I went to culinary school six years ago to become a chef. Everyone was talking about the latest Jamie show. My chef was dead against it. The first words we got was not to become a chef if you want to be like Jamie Oliver.
I had been in computers for a short while before I decided that this was finally it – so I headed off to a prestigious school run by two top rated chefs. I was half way through a business diploma, which I was doing from home, but once I heard I got in, I dropped that as quickly as I could and started to focus on what really mattered.
Every day was a new challenge, where we learned either something new in the pastry kitchen like a traditional brioche or proper demi glace in the hot kitchen. This was the only type of theory that really got me excited - learning about the science of cooking and how it all comes together.
As a new chef, you will find that there are plenty of challenges and obstacles thrown in your way, but hopefully you will take them in a positive light and if you have the passion, you can keep on growing in your career.
I’m going to stay away from what you see on the Food Network or your impressions of Julia Child and give you some more of the realities of what it takes to be a chef in this day and age. Is a passion for fine ingredients, new techniques and methods enough?
Once you have the basics, there will be a whole new world open to you...May the world be your oyster!
Are you cut out to be a chef?
Standing in front of a TV camera tossing onions in a pan is very different from the real life situation, so you can understand why so many big culinary schools are against cocky young chefs trying to turn this into entertainment. In reality, it is all about blood, sweat and tears. This is what people find out later down the line and many of them are disappointed that they are not treated like the celeb chef they were trying to imitate on TV.
It is important to ask yourself a few questions before you waltz into the catering industry and become a chef. If you do your homework first time around and know you are suited to the job then you won’t have a problem. It’s a whole lot easier to do the hard ground work because in the long run you will look back with much relief. There are a ton of people who go through with culinary academies and find that they are not cut out for it or don’t even like the industry.
You may have even seen chefs on T.V in a reality show cooking up a storm and you think you may be able to handle that kind of pressure. However, you have to realize that this is not a once off. This happens day in and day out. Sometimes you will have a bad day and find that you will have to work a double shift. Maybe you didn’t sleep very well, but that’s ok, because you can crash somewhere for 2 hours before you have to start your engine up again. It sounds exciting, but it will wear you down.
Have I put you off yet? Am I being negative? This is only the beginning and to be completely sure, you have to be realistic and know what you are getting into.
I love the industry, but not everyone does. So, that’s why we need dig in deep. It's definitely not a 9 - 5 job. It’s filled with activity from kneading dough for Indian style bread, shaping spanokopitas for a big function or making good old mac and cheese for 70 hungry people. It’s also probably one of the most challenging jobs around.
If you can survive the first couple of months, this means you have the desire to succeed. If you wonder what you are doing running around for other people then ask yourself the question if Emeril Lagasse started as a hot shot and the answer will be a strongly sounding no.
The pressure of culinary school
Culinary school is not going to be much easier either if you don’t go in with the right attitude. However, this is just the beginning, and you may have to prepare yourself for the real world, depending on which school you went to and where you are going to work.
You will learn to grow up very quickly, especially if you are someone who has come straight from school. This is like the army – no kidding! Chefs are not stupid – they can see that you have been wearing the same chef’s jacket twice in a row or that you forgot to polish your shoes.
You will probably find that you will benefit from a chef school that has a high reputation to be tough as nails on every student that enters through their doors. If you go somewhere which is nice and gentle and relaxed, that is all well and good, but what happens when you enter the real world – you are going to freak out!
Let’s just call it tough love – if you think your chef is being harsh on you, he is only doing it for your own good. Stepping into a real life situation in a five star hotel for me was a whole new ball game.
This was something completely different to culinary school. Standing at my chef’s station, the chef shouts “Go find me some almonds!” Run – I have customers waiting” Forgetting everything about what was taught previously – never ever run on slippery surfaces, but if you have a big fat guy with a knife in his hand looking at you, you choose to ignore those instructions.
This was pressure I had not experienced before and was not expecting either. Probably the biggest dramas that my class came close to was going to functions and helping with the functions or getting timed to cook a three course meal.
However, this was definitely something else. With 12 hours a day on your feet, dealing with arrogant attitudes amongst the kitchen brigade or the chef’s salary which didn’t amount to much, it is no surprise why commis start to drop out like flies as soon as they enter the kitchen. These are some of the questions you have to ask yourself before you take on a career like this.
How to do to prepare for culinary school
If you are dead set on this idea, then you should get to know a couple of things before you set foot into your school. Of course, a lot of people aren’t this thorough. Most people just try and convince the chef that they have a passion to be a chef, but sometimes that is not enough when the heat is on.
Probably the best way to get a feel for what the industry is going to be like and discovering if culinary school is really for you, is to find a job in a kitchen. This is not always easy to do because in a stressful environment like this, chefs often get annoyed with someone hanging about in the kitchen.
Getting to know the basic terms and learn the drills even before you enter your college is a great idea. Don’t have the attitude that they are going to teach you everything. Most courses are an average of two years and there is a lot to practice in that time, especially in the early stages.
Learn your basic knife drills. This will be the first thing that you get to know about in the kitchen, but it will take you a while to get you up to speed and you are doing a million other things as well so really work on this.
Have a couple of band aids in your pockets because you are going to need them. These should be well stocked up at the school, but you don’t want to running around trying to find a plaster. Don’t go shouting around to your chef, “Ah, I cut, myself!” Play it cool. Sneak a plaster out of your pocket and carry on with your job. Nobody is going to have sympathy for you.
It may just put you off because chefs will have a bad attitude towards you. They can be extremely, especially if you are new. This is just natural and kind of childish if you ask me – most chefs feel because they were treated like rubbish when they first started out, so they should pass that on. One the other hand, so many people come and go, so why should they be sweet and kind.
If you get through all of this, you are ready to go on to the next level and start to find the job of your dreams.