able to cook!

No one ever seems to ask, “How do I become a low-paid,
overworked, stressed-out line cook slinging endless Caesar salads?”
but even with the best culinary education money could buy I peeled
a lot of garlic before I got my break. Bottom line: ten years of
sweat and sacrifice may get you a seat in the chef’s office, but
which side of the desk you’re on is up to you. Sheer ambition and
creative energy got me to the top.

If you want to be a chef it’s simple: go to cooking school.
Learn how to survive in a kitchen. If you can’t afford school, skip
it. Get an entry-level job, any job and learn the industry ropes,
network and gain experience. Work your way up the ladder. Somewhere
along the way you’ll learn how to cook, you’ll find your path and
if you excel some day your business card will say chef. Don’t
forget to invite me to opening night!