What Is A Typical Workday For A Chef?

"I am curious about the culinary field. I think I want to be a chef, not just a server, so I am looking into attending a culinary arts schools. But I am curious about what it's really like to be a chef. I would like to know if I'll enjoy it before I make the big commitment of going to school for it."

asked by Pete from Pensacola, Florida

It is important to know that you should attend culinary school to become a chef. It can help you get your foot in the door at high-end restaurants, but many successful chefs and restaurant owners started in entry-level positions with no degree. In fact, industry professionals often recommend working in a kitchen, in any position, for at least six months to a year before applying to culinary school.

That way you will know if this field is really for you before you make that expensive commitment. Passion and a love of food is important, but it is also crucial to make sure that your body can handle the long hours and intense physical and mental stress that comes with working in a kitchen.

A career as a chef is extremely demanding. Chefs usually work long hours, up to 12-hour days, 5 days a week. They are expected to work when the restaurant is busiest, which is usually evenings, weekends, and holidays. Salaried chefs may get paid days off and sick leave, but that is not common. Working in a kitchen means being on your feet, in intense heat and stressful conditions, for long stretches of time.

Sometimes the restaurant is too busy for you to stop and eat dinner yourself! There is a lot of yelling, running around with heavy pots, chopping, and rushing. It is very, very hot, and you wear full uniforms with long sleeves and pants, aprons, and hats. Cutting and burning yourself are common, and chefs’ fingers are often a mess of scars. You have to be fast, always on your toes, able to cut 5 pounds of fennel or 100 onions in record time. You also have to be highly adaptable, especially in a high-end restaurant that offers a local or seasonal menu with variable dishes.

You also need to be able to creatively adapt to running out of an ingredient, someone ruining a dish, or the dietary substitutions needed by a customer. The intensity and need for speed in the kitchen often causes manners and courtesy amongst employees to be thrown out the window. Cursing and mild to severe verbal abuse is not uncommon.

Because so much time is spent in the kitchen, chefs are sometimes consumed by their work and have limited social lives outside of the restaurant or bar. Burnout, alcoholism, and drug abuse are very real issues amongst people who work in kitchens. And the physically demanding nature of the work takes its toll on the body.

That said, being a chef can also be incredibly rewarding and creatively fulfilling. The lower-level positions involve a lot of taking orders and cutting ingredients. But as one advances, the opportunities to improvise, create recipes, and offer creative input increase. The joy that enticed one into the industry in the first place returns when you get to choose unique and exciting ingredients and craft new dishes.

You get the change to play with ingredients you might never have access to otherwise. And becoming an executive chef or opening your own restaurant gives you complete creative control over the menu, and the opportunity to birth a new type of cuisine or style of preparation into the world.

Being a chef is an intense, challenging, and partially insane career choice. Those who endure and thrive do so because they love the work, love the pace, and especially love the food.

Career Spotlight: Chef

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