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Advice from professional chef on pursuing a culinary career

By André NateraJanuary 27, 2016

Chefs preparing food
Chefs preparing food iStock

Culinary schools have long been the training ground for many chefs, so the recent news that the Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools will be closing their doors is a game changer for the industry. I see the fear creeping into the eyes of chefs who have been using culinary schools to find talent. Now we need to go to plan B. How will aspiring chefs educate themselves? Plenty of great school remain, but what happens to the void left behind by all the Le Cordon Bleu schools? What’s the best path to becoming a chef?


I tend to look for those that also have working experience in real kitchens over those that just have a formal education.

Culinary school is still an option, of course, but competition may be fierce as fewer spaces are available. As a chef who has been hiring cooks for 15 years, I have seen a steady rise in applicants with formal culinary education. But I tend to look for those that also have working experience in real kitchens over those that just have a formal education. I foresee a return to work experience becoming more common than culinary degrees. I was one of only two people in my first kitchen who had been to culinary school; everyone else was from the school of hard knocks. Getting a culinary education will now be more important, even as it becomes more difficult to obtain.

Another path is to find a mentor chef who is willing to invest in you. A good mentor will hasten your own progress much better than trying to do it alone. Listen to your mentor; you may not always agree with their decisions or direction but they know more than you do. They have already made mistakes and learned from them. Your mentor will know what's best for you and when the time is right will guide you on your next career path. Even better, get promoted while working under your mentor and they will continue to look out for you as you grow.


Whatever you do, go out and gain experience working in different restaurants.

You might also consider an apprenticeship program. The American Culinary Federation has amazing options for people who want to become chefs. It’s much less expensive than culinary school and allows you to gain both experience and education. Before the explosion of culinary schools, the apprenticeship program was one of the most sought after options.  

Whatever you do, go out and gain experience working in different restaurants. Learn as much as you can about different types of food and cultures. Develop your palette and understand the fundamentals of tasting and seasoning. Working in a variety of restaurants with a variety of chefs will allow you to learn different things. You will quickly see there is no right or wrong way to do anything. The only way that matters is the way the chef wants you to do it.  

Working your way up in the kitchen and learning all the requisite skills to become a world-class chef is tough. It’s not for everyone; you need to have a passion for it. The great thing about being a chef is that food does not judge where you came from, what you look like, where you went to school, or who you worked for. When you become a chef, your food will speak for itself.