Let me start by saying this. No matter what you saw on TV or were told by your instructor at culinary school, you are not a chef the day you start in a kitchen. You are a cook, a mere cog in the wheel that keeps the machine going. The term chef is a French word for chief or leader. You are not to refer to yourself as a chef until your chef gives you the title. This could take months (although very unlikely) or it could take years, but it is a title that is well earned, through countless hours of fighting it out in the trenches with your colleagues and earning every bit of their respect, one cut, burn and scar at a time. Now that we have that sorted out, let’s paint a more realistic picture of what it is truly going to take for you to become a cook. After all, there’s no point in wasting anyone’s time.
There are some basic core values that every good cook must possess in order to make it in this business. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Without a great deal of drive and love for this craft you will not survive. You may see some chefs reach fame and celebrity, but that is very rare, and none of those chefs have made it to where they are without a great deal of passion for their craft. If you don’t cook from your heart, and put your best plate forward every time, whether making a BLT for yourself at home, or feeding foie gras to the queen, you aren’t cut out for this.
This is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome. You will likely never be rich. You likely won’t even have a great family life. You may not be there for your loved ones during their special moments in life. Chances are you won’t even be able to get the night off for that big concert you saved up for. Too bad! Suck it up princess and get back on line. We work in the restaurant business. When our friends are getting up and fighting traffic on their way to work, we are still in bed, sleeping off a hangover. When they are calling it a day and heading to their favorite watering hole to drown their sorrows, we are just gearing up for a busy dinner service. This isn’t a Monday to Friday gig where you get to go home when the store closes. You come in as early as need be, you work as long as chef tells you to and you go home when the job is done. If that doesn’t work for you go sell cardigans at The Gap.
My last point leads me to this point. You will be spending endless hours in tight confines with your teammates. Kitchens are small, dark, and hot. The days are long, and the breaks are few and far between. It’s imperative that you get along with the people you work with. Spending so much time together means they will feel more like family than your own flesh and blood. You can’t take them for granted either. Your actions have a direct affect on them and their livelihood. If you duck out early without cleaning up your share of the work, they will feel it. If you call in sick because you had a few too many pops after work the night before, it’s your co-workers who will pick up the slack. Great cooks understand the importance of loyalty to your team and living up to your end of the family code.
4. A Thick Skin
If you are sensitive, or tend to get emotional over little things, this really isn’t the industry for you. I have been called every name under the sun, even had pots and pans flung in my general direction. I even worked for a chef that screamed so hard every day it took me three months of working with him to realize that beet red wasn’t his natural skin tone. He was a real treat, swearing at us in French, German and English. This kind of work environment can only be compared to that of joining the military. Good chefs will break you down, to build you back up. Only the strong who takes it replies “Yes Chef!” can.
You need to possess real character and integrity to survive in this game. You are only as good as your word and your work ethic. Deciding to call in sick via text, or having your mom negotiate your vacation days is not going to earn you any favors from your chef. In the past 20 years I can count on one hand the amount of times I failed to show up for duty, and every time I did it was because I was not physically capable of working. I can also tell you that the overwhelming guilt I felt for letting my chef and my team down almost always outweighed the injury or illness. I once had 450°F grease poured down my shoe, removed my sock, bit the bullet and kept working. Why would someone do that you ask? Because someone has to do it. If you don’t possess character, integrity and a commitment to get the job done no matter what the cost, don’t bother showing up.
6. A Twisted Sense of Humor
Do you blush when someone says penis? Then you better run. Maybe there is something in the water we drink, or the tight working quarters we are cramped in, but career cooks and chefs tend to be filthy, vain, loose-lipped and willing to spew just about anything out of their mouths. The language and degree of crudeness coming from behind a hot kitchen line can only be compared to that of a pirate ship. We say what’s on our minds, whether you like it or not. If you’re sensitive or touchy feel-y you will not survive.
It’s important that you never let your ego get in the way of true success. It doesn’t matter what some food critic said about you last night, it’s about the meal you are about to serve. You must always strive for better, knowing that you are only as good as the last plate you served and there is always room to grow.
8. Be a Sponge
No matter how many years you have cooked there is always something more you can learn. I remember learning a trick for cleaning lamb racks from a dishwasher who picked it up while working at Canoe in Toronto. In that moment I was reminded that if I am open to learning, I can learn from anyone. There is always more you can know and new tricks or techniques to learn. I have yet to meet a chef who knows everything about cooking and I know I never will.
9. Love for the Craft
Above all else, you MUST love cooking. You have to feel it deep inside you. That glow or buzz you feel when someone tastes your creation for the first time and their eyes light up. That high you get from crushing a busy dinner service with nothing but empty plates coming back to the kitchen, that’s what has to keep you coming back. We don’t do it for fame; we don’t do it for TV shows or million dollar contracts. We do it for the sheer joy of cooking and because if we didn’t do this we wouldn’t know what else we would be doing. The reality that you don’t see on “reality” TV is that the chances of becoming a true celebrity chef are so small that it shouldn’t even be on your radar. For every celeb chef out there, there are a million cooks grinding it out service after service for little more than minimum wage. Just about all of those celeb chefs that have made it can tell you that they have spent 20 years or more of paying their dues, working their tails off night after night before they even got noticed. So don’t even bother considering doing this career for the glory of it all. Do it for the love of food. The truth is, you can taste the difference in someone’s food when they love what they are doing.
So, if you really want to become a chef, take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself if you possess these basic values. If and only if you do then it’s time to begin your path. Find the chef you respect the most, call him/her up, email him/her, stop in with your resume, offer to work for free until you’ve proved yourself, and get your foot in the door. If you start like this, stay humble, be a sponge, soaking up whatever people are willing to teach you, then someday, just someday, you will be worthy of being called Chef!
Chef Paul Shufelt is a business partner and executive chef of Century Hospitality Group. He’s competed in the Canadian Culinary Championships and Best in Chow Burger Wars, has been featured in Avenue magazine and is leading a fundraiser for the Canadian Culinary fund.