It's nowhere near as glamorous as celebrity chefs make it seem on TV
1. You don't need to go to culinary school. I was studying English lit in college and I had the summer off so I started working at a restaurant. I started by cutting vegetables and doing a little meal-prep work, and they moved me up as I progressed. I dropped out of college and moved to Seattle and worked my way through different top-level restaurants. If you do go to culinary school, you learn all the skills you need, but it doesn't necessarily give you real-world application. When you learn how to cook in an actual kitchen, you're getting the practical application right away, so then you just need to take it upon yourself to learn all the terminology and background by reading books.
2. You'll always work long hours, but the type of work you do will change as you move up in your career. When I was starting out, it was pretty normal for my hours to be noon to midnight, sometimes longer. I think it is always a deterrent for people because in the beginning, you're not making very much for how many hours you're actually putting in. Now, even though my hours are pretty long and even more encompassing, there's a difference. When I started, I was just a prep cook, so I was chopping vegetables, cleaning produce, breaking down meat, and portioning things. Then I moved up to line cook, so you're actually cooking during service hours. Now I own two restaurants, so I'm dealing with managing staff and finances.
3. You're never really done training. I've been cooking for about 12 years and there are so many things that are constantly evolving in cooking. I sometimes even feel behind because everything is moving so quickly in the cooking world. The way food is prepared is always changing, so you're learning modern techniques as they come. And for me now, it's also learning more about the business side of things.
4. Your goals for your career will constantly change. When I first started cooking, I didn't know what my end game was going to be or where I was going with it, but I enjoyed it. Over the years, I realized I wanted to own a restaurant. A lot of people start off with that idea, but you also need to be realistic. Maybe you'll find that you prefer not to own a restaurant and you prefer to just be the chef of someone else's restaurant. You need to find the right balance to your life and what your strong points are, and use those to your advantage.
5. Sick days and days off will be pretty nonexistent, especially in the beginning. You're expected to work sick and you're not really expected to take time off. Only if you're really sick, like you have the flu or something, then the restaurant just pulls it together and they find someone to cover for you. I'd rather have someone stay home sick because I don't want to get sick. Now that I have my own restaurant, I find the time to take a vacation and work trips because we train well and are able to trust our employees to do the job without me being there.
6. Customer satisfaction is important, but it shouldn't influence the food you put out. We rarely hear any issues with our food, and if we do hear something, we immediately correct it. I don't believe that I'm always right and I don't believe that the customer is always right, but if they don't like the food, they don't like it. However, I don't believe in customers shaping the menu. If you're constantly just relying on your customers to decide on your menu, you're not really doing your job. You should be confident enough about the food you're preparing and the menu you're putting out there to make it your own. If you're looking for a guest to dictate a menu, you're nothing better than a chain restaurant, because they dictate their menu based on what people want.
7. Most people won't appreciate how much goes into their meal besides cooking it. You're cooking the whole time a restaurant is open, but you're there for hours before that prepping. It really depends on the restaurant, but in general, the nicer the restaurant, the longer you're prepping. If you're going [to a chain], you shouldn't expect for that food to ever really have been touched by a chef. They're probably just pulling it out of a frozen bag and putting it into the pan. There's not any skill that goes into that. But I'm braising a chicken and picking it apart, cooking vegetables, making sure asparagus is properly trimmed. There's a lot of skill and little components that go into every single plate, and people don't always understand that all of that contributes to the meal's cost.
8. People will assume your life is like the lives of chefs they see on TV. I think the whole perception of what chefs do in pop culture makes it seem a lot more glamorous than it really is. I feel like Anthony Bourdain's books sort of re-instigated that chefs are living that kind of crazy life. But there are plenty of line cooks who are line cooks for their entire lives. And that's OK, because the industry needs line cooks. Not everybody can become a chef. Pop culture portrays it as this really sexy job, but it's not. It's really hard labor.
9. You can have ambitious goals that don't include wanting to be a TV chef. There are plenty of people who want to do the whole TV chef thing, but I feel like at that point, you want to be a personality instead of wanting to be a chef/owner or a chef at all. When you start being recognized for your work, shows actually approach you. I decided to turn [those opportunities] down because it's not something I was ever interested in in the first place.
10. It's especially hard to be a woman or a person of color. It's pretty male-dominated, and then when you actually find females, there are very few women of color. I worked with one female chef for the first couple of years I started cooking, and then there were a few more later on, but you still feel pretty isolated. There are so many men and you don't have any alliances with anyone else, and there are lots of crude, crappy jokes and you just kind of deal even though it sucks. It's not even proving that you can do the job — it's about actually being able to do the job better than everyone else. I'm doing my own hiring for my restaurants now, and I make it a huge point to make sure I have that balance. I have a diverse workforce because I know it doesn't feel great to be the only female or person of color in your kitchen.
11. Dating or having a family is incredibly difficult. When I first started cooking, I was in a long-term relationship that ended because I spent so much time working and was so focused on my career. I absolutely don't regret it. Now I'm able to finally give my all to a relationship because I have some time that I can actually give. It's also about finding someone who's able to put in the time that you need them to and to give up a lot more. It's a pretty selfish industry. If somebody wants to have a family, I'm not sure I would really recommend it because of the amount of time you're putting into work. It just requires so much of your attention, and you have to constantly be present at work mentally and physically.
12. You have very little free time, so appreciate it when you do. I feel like reading or wandering through my own city and stopping in somewhere to get a coffee is a luxury. You become really appreciative of those moments. I don't do things that are time sucks, like watching TV, because I feel like it's a complete waste. I'm a big reader, so that's the kind of thing I find luxurious. I don't know what anybody else does, but maybe watching a movie for someone else gives them the same type of feeling.
13. Being a good chef involves so much more than just cooking. It's about creating a menu, environment, and setting for whatever you're creating, and figuring out what the food looks like and feels like. I can teach you how to make a perfectly roasted chicken, but it's still just going to be a perfectly roasted chicken. It's what you do with it after that. You can put a roasted chicken on a plate and it's fine, but it's how you plate the dish, what you do with the rest of the ingredients, and the finishing touches that make a dish stand out. I think if you're not constantly trying new things and trying new ideas on food, you're not really pushing yourself to become a better chef.
By Kate Beckman | Cosmo Politan