Becoming a Chef

What is a Cook?

A cook is a soldier. Someone who executes prep and items on the a la carte or catering menu over and over again. A cook is a technician that is responsible for maintaining the standard for the product being sold. A seasoned cook is someone who can develop and manage a prep list, efficiently set up a station and demonstrate the techniques needed to produce the Chef's vision. A cook is not necessarily a student. Some cooks are happy being cooks and don't aspire to becoming a Chef and that's ok.


What is a Chef?

A chef possesses all of the qualities of a seasoned cook but should also have a separate set of knowledge and skills. A chef should be a leader and mentor who sets an example for the team. A chef understands the financial goals of the operation and has mastered the management of those goals. Chefs are motivators, mentors, creators, and decision makers. We drive the ship and make sure that our cooks have the resources they need to meet the standards that we set. Hopefully, the chef inspires others to become chefs and pays forward all of their knowledge. A chef should realize that it is about more than just the food. To be successful as a chef, you need to start focusing less on your culinary knowledge and more on your knowledge of people. I'm not suggesting that we should ever stop seeking new methods, techniques or recipes. Of course, we should always allow our food philosophies to evolve. I'm just saying that at some point, we need to put a significant amount of effort into our management style and people skills. You can't lead if nobody wants to follow you. Being a seasoned cook alone, does not qualify anyone as being a great Chef. Through my career, I've met many people that held the title of chef. I've also seen many with the title that were amazing cooks, but terrible leaders struggling to keep a job as a result of their lack of people skills. I see examples of this often when I'm searching for Sous Chefs to hire for my own kitchen. The way I see it, you can be the best "chef" in town interviewing with me, but if you have a poor attitude and abrasive management style, I'll pass every time. I would rather have someone with half the experience and food knowledge as long as they have a positive attitude and were willing to admit their flaws. Teaching someone to be a stronger cook is a lot easier than teaching someone to be a better person.


Where is the Carrot?

One day, I heard that one of our "Junior" Sous Chefs believed that they were not allowed to take a break, despite the fact that all of our cooks get breaks. I brought this to the attention of one of my Senior Sous Chefs and asked why this person might feel this way. The answer was, "he doesn't get to take a break because he's a Sous Chef." This was not a good answer for me so I asked for further elaboration on that idea. He explained that he believed that since this chef was leading the kitchen, that he needed to stay in the kitchen to set an example of work ethic for the team. After all, "that's how it was when we were sous chefs." Now there's quite a bit to unpack there but I I'll try to get straight to the point. The only message that we were sending to the team is that it is much better to be a cook than a sous chef. At least cooks get breaks. Why would I want to move up to a sous chef position if I have to trade in some of my life quality? Chefs are perpetual victims that are plagued by insanely long days and very little time outside of work. I hear Chefs all the time say that they "lead by example" and get on the line to scrub down with the team at the end of the night. Their reason for this is so that the cooks see that the chef can do everything that's being asked of them. They do it to show they're part of the team and willing to be "in the trenches" as well. I have a different opinion. Where is the carrot that we dangle in front of our cooks that makes them aspire to the next level? I believe that going home a little earlier sends the message that "I run such an efficient operation that I get to spend more time with my family," or "follow me and I will show you how you can enjoy life as a chef one day." I'm quite certain that your cooks know that you're capable of scrubbing a flat surface with soapy water and most likely assume that you did a lot of that earlier in your career. Why would they want to be you if they can't see a positive difference between their lives and yours?


Now I know that we are all in different situations and some of you are thinking, "I have to jump in and help the team prepping and cleaning because my upper management or owner of the restaurant won't let me have the resources I need to back away from it." The only advice I can give if that's the case is fight for what you need or find a new job. I know that sounds extreme and the easy thing would be to dismiss that as ridiculous and label me as someone who just doesn't understand how it is. Actually, I do understand how it is. That's why I'm trying to change it.


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