Is Culinary Arts the Career for You?

Just because you like to cook doesn’t mean you have what it takes to be a professional chef. Obviously love and curiosity of food is a start, but there are countless intangibles to becoming a successful cook or chef that must be considered when choosing this career path. 

Culinary Arts & Industry

Many people are drawn to the culinary field because of its artistic side. They enjoy working with their hands creating flavorful foods and exciting presentations that provide instant gratification to their guests. When considering the culinary field as a career path consider the positives and negatives in terms of your own personality.

School Or Work?

Before spending money on school, it's a good idea to work in the industry to see if you like it. Just because you enjoy cooking for family and friends doesn't mean you will like professional cooking. A culinary professional often works nights, weekends, and holidays. 

The Kitchen Environment

Professional cooking is a physical sport and a marathon at that. Strong physical endurance and stamina are required. You will be standing on your feet for long hours at a time; you will get blisters and calluses on your hands, burns on your arms, and cuts on you fingers. The stress can be overwhelming, especially during peak rush times at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There is never enough time to get things done, and you must constantly be performing multiple tasks at once to stay ahead of the game. A cook who is focused and organized will overcome these obstacles.

Professional kitchens can be small, cramped spaces, and often ill-equipped. They may be hot, stuffy, and filled with tools and equipment that can burn, cut, or even maim you. The heat of the kitchen, especially in summers, can be unbearable. Improvisation is a way of life in the kitchen because you may not have the proper equipment or the right ingredients to do a particular preparation. Those who succeed and advance in this environment are able assess and adjust quickly to the needs of the operation.

Work for the Best - Seek a Mentor

The chef, managers, and owners may not be the kindest people, and you may find some of the people you work with to be rough and hard to get along with. There may be alcohol, drug abuse, or behavioral issues that affect the mood of the establishment. The good news is that there are reputable chefs and restaurateurs who can mentor and help you learn and grow in the field. They maintain a respectful business that doesn't tolerate harassment or hostility in their workplace and attract likeminded employees. These are the people you want to work for when building your culinary career.

Adapting to the Kitchen Pace

You must be able to adapt to rapid changes without letting it get the best of you. Reservations may be cancelled or the numbers in a party may be increased at the last minute. Food orders may be modified or cancelled in the middle of prepping or plating. Special requests may come in on the fly and you are expected to complete them instantly.  Accomplished chefs are able to ride these changes without letting it get to them.

Passion and Pride

Chefs love to work with their hands to develop their craft. They take pleasure in refining their skills through repetition and experimentation.  But they also know that no kitchen job is too insignificant or small including basic prep work or even washing pots and pans. It’s all about the attention to details and the goal of perfecting your skills and those of your team. The rewards and satisfaction of producing a creative, perfectly executed menu is motivation enough for most chefs.

Success in the Kitchen Requires Focus

Newbies must develop a balanced approach to the culinary profession. Learn good techniques, develop all the senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Having a curiosity about food tastes and textures, and a willingness to try new foods and flavor combination, will help to expand a your repertoire.

An accomplished chef learns how to organize prep for efficient production, keeps a clean station, and follow through on tasks. They have a collegial spirit, a willingness to collaborate as a team, and to help out others as needed to achieve the common goals of the kitchen.

You must be aware of rapidly changing trends in the industry, seek out help and advice from other chefs and co-workers, collaborate with co-workers on a daily basis, and be able to talk to customers and industry representatives,  

When it comes to food and taste, seasoned chefs instinctively know what works and what does not work. They develop a memory bank of flavors, tastes, aromas, textures, colors, and mouth feel that to imagine new dishes and flavor experiences.

Dining out or doing stages in other kitchens will help accelerate your learning and competence. Taking seminars, workshops, and professional classes also helps to reinvigorate the creative juices. Your skills and knowledge will accelerate by being conscious of flavor and taste. When dining out, take the time to evaluate food and remember winning flavor combinations that you experience. Try to replicate things you’ve tasted so you can personalize it and make it your own. Keep up on trends, learn about different ethnic cuisines, and experiment with new equipment and techniques to feed your curiosity.

Learn to cook intuitively and don’t be a slave to recipes. Develop a solid foundation of culinary math, cooking ratios, and percentages, so you can cook on the fly. An understanding of culinary science will eliminate many frustrating failures. But failures can sometimes lead to breakthroughs, so a chef should never get discouraged by them.

Creativity and improvisation, when it’s grounded by knowledge and skill, allows a chef to cope with challenging situations and achieve great results.

Are you Passionate?

