In the quest to become a chef, what path to take is always the question; do you pay the money and go to culinary school or do you get a job and work your way up through the ranks. In my opinion, you need to do both. Each path introduces concepts and teaches lessons that are specific to the experience and are beneficial down the road.
Chef Daniel Boulud makes a valid case for the importance of culinary school:
” I think [culinary schools] are indispensable to a young chef who really wants to make a career in that field… culinary schools give access to such a repertoire of basic knowledge one has to acquire,” he says. “…you don’t always acquire that as soon as you work for a chef who has too much personalization… I think it’s good to know the basics. You have access to libraries, you have access to time to study.”
Culinary schools give the student the time and opportunity to learn all that they can and more importantly, a place to make mistakes. Often in a busy, professional kitchen, the cooks don’t have a lot of wiggle room for making mistakes when it’s happening on the chef’s dime. Culinary school can give you a solid foundation so the student can take a job in a professional kitchen and not feel so out of place.
The next step as graduation approaches is to find a mentor. The student has to actively research the best chef to work with before leaving school. One great resource for that is the Zagat guide. This guide lists the top restaurants in a specific city. The student needs to make a list of all the chefs they want to work with and research that chef and their food.
Once graduation comes, it’s time to get moving. Students need to actively find a job. Once they land that kitchen job, it’s important to stick it out. Often the stress of the kitchen, the level of professionalism that is demanded, and the demeanor of the chef can send a student running. Students need to stick it out and stay put for at least 6 months, but one year is best. For employers looking at resumes, job stability for that length of time is paramount. During this time the student can really get comfortable with their skills and make a statement in that kitchen. Often the student will end up staying at that restaurant, as they become an important part of the family and possibly move up the ladder.
On the pathway to becoming a chef, the reality is not what is shown on the Food Network. It takes 10,000 hours of schooling and hard work, day after day to learn the skills needed to perform the job of a successful chef. It is achievable and can be had much more quickly by attending school, but it is a job to be carefully considered. Like many professions though, if it’s right for you, then the reality is only a matter of time.