So You Want to be a Chef?Wednesday, November 20
For the third year in a row I was invited to NAIT to be a guest judge at their 15th annual Toque Demagny Competition. This is an event that showcases the talent of the students of the Culinary Arts program, with a second-year student leading a first-year student as they prepare a three-course meal, featuring Alberta fare like fresh pickerel and wild game. The 12 teams compete for seven various scholarships awarded. It’s a great opportunity as a chef to connect with the young students, watch their progress, and provide feedback to the aspiring chefs. It’s the least I can do to help the organization that helped to set me on the right path in my career.
Throughout my time I have shared countless recipes and stories of events not to be missed, I have even shared the highlights of the Toque Demagny event, but in all that time I don’t think I have ever steered you straight about how to go about starting a career in this industry. What better time to help guide you in the right direction if you are considering making this a career.
First things first though, The industry is not all sunshine and lollipops.
If you value your social life this is not the career for you. Chances are the people you work with online will become closer than family because, quite frankly, you will spend more time with them then your family
If you enjoy the holidays this career isn’t for you. While your family is cuddled around the fireplace after dinner you’ll be slaving over the stove for everyone who doesn’t want to cook at home.
If you have aspirations of great wealth and fame this is not a career for you. For every wealthy chef there are a 100,000 chefs living just above the poverty line.
If you can’t handle stress this job isn’t for you. The constant pressure of deadlines, labour goals, food cost targets, customer satisfaction, and just the day to day stress of working on line in a kitchen can wear a person down.
Don’t have a thick skin? Then this isn’t the career for you. Chefs tend to be the most blunt, crass, and harsh people you will meet. Sure, some of us have softened, but the persona of Gordon Ramsey is not that far from reality.
The first thing I would encourage anyone considering this field as a career to do is to is to find a restaurant they respect and reach out to the chef. Once you talk to the chef and decide to soldier on, offer to volunteer your time in his kitchen. I know it may sound crazy, but it is imperative to immerse yourself in a real kitchen for a period of time before you sign up for school, wasting time, money, and perhaps even taking the spot of someone with more desire to pursue this as a career than you. While talking to the chef be sure to inquire about what you can be expected to learn and ind out just how much they actually prepare from scratch. If you have dined there and done a little homework it should be quite easy to tell how much is made fresh in house. That’s important, because going to a restaurant where you simply reheat convenience foods is not going to give you a true indication of what this career is all about. Most chefs will jump at the opportunity of free labour, just don’t get sucked into being his lackey or errand boy, doing all of the less than desirable jobs in the kitchen. Don’t kid yourself either though, chances are you won’t be breaking down a whole pig or preparing consommé from scratch on your first day. There will be a certain degree of paying your dues that will be required.
In my experience people will either quickly fall in love with the intensity, pressure and excitement of a kitchen, or they will run like the wind. If you manage to last your trial period and enjoy the trade then it’s time to pursue an education. There are two traditional routes you can take. The first is to take a full-time culinary arts program. This is typically a two-year program requiring your full commitment, leaving little time to work while going to school. The benefits of this program are enormous as the education is extensive. It has been my experience that most students who graduate from this have a strong fundamental understanding of the classic cooking techniques.
The second option is the apprenticeship program, T a three-semester program that requires eight weeks in the classroom, followed by 10 months in a kitchen. The skills are only touched upon in school and the expectation is for the student to retain the required skills while in the field. If working with the right chef and learning the fundamentals this can be a beneficial route to take, as the hands-on practical experience can’t be beat, but you need to be working with a chef willing to fully commit to your success. Don’t settle for a kitchen where you are not growing!
My experience with students from the two programs is that the culinary arts students are very book smart and have a broad knowledge base, whereas the apprenticeship students are far less book smart, but are more ready for the reality of a high paced kitchen.
Either way, I would encourage all who are interested in this field to complete their education and to pursue their journeyman’s certificate and red seal.
And you don’t have to travel far to pursue either of these options. NAIT offers both of these programs and is one of the most well equipped culinary schools in the country, along with some of the most talented and committed faculty. They offer wonderful culinary competitions and have taken Team NAIT to compete against some of the world’s best chefs, bringing home stacks of medals and trophies along the way. Due to the generosity of great community support they are also able to host fantastic Chef in Residence programs where the young students can work with and learn from famous celebrity chefs like Rob Feenie, Chris Cosentino, and Susur Lee, while they attend the school.
Once you have your ticket, the world is your oyster. You can find work anywhere and pick up new skills at every stop along the way.