You love to cook. You watch Food Network and Iron Chef religiously. You know you can do it. You decide to follow your dream of becoming a chef.
Before you submit your application to culinary school, there’s some information about being a chef and pursuing a career in the industry that you should know.
First, there’s some bad news. We don’t want to scare you off, but the likelihood of you becoming the next Iron Chef is damn near zero. In fact, you have a better chance of becoming a starting center for the NBA. On average, 81% of students that apply to the Culinary Institute of America are admitted. Over the last five years, enrollment has grown by a whopping 48%. This mean you are certainly not alone in your dream to be a star chef. More bad news – the average drop-out rate for first year students is between 25-51%, depending on the school and location. By the fourth year, only 49% remain in the programs to graduate.
While the number of budding culinary arts students has increased, the number of open positions has not matched it. There’s been a meager 5% increase in available chef positions. With an average pay of $9.88 (2012) per hour, it makes it a challenge to pay off student loans in excess of $60,000+ without working multiple jobs or leaving the culinary industry altogether.
In the field of culinary arts, there is no fast track, no skipping ahead. It doesn’t matter if you complete a two year community college program or a four year program at the best school in the country. No graduate of the program will walk out of school and right into an Executive Chef position. This is a field where respect and training are earned the old fashioned way – you work for them. A culinary school graduate should expect a 5-10 year timespan of active learning, performing multiple jobs and roles, before they are eligible to become a Sous or Executive Chef. A great number of graduates give up on the field during this time, either out of frustration or due to financial hardships.
There are some skills that will help you along your career path, and successful chefs have subscribed to them religiously. You don’t succeed in the field of culinary by chance; you succeed because you are passionate, dedicated, hard-working and very lucky.
First, you should practice the foundations you learned in culinary school over and over and over again. You will need to be so well versed in knife cuts, sauces and stocks that you rehearse them in your sleep. The more your practice, the easier it becomes and the faster you get.
New entrants in the field should understand that hard work is expected. You will work long hours, every single day – sometimes up to 12 or 14 straight. You’ll need to take care of yourself to keep this pace, especially your back and your feet. A chef can teach you cooking skills, but they will have no patience or tolerance for someone who is not dependable.
There is always more to learn. Even executive chefs stay on top of trends and new methods, new flavors or expand their knowledge by studying different cultures and cuisines. You will never know everything, but you should always strive to learn new things, even if it’s ‘off the clock’. It will keep you interested, energized and add value to your portfolio.
On a related note – consider yourself and your career a ‘brand’. Keep a portfolio of skills, coworkers and supervisors. Market yourself appropriately and professionally. Clearly define how you want to be seen by your peers and work hard at maintaining it. It takes effort to build and cultivate a brand, and only one mistake to cause a lot of damage. Guard it well.
From the time you begin in the field of culinary, you should nurture a network of peers and contacts in the industry. If you go to school, keep a list of fellow students and staff and remain in contact. As you work and meet new people, whether its coworkers, suppliers and vendors, supervisors or competitors, add them to your list. Touch base occasionally. Practice putting names to faces, along with roles and things that make them unique. You never know when you might be looking for work, and if you remain in contact they will know you as well.
Lastly, it’s becoming even more important to respect the source of your food. Farmers, producers and manufacturers dedicate themselves to creating a high quality product that becomes your raw materials. Your job is to nurture the product and refine its flavors. You can’t do that with a crappy product. Show appreciation and understanding for the entire process.
There are no guarantees in culinary arts. If you are passionate, work hard, are patient and a little lucky, you just might make it to see the name ‘Chef’ embroidered on your jacket.