Should you become a chef? If you’re like most people, I don’t think so, but that’s for you to decide. But I do know the following:
- You start at the bottom of the food chain, working in an environment that’s unbearable to most. There’s a distinct possibility that your boss will push you more than your ready for, whether this is the chef, kitchen manager or owner.
- The kitchen atmosphere is hostile – not in the sense that people don’t get along because most do, but it’s hot and fast and loud. The pressure in the midst of the rush is unrelenting – stressful to say the least. The combination of personalities hovering around the kitchen at any given moment run the spectrum. All of this can lead to overexposure to booze, substance abuse, and, the now infamous, sexual harassment.
- The pay is crap – almost unbearably so starting out. Whether you have student loans to pay from culinary school or just the typical bills we all have to deal with, you’re most likely going to have to make tremendous sacrifices financially. Sure, over time you can prove yourself a valuable asset to the industry, and hopefully, your compensation will reflect that, but not always and even if it does, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a stellar cook or chef that’s paid what they feel they are worth. Benefits? Well, those are hit or miss, unless you are corporate – this is definitely something we really need to work on as an industry.
- One of the reasons why a lot of us get into this industry, is because we love to make things. Going in hand with that is a certain lean towards creativity and wanting to express one’s self through the food – the recipes, the dishes, the menus, the concepts. There aren’t a whole lot of kitchens that satisfy this desire for a cook to create in the early stages of their careers. I applaud the chefs and managers that encourage their staff to play around with ideas for menu additions and specials, but these are the exception, not the rule. I think this wears on a lot of young cooks who want to make a dent in the world but feel they’re being held back.
- The hours are long. Really long. Often they consist of nights, weekends and holidays – the times when the rest of the world is sharing their free time with each other and wishing you could be there to be a part of it. At some point, for a lot of kitchen workers, this takes an extreme toll on both them personally, and on their most prized relationships. Our bodies get tired of using milk crates for chairs and our loved ones have to be incredibly patient and supportive not to grow resentment towards our careers
- If you do it right in those first couple of years, you might find yourself running the show before too long. Being the one in charge can be a lot of fun, but that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of things stacked up against you, trying to pull the fun out of your newly garnered role of responsibility. There will be multiple fires to put out every single day – sometimes, being in a kitchen, that can be quite literal. But, often this includes issues with the food order that came in, last minute reservation changes, and frustrations with employees – tardiness, attentiveness and overall productivity. We’re responsible for controlling the environment that allows these individuals to thrive, and within the confines of a restaurant kitchen with so many moving parts, this is one the most challenging parts of the job.
- Once you’re here, to this place we all strive for you realize your role is no longer hands on as much, in the heat of the kitchen grinding through service day in and day out. Sure, the great chefs are ever very far from their kitchens, but not all of the sudden there are meetings to attend, food costs to calculate, inventory to control, labor to manage and new menus to put out. At earlier points in your career you more than likely took all of this for granted, however, now the responsibility is yours – the not-so-sexy parts of the job that most creative types abhor, but if you don’t receive the proper attention required – you won’t be successful.
Then the restaurant fails. You’ve failed your staff, your customers and you’ve failed yourself.
- But, if you are able to juggle all of these pieces, then, there’s the pressure of having to always be at the top of your game. This certainly goes back to staff management, because we all know that a restaurant’s success is dependant on everyone involved – from the bottom all the way up to the top. What gets tricky as at the top, the pressure pulls and pulls at you and the more success you create, the harder you feel you need to push. Once you get that first Michelin star, you’re not only fighting to keep that star, but now you have your eyes set on a second, then a third. This can really take the fun out of it, always pushing success and fulfilment into someplace out into the distance.
So, should you become a chef?
I don’t know. I do know that most reading this, most in culinary school and most working on the line somewhere don’t have it in them to become a great chef, and it has nothing to do with one’s chops in the kitchen – that can all be taught. Where most fall short is being strong enough mentally to fight through the challenging days and then keep fighting when they are the one leading the charge. It’s hard enough to prove one’s self and make it to the top, it’s a completely different set of skills to create and maintain success at a high level. As coach Nick Saban says, “the goal isn’t to win a championship, it’s to act like a champion”, because if you do that every single day, the success will take care of itself. So, if you want to become a chef, a really good chef – if you want to make it happen, take it day by day, learn something new every time you step in the kitchen and realize that every moment, day, week, month and year is an opportunity to get better, to grow, to contribute and to give back to the industry.
I can guarantee you this: if you show up every single day with the goal of getting better, growing and giving – the results will take care of themselves. Don’t just set out to be a chef – set out to be a great chef, because even if you fall a bit short, you’ll still be a pretty damn good one.