Do you have a passion for food and cooking?  Do you have a keen sense of smell and taste?  Do you have a strong leadership style?  If you answered yes to all three of these questions, then a career as a chef may be right up your alley.

Being a chef includes cooking delicious food and managing the overall operation of the kitchen.  In addition, you must understand menu planning, appreciate how ingredients work together, and develop a sense of style for creating visually pleasing plates.  Individuals interested in this field should also have the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in writing, have great attention to detail and organization, present a calm demeanor, and possess the ability to work in what can be a stressful and fast-paced environment for extended hours.

Career Overview

The majority of chef’s work what most would consider irregular hours.  They often work seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, including weekends and holidays.  The daily duties of a chef typically include the following:

  • Check the quantity and quality of food products to ensure standards are met
  • Ensure that employees follow sanitation standards and practices
  • Order items needed to ensure efficient operation
  • Supervise and coordinate food preparation
  • Determine how food should be presented and create visually esthetic food displays
  • Determine amounts and costs of supplies, including food and ingredients
  • Instruct other workers in the preparation, cooking, garnishing, and overall presentation of food
  • Collaborate with staff to plan and develop recipes and menus, taking into account varying factors

Chefs can find work in restaurants of course, but positions are also available in cafeterias, hotels, resorts, hospitals, private homes, and on cruise ships.  Larger establishments, such as hotels and big restaurants have specialized stations within their kitchens with each being responsible for preparing a certain kind of food.  Working for smaller restaurants or in a private home gives a chef the opportunity to use a wide range of skills and prepare a variety of foods.

Education, Training and Certification

So when the question, How do I Become a Chef? is asked – there are a few ways that it can be answered.  There are no standard or traditional steps to becoming a chef, but rather there are various ways and the best path for you may be different from someone else.

Formal education, apprenticeship, on-the-job training or working your way up, or a combination of these, are all paths to becoming a chef.  One path is not necessarily better than the other, rather it will depend upon the specific position or type of chef you want to be and the work environment that you have in mind to pursue.

The various chef positions include;

Executive Chef:  Primarily responsible for overseeing the operation of the kitchen, they coordinate the work of Sous chefs, chef de partie and other cooks, who prepare most of the meals.  Beyond their kitchen duties they handle the menu design, review food and beverage purchases, and often train employees.

Sous Chef:  The second-in-command to the executive chef, Sous chefs supervise the kitchen staff, handle some meal preparation tasks, and report directly to the executive chef.

Chef de Partie:  Work at the various stations in the kitchen preparing specific things such as sauces, salads, fish dishes, soups, and pastries.  Each chef de partie has its own title typically derived from French including; saucier, garde manger, poissonier, rotisseur, pastry chef, and fry cook.

Commis Chef:  This is translated to assistant chef or junior chef.  A commis chef typically works under a chef de partie.

Personal ChefPlan and prepare meals in private homes.  Often they order groceries and supplies, serve meals, and wash dishes and utensils.  Personal chefs are often self-employed or work for a private company, preparing food for a wide variety of customers.

Beginning with culinary school will provide you with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills required to work in the various chef positions noted above.  Basic cooking methods, safe handling of food, proper sanitation, food preparation techniques, nutrition, and menu planning are included in culinary school curriculum.

Attending culinary school will help to prepare you for entry-level career opportunities and may open doors for you in the culinary industry.  Such positions include a Commis Chef, or junior chef, a position that will provide you with a great deal of hands-on experience as you will assist various station chefs, or Chef de Partie.  At first your responsibilities may include the more mundane tasks such as peeling and dicing vegetables – but do not look at this as meaningless work.  It will help build up your technical skills and you will gain experience at maintaining the high standards that are required within a commercial kitchen environment.

For those who chose the on-the-job training route or work their way up through the ranks, the time that it takes to become a chef may be extended.  The majority of individuals who do not possess any culinary training or kitchen experience will begin their career in the kitchen in what is commonly referred to as the “dish pit”.  Although it is not the most sought after position, being a dishwasher will give you a good understanding of how the back of the house operates.  Proving yourself as a hard worker in such a position will also allow you to jump in and assist elsewhere when needed as a Commis Chef.  As you gain experience and knowledge along the way, you may have the opportunity to advance and work across the various kitchen stations as a Chef de Partie.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that many chefs participate in certificate or culinary degree programs, which take on average 2 to 4 years to complete.  A typical 2-year program will consist of courses on cooking principles, cost analysis, restaurant operations, inventory control, and pastry arts.  Culinary institutes, and many community colleges and technical schools also offer apprenticeship programs that present aspiring chefs with the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience.  These programs will extend the amount of time it takes for you to complete your degree, but the emphasis on practical experience and the connections that you make will benefit you once you have completed your studies.

