At this point in my career, I really can't think of anywhere I'd rather be or anything I'd rather be doing. At the Shaw Centre I have a fantastic team, an amazing state-of-the-art kitchen, and I get to work in a world class convention centre, creating extraordinary events. That being said, there have been many points along my career path where I have said there were, in fact, many places I'd rather be. Becoming a chef is no joke. It's hard work from day one.
Many years ago, shortly after starting work at my first job at a prestigious hotel, I recall asking a fellow cook, "So what happens on Christmas? Do we shut down for the day or something?" The thought of working on Christmas Day was completely foreign to me. He looked down his nose at me and snickered. Little did I know that Christmas Day is one of the hotel's busiest. It suddenly dawned on me that every Mother's Day brunch, gala event, or restaurant dinner I had enjoyed required a team of people behind the scenes…..the scene I had just signed on to. So kiss your weekends goodbye. And on all those special days like Valentine's, New Year's Eve and more? Good luck - you'll be working late. "9 to 5" is unheard of in this business. How does 4 ‘till midnight sound, sometimes for 10 days in a row? Great pay? Not for a while. Christmas dinner with the family typically happens sometime in January when business slows down a bit. Luxurious work environment? Usually not - try hot, humid, noisy, dangerous, cramped and stressful. Family? If you have one, please make sure you are all prepared to see less of each other compared to the norm. Hopefully, you get the point by now. While very rewarding, become a chef requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice on many levels.
If you can move past the aforementioned sacrifices, then you will need to mentally prepare for round two…the work itself. The actual work is a completely different soup kettle of fish. Becoming a skilled chef takes a long time and a lot of work. It's work that can be extremely rewarding, but also work that simply cannot be rushed. You will need to toil in the trenches for years. Cooking is simply that type of profession where hands on repetition is the only way to become better and proficient.
So after proper schooling, and if you are good enough, you might start as an apprentice in a decent professional kitchen. Be prepared for seemingly endless days peeling, dicing, chopping, washing…and this could go on for years. Seems a bit punitive I know, but the only way to master something as simple as peeling a potato, cutting a proper brunoise or julienne is to do it over and over, improving your technique, proficiently, coordination and speed. To this day I routinely discover improved ways of doing tasks I have been doing over and over for years, such as, believe it or not, peeling a potato. After a few years as a chef's apprentice you will have accumulated enough hours to write the Interprovincial Red Seal Exam (Canada's nationally accepted certification for the trade of Cook), which I suggest doing as soon as possible. The Red Seal won't make you a better chef but it will make getting a job much easier throughout your career.
Now that you have gone chef's school, paid your dues as an apprentice and gotten your government certification, when do you become a chef? Generally in anywhere from about 10-15 years, if you are talented, and if the job market conditions are favourable. Work life after completing chefs' school, an apprenticeship and your Red Seal means running the gauntlet of learning all the numerous stations found within a professional kitchen. A minimum of two years each in Saucier, Garde Manger, Entremetier and Patissier at one or several operations is enough to provide a solid foundation. At this point you may find yourself promoted up the ranks to a "Chef de Partie" or a "Sous Chef". With any luck you will have worked under a good chef or chefs and alongside some talented cooks. I say "with any luck", because the reality is that you will work with a broad cross section of personalities in this industry. Some you like; others you will not. It's a fast-paced, stressful work environment where not everyone gets along. You will have to be very comfortable working as part of a team. From time to time you may "have it out" with a colleague behind closed doors (this usually happens in the walk-in cooler; at least it's cool in the fridge) to resolve conflicts on the line. That being said, one of the biggest benefits of becoming a chef is having the opportunity to work and learn from so many different people. Cooking can be a very transient career. Jobs are available worldwide and most serious cooks looking to take their career to the next level know that moving from restaurant to restaurant, hotel to hotel, or country to country is very typical and a good way to advance. Chances are you will rarely work with the same group of individuals for very long. I have worked at five separately owned restaurants, four large hotels and now, one convention centre.
I realize I haven't painted the rosiest of pictures. For good reason too - if you are not serious, gastronomically talented and willing to make many personal sacrifices there really is no reason to start on the long road to becoming a chef. You simply won't find it a rewarding career. However if you do have the passion and perseverance, the industry has tremendous benefits. Here are just a few, in no particular order:
1.Travel opportunities. Food service is everywhere and as such cooking jobs are everywhere. If you like to travel and experience different cultures then the sky is the limit. So many of my former colleagues have chosen to relocate to various points of the globe using their skills as a chef to find gainful employment while travelling. So whether you stay put in one place or travel the world, there are many opportunities.
2.Variety. Rarely is any day the same. Every job has its monotony and cooking is no different, but it is also very dynamic. The field changes in many ways, constantly. Culinary trends ebb and flow. Menus are perpetually changing. New ingredients are becoming available. New cooking techniques like sous vide, or distilling, or molecular cuisine are being developed.
3.The people. As mentioned above, you will meet and work with one of the broadest range of people imaginable. If you enjoy working in a fast-paced environment with a team or group then becoming a chef may be for you.
4.Media. Chefs are ‘in'! If you have aspirations to get involved with television or any other type media there are plenty of opportunities to pair it with your culinary career. From local news programs, to chef challenge shows, to hosting your own show, there are so many possibilities today.
5.Nourishing lives. One of the greatest rewards of the industry is seeing the enjoyment on guests or customers faces after they have dined on your food. Whether you have made a bride and groom's special day or received a standing ovation from guests at a gala banquet dinner, the appreciation you will receive from people you cook for is extremely gratifying.
6.Professional cooking is part science, part hard labour, part engineering, and part art. So if you are strong in two or more of these areas, you may find becoming a chef very rewarding as it allows you to harness multiple skills. For example, while I consider myself unable to draw or paint anything, I can prepare and plate a dish artfully which in turn pleases both the eye and the palate.
7.Respect. Working as a chef is a well-respected career choice which can come with well-deserved notoriety.
Becoming a chef can be a very rewarding journey. Provided you are not misled by how chefs are portrayed on television and understand both the ups and downs of this career path as I've outlined above, you have a good chance to succeed in this field of work.