  • Passion for cooking and working with the public

  • Culinary math and the science

  • Practicing your te techniques

  • Do you want to know why foods act a certain way when combined and cooked?

  • Are you aware of the great contemporary chefs, and what is happening in the food service industry?

  • Do you read books, magazines, and newspapers about the culinary field?

  • Do you know who the great chefs are in the world, in your country or in your community?

  • Do you have a culinary library at home?

  • Do you search for culinary trends or look for answers to culinary questions online?

  • Do you watch culinary videos on YouTube?

  • Do you try to meet chefs and cooks who are active in your city and seek them out for advice and help with your career?

  • Are you curious about culinary tools, equipment, and new techniques?

  • Do you go to farmers markets to talk to the farmers and vendors about their products?

  • Do you seek out opportunities to interact with other cooks and chefs at community and industry events?

  • Do you practice your skills, even the ones you hate, at every opportunity including your days off?

Getting Up to Speed in the Kitchen

Station Setup

  • Develop a prep sheet and timeline for execution and completion.

  • Determine priorities for what items need to be started first and what items are secondary.

  • Be active and engaged while in the kitchen, and move with a sense of urgency and purpose.

  • Set up your station properly starting with your cutlery set, cutting boards, sanitation bucket.

  • Keep containers at your station for waste, usable trim, and compost.

  • Don’t forget to sharpen and steel your knives regularly. If you have your knives out you should always have your steel out.

  • When beginning your prep work in the kitchen, take as many things you can gather for your mise en place at one time to your station.

  • Never walk anywhere empty handed. If you are going to the storeroom, or walk-in, what can you take back to storage?

  • Eliminate trips to the walk-in cooler, dry storage, or dish room by getting enough things to keep you busy for a while but not so much that it creates clutter, disorganization, or food safety issues.

Begin Production

  • Make sure you equipment is turned on and pre-heat broilers, ovens, etc.

  • Assemble all of your tools and small wares for service.

  • When firing food, learn what to start first, what can be started and somewhat ignored, and what needs constant attention.

  • Remember that items taking the longest to cook should be started the earliest (stocks, soups, sauces, braises and stews).

  • Choose larger tasks or preps that don’t require 100% of your attention the entire time so you can complete smaller tasks in between (dicing veg can be done in between braising or sauce prep).

  • Start two or three projects at once that you can monitor and rotate through as they are developing or cooking.

  • Combine like tasks for faster prep and use the same movements to all the items. For example; peel all vegetables at once, diced all onions for multiple preps at once, blanch all vegetables at once.

  • Place a pile of small items like mushrooms or green beans on your cutting board for prepping rather than picking them out of a container one at a time.

Check-In & Check-Off

  • Ask the chef, sous chef, or other cooks how long it typically should take to do a preparation or to set up your station.

  • Check the time when you start a project. See how long it takes to complete and work to beat that time during the next opportunity.

  • Focus on not wasting movements

  • Think of the whole prep work process as a huge puzzle and as you become familiar with your station all the pieces will come together.

  • Consistency is important; if you have the speed but produce a subpar product you will lose time fixing it.

  • Practice and repetition will make you faster and more efficient

  • Be better tomorrow than you were today, and better still the day after tomorrow

Working the Line

Teamwork & Communication

  • Communication with the culinary team is important during service time

  • Special requests will always create problems if you aren’t paying proper attention to details

Working the Rush

  • Speed often results in sloppy work especially if you have to spend extra time to redo it

  • Take time for plate presentations

  • Taking a little extra time to complete an order is often forgiven if you deliver quality food

  • Having sufficient mise en place, par levels, and backups will help you stay out of the weeds

  • Practice repetitive motions for minimal movement

Review & Replenish

  • Keep hydrated

  • Step back occasionally to get a better focus on your orders

  • Periodically ask for an “all day” so you make sure you haven’t missed any orders

  • It’s better to under-cook a steak a little because it can always be cooked more. If it’s overcooked you have to throw it out and start over

  • Don’t forget to taste sauces and other preparations prior to the start of service.

  • Don’t forget to season foods properly; taste as much as you can during service to maintain consistency

  • Don’t get discouraged when multiple tickets are called in, just keep focused

  • Don’t be too proud to ask for help if you get in the weeds!

Organization
Look at the big picture - Mental Focus

  • Be knowledgeable about your work station and understand how it integrates with the rest of the kitchen and the entire operation.

  • On your way to work before you begin your shift, plan and visualize your prep from start to finish.

Personal Mise en Place

  • Sharpen your cutlery prior to the start of your shift.

  • Organize the tools and equipment you will need at the beginning of your shift.

