How to Become a Chef
By Chef Ryan Wagner, CulinaryLab Founder
Updated January 3, 2018
It’s a question I get a lot. “How do I become a chef?” For starters, let’s establish what we mean by “chef,” as this term tends to be used loosely nowadays. To become a chef you must first be a cook.
“Cook” = Someone whose job it is to prepare food
There are many levels of cooks, beginning with the ‘kitchen slave’ who peels potatoes, does basic prep work, etc., working up through various stations in the kitchen. The higher the skill level needed to work a particular station, the higher the rank of the cook. For example, a cook working the sauté station ranks above the cook working the cold station.
“Chef” = The boss
The chef runs the kitchen and wears many hats. He doesn’t just cook. In fact, the chef cooks less than just about anyone else in the kitchen. His responsibilities include budgeting, staffing, and knowing what everyone is doing at all times… and sometimes he gets to cook. The chef is the visionary of the kitchen. He creates while his team executes.
Where to Start
There are a few different paths you can take to reach the almighty status of ‘chef.’ But one thing is for certain – you’ll start where everyone else did: at the bottom. Whether you spend $75k for a culinary degree or just start knocking on restaurant doors asking for a job, you’ll start in roughly the same place, and for good reason. You need to get the experience of washing dishes, and working your way up to prep cook, line cook, etc. before you can even think about being a chef and leading people in such positions.
Here are a few common places you might start on your path to chefdom:
School of Hard Knocks
Just 15 or 20 years ago it was common for young cooks to find a mentor or apprenticeship and learn without going to school. Today a chef that didn’t go to school is a rare find. I find that chefs who’ve made a career for themselves without culinary school are tough and have grit. I also think it’s a slower learning curve. In order to successfully become a chef without going through a formal training program first, you have to find amazing mentors. Not every chef is going to take the time to teach. You have to seek out the ones who will. The ‘school of hard knocks’ approach to becoming a chef is not a quick or easy path, but for some it’s the way to go.
Some community colleges offer good quality culinary programs. The obvious benefit is that you can get a culinary education that covers all the bases for relatively little money. The challenges that can come with community college programs are crowded classes, difficulty getting into the needed courses, and many community colleges run on tight budgets. Personally, I think community college programs can be a great option for people who either aren’t positive they want to cook professionally (and don’t want to spend the money to find out) or people with more time on their hands than money. Culinary school ain’t cheap!
Culinary school is generally the fast track to getting out into the industry. Many schools offer certificate programs that you can complete in 6-12 months, and then, BOOM! You’re out working in a professional kitchen (hopefully). Prices for culinary school programs are rarely less than $20,000 for diploma programs, and can easily exceed $50,000 for degree programs. Some are close to $100,000. Most of the time, but not always, culinary school programs offer a more fast paced and rigorous program than community college programs. They’re also generally easier to get into (sometimes a little too easy).
In my eyes the most effective and efficient way to get into the foodservice industry is through a program that fuses the ‘school of hard knocks’ with culinary school. In fact, in my seven years teaching culinary arts at traditional schools, I always wondered why culinary schools didn’t partner with industry chefs to create hybrid programs like this. I felt so strongly about it that I founded CulinaryLab, which does just that. We accept a limited number of students into our programs each quarter, and pair each of them with a chef mentor. Students spend nearly 500 hours learning at CulinaryLab, while at the same time gaining industry experience apprenticing under their mentor. By the time they graduate they have spent more than 1,500 hours apprenticing in a notable restaurant. To me, this just makes logical sense. I think more trades will turn to programs like this in the years to come.
My Two Cents
I’ve been working in the foodservice industry for 20 years now, and I’ve seen all kinds of programs. I’ve known thousands of cooks who’ve taken a variety of culinary paths. There is no single ‘best’ way to get into the industry. So here’s my advice to anyone thinking about taking that first step in becoming a professional cook or chef:
- Are you sure you want to do this? I’m serious. What do you know about the reality of being a chef? Do you know about the long hours and physical work – the blood, sweat, and tears you’ll have to invest to make it to the top? Your first order of business is to learn about these things. Set up a meeting with a chef, and pick his/her brain about what kitchen life is like. Heck, maybe they’ll even let you come in and wash dishes for a night just to get a feel for things.
- If you get past #1 and still want to work in this industry, congratulations. You’re part of a rare breed of passionate people who are willing to be slaves to what they love. Next step: Do your research. Don’t get so enamored with your dream of chefdom that you go out and sign the paperwork for that $50,000 culinary program without doing your homework. Learn about the programs. Read online reviews written by students who have already taken the path you’re considering. Maybe even reach out to that chef you interviewed in step #1 and ask what he/she thinks you should do.
- Get to work! I recommend that you start working in the industry as soon as you’re able to. You might be able to land a job washing dishes or doing veg prep with no experience. It can be difficult to get a chef to hire you with no experience, so if you do decide to go to school, make connections while you’re there. Network with your chef instructors. Do a great job in class and maybe they’ll hook you up with a job. Connect with classmates who might later be able to bring you onboard at their place of employment. Or, of course, you can apply for a program like ours where we provide access to apprenticeships at local restaurants.
How Much Money Does a Chef Make?
This is a good question I am asked often. How much money will you make once you’ve finally reached your dream of becoming a chef? This should be part of the research process I mentioned in step #1, but let me give you a little bit of insight to help you get started.
Before I dive into this, let me point out that I’m going to throw out some numbers off the cuff based on my own knowledge of what I have made in the local southern California market, and what chefs I know currently make. These are just ballpark figures to give you an idea. I encourage you to do some in depth research if you want to see average salaries for specific positions.
So how much does a chef make? The short answer is, “not much.” Sure, it’s possible to earn a six-figure salary as an executive chef running a multi-million dollar operation, but it’s also possible to cap out well below $100,000 because you decide that your passion is to work at the kinds of places that can’t afford big salaries, as many chefs do.
Chefs tend to be lifetime learners, and chase experiences rather than money. You also need to factor in the hours a chef works. An executive chef might fetch a salary of, say, $75,000, but they’ll put in 60+ hours per week, including nights and weekends. By the way, the chefs that do make decent salaries have generally been in the industry for at least 10 years, usually longer. Many executive chefs make closer to $50k-$60k and work well over 60 hours.
Given the length of time it takes to rise to the top, a better question to ask yourself might be, “How much does a cook make?” Straight out of culinary school, cooks generally don’t make much more than minimum wage. Locally I see entry level cooks getting hired at one to two dollars over minimum wage. Cooks work their way up the ladder and get incremental increases over a period of years. Sometimes they choose to take a pay cut in order to work under a chef they admire.
The path I’m describing is the traditional one from cook to chef. This used to be the path that nearly everyone took. Today many young cooks are choosing to launch food trucks, be personal chefs, pastry masters, bloggers, or start up other food businesses on a small scale. Many things are possible, but none of these options lead to success unless the cook is passionate, driven, and willing to sacrifice a certain quality of life in order to chase their dream.
Foodservice is a tough industry to get started in and is not for everyone. The payoff is that you get to do what you love and be a part of an extraordinary community of like-minded people who live life with passion. At CulinaryLab, the first step we take with incoming applicants is to try to determine if they are part of that rare breed. Before you start on your journey to chefdom, I recommend that you do the same. Do your research and get to know this industry before you decide that it’s for you.
If you have specific questions about becoming a chef that I didn’t answer in this article, feel free to contact me anytime.
Are you a cook or a chef? Thinking about becoming one? Give us your thoughts below in the comments section.