Guest post by Ashley Lipman
Career change is rarely simple. While the fantasy of what a new career entails can make the change seem awfully easy, the reality is often different, and how different fantasy and reality are depends on the person making the change and on the career option that person has chosen.
One option that has become surprisingly attractive in recent years is the chance to live life as a chef.
What’s behind that choice?
For one thing, quite a few of us can cook, at least as amateurs, and perhaps we’ve gotten a fair number of compliments on our efforts. Why not take that talent public?
For another, we live in the age of the celebrity chef, and it’s hard to escape the picture of the chef as culinary artist, well paid and well respected, presiding majestically over the world of the commercial kitchen as a start, but also over the world of well-heeled diners hanging on chef’s every morsel, every recipe and every word.
Those two factors combine glamour and familiarity, an enticing combination, but whatever the reason behind the chefly ambition, anyone thinking of donning the toque blanche (the chef’s traditional white hat) should consider how the fantasy of life as a renowned culinary artist compares to the real life of a working chef.
And choosing to become a chef is not terribly different from making any career move. A big change always involves a step into the unknown.
It’s a step that takes preparation, so it’s worth asking: What exactly are we looking at when the dream of ruling the kitchen becomes reality? What’s really involved in life as a chef? What qualities does it call on?
As it turns out, the career of chef involves a combination of art and science. It’s intellectually, physically and even emotionally demanding, and it’s not the easiest road to fame and fortune. Here are five must-have skills for a successful chef.
Leadership and Management
You may well start at the bottom – even the most famous chefs have been there – but, as you rise through the ranks you’ll be in charge of a lot of people in a fast-paced environment. To thrive in your role, you must be able to oversee staff so that everything stays on schedule and expectations are managed. And you need to do more than manage; you need to lead. Those are two different skill sets that you’ll need to synthesize to foster productivity and communication in the kitchen.
When you’re a cook in a low to a mid-range restaurant, you have the luxury of following other people’s recipes. When you’re a high-end chef, you’re expected to be able to think outside the box and present new and exciting dishes to your audience. To do this, you must be innovative and able to bring creativity to bear when planning, preparing and plating dishes. At the lower end of the industry, the work of a chef may be routine, but at the higher end a chef’s creativity must be fueled by something more than technical skill. It takes an abiding passion for the culinary arts.
Dedication and Drive
To be a professional chef, you need to have dedication, drive, and more than a little grit. Your days will be long and exhausting, spent on your feet handling sharp knives and hot plates. You’ll manage an array of different personalities coming to you for advice or criticism, an array that includes difficult employees, disgruntled customers and suppliers who try your patience. You need to be willing to practice in your downtime, perfecting your offerings and testing new ideas. You need to have the determination to continue down this path for years in order to become successful, working under other chefs and perfecting your craft.
While your level of autonomy will vary depending on whether you open your own restaurant or work for someone else, you will always need to understand the ins and outs of the restaurant business to make it to the top. Regardless of milieu, from the lowliest dive to the poshest of high-end spaces, and including every kind of institutional food service under the sun, you need to understand the budget you’re working with when creating dishes and the economics of supply and demand. You have to know how to manage your menu to maximize revenue during busy times and seasons, and how to assess processes and recipes to take a cost-effective approach to cooking without sacrificing quality. No commercial kitchen can ignore the fact that it must function as a business before it can be a temple of gastronomy – and the restaurant business in particular is a notoriously tough road to travel profitably.
With a demanding schedule and long shifts with little downtime, a chef is always at risk for burnout. In the long run, you must be able to manage your stress in a practical way so that your performance doesn’t suffer. That means rest and recuperation during your downtime and cultivating strong coping skills during a shift. This is a career that takes its toll on mind and body, and it’s important to create self-care routines for yourself both at work and at home, and to be as disciplined in caring for your needs outside of work as you are when you’re behind the stove. The life of a chef is a marathon that can make short work of those who only know how to sprint.
Building a Career
There are myriad skills that help a chef advance. Time management, multitasking, organizational skills, decision-making abilities and meticulousness all come into play and, as is so often the case, what seems at first like a highly specialized career calls upon a wide array of talents and competencies. In the end, a career change that leads to life as a chef is not that different from any big career move. In every case, what really matters is that you get past the fantasy and come to grips with the reality of what’s in store. Far from being a discouraging perspective, it’s the perspective most likely to yield a successful and satisfying life in any new identity.
You won’t know if you can stand the heat until you’re actually in the kitchen, but going in with eyes wide open is the one sign that you’re in a good place to start.