Planning Your Prep

  • Plan out a prep list of your station and know before you get in the door exactly what you will need to do to get your station set up in time for service.

  • A prep sheet includes par stock of each item needed for the day.

  • Set up order sheets if it is your responsibility to order food for your station.

Station Organization

  • Always follow through and finish up your prep; don’t leave things half done or not cleaned properly.

  • Return food and equipment to their proper storage place.

  • Don’t leave your prep work for others to do.

  • Practice multi-tasking and work simplification.

  • Keep a clean station and periodically stop to clean up and re-organize yourself.

  • Carry an instant read thermometer and a kitchen towel with you at all times

  • Use a timer to remind you when you have things in the oven.

  • De-cluttering will improve your work-space immediately.

  • Organize your space to allow for the most used items to be in easy reach. Organize your walk-in and reach-in areas similarly, making sure you label all allocated space - dry, cold, freezer, etc.

The Big & Small Picture

  • The key to productivity is not equal load-sharing but cross-trained people who can support more than one station. This is where training and coaching is critical.

  • Rushing doesn’t help if you have to do the job over again because it creates sloppiness and poor quality.

  • Pay attention to the small details that will make you a better culinary professional.

Culinary Skills

What every culinary professional should know

The Foundation

  • Mise en place skills, set up, service, breakdown and cleanup

  • Culinary math and science

  • Sanitation

  • Knife Skills

  • Classic vegetable cuts

  • Basic cooking techniques, sauté, grill, roast, fry, braise, bake, and poach

  • Herb and spice identification

  • How to season

  • Classic ethnic flavor profiles

  • Flavor layering

Stocks, Soups & Sauces

  • Stock preparation

  • Soup, clear, consommé, cream, puree, and bisque

  • Sauce Preparation, grande sauces, small sauces, beurre blanc, coulis, pan sauces

  • Cold sauces, vinaigrettes and emulsions

Proteins

  • Understand meat cuts to apply the appropriate cooking technique

  • Butchering meat, poultry and fish

  • Egg cookery, omelets, boiled, poached, fried

Veg Prep

  • Properly cooking vegetables to maintain good color and texture

  • Cleaning and handling fresh greens

  • Garnishing salads

  • Cooking grains and legumes

  • Pasta dough from scratch

Pastry

  • Basic pastry doughs

  • Basic cakes sponge, angel food

  • Ice cream and sorbet preparation

  • Quick breads and muffins

  • Yeast dough

  • Dessert sauces, anglaise, caramel, chocolate, fruit coulis

Math & Science

  • Know culinary math and study the science of cooking.

  • Know your measurements and learn to convert them from memory.

  • Learn how to cook less with recipes and more with ratios and percentages.

  • Know your techniques so that cooking becomes intuitive.

  • Pay attention to what happens in the cooking process so that you can repeat successes and avoid failures.

  • Keep a log or journal when you are testing recipes or techniques.

Improvisation

  • Learn to improvise cooking equipment, tools, and methods

  • Recognize that things change rapidly in food service.

  • Know how to substitute ingredients if you don’t have something in your kitchen.

  • Know how to set up makeshift equipment in case of power outages or equipment breakdown.

  • If the customer wants a substitution and that’s the policy, don’t complain about it just do it.

Team Work

  • The culinary arts is a team sport.

  • Cross-Train so you can assist in other areas of the kitchen as needed.

  • Help kitchen team members when they are in the weeds.

  • Have informal meetings during your shift to discuss kitchen production.

Temperament

  • A great chef has the stamina to keep going for long periods under high pressure

Career Planning

  • Stays focused on profession goals, and understand that all experiences will ultimately help in shaping your career.

  • Recognize that you may have to settle for less pay and do tedious work when you start out so you can learn and practice your craft.

  • Practice every chance, at home, at work, in your dreams, on your day off.

Be Physically & Mentally Fit

  • Stay physically fit because tedious prep work can make your back and feet ache.

  • You must be able to think on your feet and improvise when need be.

  • Be flexible when it comes to prep and service as things change on a moment’s notice.

  • Have outside interests to relieve stress; get to the gym for a work out, run, or meditate.

Stay Out of the Weeds and Avoid the Cliff

  • Don’t let the sound of another ticket coming in discourage you or stress you out.

  • Never compromise quality just for the sake of putting plates out.

  • Recognize immediately when you make a mistake and quickly identify if you can fix it without sacrificing standards.

  • Keep a cool head because there will be times when it is going to get rough and you will need to work through it.

  • Be curious, have a willingness to learn and never get complacent.

  • Stay cool and calm through anything a prep day or service can throw at you.