Although certification is not required to become a chef, with thousands of chefs competing for positions it will help you along the path and lead to higher paying positions and career advancement.  Certification shows prospective employers that your skills and knowledge have reached a set industry benchmark.    The American Culinary Federation (ACF), a professional organization for chefs and cooks, offers certification for pastry professionals, personal chefs, and culinary educators in addition to various levels of chefs. The standards for certification are based primarily on work-related experience and formal training.  Depending on the level of certification sought, individuals will need a minimum of 6 months to 5 years of work experience.

In addition to certification information, the ACF has a National Apprenticeship Program and the website provides a list of secondary and post secondary accredited schools national wide, including those in Florida.  Their listing includes what ACF considers Exemplary Programs.  This means that the school symbolizes the highest education standards recognized by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEFAC).

For individuals who chose to pursue a degree in culinary arts, tuition will depend on whether you attend a public school (such as a community college) or a private school for training.  An associate’s degree from a community college will cost on average $22,000 for tuition, fees, book and supplies.  An associate’s degree from a private institution will range from $30,000 to $38,000, on average.  Additional expenses will include the certification application fee ($50), written exam fee ($75), and the practical exam fee ($50 for ACF members, $100 for non-members).  Recertification costs vary based on the level and membership with ACF.

Regardless of the path that you choose, becoming a chef will take hard work, plenty of long shifts, and attentive learning to reach your desired position in the kitchen.

Salary Information

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median national annual salary for chefs in 2011 was $42,300.  The median annual salary for chefs in Florida fell slightly above the national average at $45,900.  The median annual salaries for three distinct levels of chefs in select major cities in Florida are shown below.

Executive Chef Sous Chef Chef de Partie
Jacksonville $65,734 $41,086 $33,719
Miami $67,230 $42,021 $34,486
Orlando $64,235 $40,149 $32,950
Tampa $64,704 $40,442 $33,190
Tallahassee $62,993 $39,372 $32,312

 

Career Outlook

Both the Occupational Information Network (O*Net) and the BLS project the employment of chefs to experience little or no change through 2020.  Job opportunities are expected to be the best for those individuals with several years of work experience and a combination of business and managerial skills.  The majority of openings will come from individuals who have chosen to leave the career field.

Some Advice from the Inside

Some information cannot be found on the internet or in a book.  That information is the valuable insight that can only be gained by talking with someone who has followed a path to becoming a chef and held a position as a Chef.  Considered one of the great chefs of Northwest Florida, Florida Celebrity Chef, Executive Chef at Jackson’s Steakhouse in Pensacola, and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Irv Miller graciously shared his insight into the world of cooking, his career as a chef, and what he deems as the most important things to remember as you embark upon this career.

“Due in part to the Food Network and chefs competing for the spotlight, and the immediate sense of reward for performance, there has been much attention to considering becoming a chef as a career option.  Too often, many students attending culinary school have never worked in a professional restaurant.  Students will be highly disappointed in the industry if they do not have a clear direction in mind.

Defining the key elements of career success as a chef pertains to a chef’s personal goals and values. Each person will be different.  For me, it has always been to be independent, to make a long-term living, and to be a well-versed chef.  Of course, I hoped to be received well by my colleagues and peers, perceived as being at the top of my game, and to find a balance between work and family.  It has been difficult. Better each decade, but for the most part, chefs’ responsibilities never really change.  We are expected to work holidays and weekends, and we’re reminded daily to never forget we are in the service industry. We are expected to provide excellent product in a limited time period and many times in mass quantities.  So, enough of the big head and the silver-lined, chef-stardom industry.  It’s not a ride in the park or a road to a normal lifestyle schedule.  For me, it is normal and has become my lifestyle.  I worked in restaurants six years before attending the Culinary Institute of America.  In retrospect, my schedule is opposite of everyone else’s.

Priorities and things to consider these days include family and income, areas of the country to mentor, television, institutional cooking, catering opportunities, retirement facilities, student and faculty cafeteria cooking, and much more.  Your priorities may need to be focused toward more daytime-schedule chef opportunities.  You may choose to seek a job that is family oriented and can provide you with a more acceptable schedule versus personal career goal success at any cost.  In some cases, traveling and mentoring recognition is a priority.  I trained under so and so; he’s the best in the region. Success for one chef will be different for another.  I recommend finding your niche.  Pick an angle that you are really good at and that you particularly enjoy, and go for it.

If you’re serious about the industry, stay passionate and remain faithful to your goals.  Make a 5, 10, and 15-year plan.  For career longevity, find a balanced lifestyle in search of acceptable financial rewards for your career direction and efforts, work, family, relaxation and exercise.  Remember to keep your ego in check. For me, it’s curious being called a celebrity chef.  I don’t really consider myself a celebrity. Only a small percentage of chefs actually become well-known celebrity chefs.

Enjoy your career; learn as much as you can; travel, share as much information as you can with others; enjoy people, and spread goodwill.  When you’re off duty, cook for your family no matter how tired you are!  Be a good listener and always work hard – When times are tough, work harder!”

Ready to move towards a career as a chef?  Review our list of Culinary Arts training programs in Florida.  To find a school near you, enter the name of your city in the search box at the top of the page.