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Chef

Overview  

Hard, hot work in the kitchen

It takes a lot of work to get that cool white hat. Chefs work long and sometimes unconventional hours, oftentimes between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. and on weekends. Their social lives are significantly altered as a result. Pay is relatively low, though executive chefs and chefs at large city restaurants earn tasty salaries. Becoming a chef takes about 10 years of study, beginning with culinary school. Aspiring chefs usually work as unpaid apprentices while they are still in school in order to decide on a specialty of their own. They may labor for years as prep chefs or assistants, looking for any opportunity to demonstrate their prowess to the head chef. The years working toward chefdom aren't spent poring through cookbooks, either. The physical strain is enormous, as chefs must stay on their feet constantly, kneading, chopping, and stirring, as well as lift heavy pots. Besides the stress associated with preparing food for hungry, critical customers, chefs are occasionally saddled with the additional burden of ordering food, creating menus and managing large kitchen staffs.

In addition to the head chef, the kitchen of a large restaurant is crowded with other chefs and cooks, including the sous-chef, pastry chef, and short-order cooks. All positions in a kitchen can be seen as building blocks towards a career as a chef.

Aspiring chefs gravitate to large urban centers, where there is an abundance of restaurants and chefs who can serve as mentors and exchange ideas and food innovations. Executive chefs often partner with financial restauranteurs to open their own restaurants, like David Bouley of the world-famous and exclusive Bouley in New York. These top chefs spend more time associating with patrons and investors and away from the kitchen. Some well-known chefs also earn recognition and added income by writing cookbooks.

Career Path  

An aspiring chef must spend four years at an accredited cooking school, followed by at least five years of working under head chefs at different restaurants as an apprentice. Most chefs start out as support staff in the kitchen, with a special task to perform, such as preparing vegetables. Young chefs aim to be sous-chefs under the top brass at the best restaurants, particularly in large cities. They often work at several restaurants, acquiring experience under different mentors before they decide on a specialty, like desserts. Those who are able to withstand the high stress and pressure of the job will probably find themselves at the helm of a kitchen as head chef within 10 years. A head chef will direct a kitchen staff, in addition to preparing meals, or strike out to start his or her own restaurant.

Uppers  

Prestige;Constantly surrounded by food

Downers  

Long hours;High stress level;Potential for career burnout

Personality Match  

Organized;Opportunistic;Creative

Personality Miss  

Emotional;Pessimistic

Hours  

Average about 50 per week

Salary  

Average entry-level salary: $7 an hour for beginning kitchen workers;Executive chef: $38,000

Skills  

Certification from four-year cooking school (preferably one certified by the American Culinary Federation)

Our Survey Says  

Chefs view themselves as "bringing quality to life," and treat the profession as seriously as any corporate job. Being surrounded by the "beauty and the sensuality" of the food is "what every chef lives for" and why most of them would not dream of another profession. "For most of us, we have no other choice in life," explains one chef. "It is grueling and heartbreaking," but the rise up the ladder can be exhilarating, says another.

Aspiring chefs train under chefs they have "patterned their whole careers after." The training process is "so grueling, you think you can do anything when you come out--even major surgery." The dinner rush, between 6:30 and 9:30, turns the kitchen into an "intensive care unit-- high stress, high precision. If everything is working--and even sometimes when it's not--this is the time all cooks feel a head rush. One chef describes the routine as "exploration," because "you can truly forge your own route."

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