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What Does IT Take to Be a Chef?

A career as a chef requires extensive experience, often weighed heavier than formal education. Becoming a chef takes hard work, dedication, and patience. Learn about the training, job duties, and requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

If cooking, creating meals, or food in general gives you that special fervor, becoming a chef may be a wise decision. A high school education is needed, and completing a diploma or postsecondary training is preferred, but experience is what really matters for this job. Once you reach a chef or head cook position, there is always room for further advancement, such as entering culinary school or applying for certifications.

Essential Information

The various responsibilities of a chef include hiring, training and supervising food-preparation staff, crafting original dishes, determining portion sizes, and writing menus. With enough experience and a preferable two-to-four year college degree in culinary arts, a chef may find work in a variety of places, including: restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, specialty food stores, and private homes. Business, communication, organization, and leadership skills, as well as dexterity, creativity, and stamina are imperative for this career. Being a chef is highly demanding, but highly rewarding for someone who is devoted and passionate about cooking.

Required Education High school diploma or equivalent; post-secondary programs available
Other Requirements Hands-on training; voluntary certification available; five years related work experience
Projected Job Growth 9% from 2014-2024* (for all chefs and head cooks)
Median Salary (2015) $41,500 annually* (for all chefs and head cooks)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step One: Earning a High School Diploma

Although it's possible to find employment in kitchens before completing high school, a diploma is beneficial if you wish to obtain full-time work in better restaurants. Vocational classes in food safety, handling, and cooking may be available in your high school, such as in Home Economics. Students may be obligated to have prior experience working in kitchens as part of their training.

Step Two: Exploring the Art and Business of Cooking

Working at any level in a restaurant kitchen is a terrific way to find out if this career is right for you. According to the National Restaurant Association (www.restaurant.org), even well-known chefs have been known to start as simple dishwashers. Reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows, experimenting with recipes, and devising meals for your family and friends are all excellent ways to exercise your culinary skills. A zeal for cooking and cuisine is necessary to make it in this business, seeing as it can be quite competitive at higher levels of pay and prestige according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), (www.bls.gov).

Step Three: Getting Initial Training and Experience

Post-secondary training in a community college, technical institute, or independent cooking school may be able to seclude you an entry-level position as a food preparation worker, short-order cook, or even a sous-chef. One can then watch their masters at work, potentially aspiring for specialized chef jobs, such as executive chef or chef de cuisine. At this stage, work is often done through a mentorship, which can persist for up to 2 years. This provides the protégée with close instruction, advice, and supervised practice to enhance their skills as a cook.

Step Four: Considering Culinary School

While it's possible to work your way up in the restaurant world, chefs benefit a great deal from formal training. Some culinary schools or college cooking departments offer 4-year degrees, such as a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Culinary Arts. They also grant various associate degrees in cooking, geared toward those eager to finish their training faster, or already have college degrees. Some culinary institutes also offer specified associate degree programs to highly experienced chefs who've worked several years without previous post-secondary education. Associate degrees are generally completed in two years.

In such programs, students receive hands-on experience in everything from serving wine to tempering chocolate. In addition, business courses teach related skills such as cost control and hospitality management.

Step Five: Exploring Further Advancement

Since cooking is considered an art form, it can be worthwhile to turn it into a lifetime exploration. One way to advance beyond regular training is to master a language that's particularly important in the culinary world, such as Italian or French. Another way is to travel and learn about the cuisines of other cultures by sampling them first-hand.

In addition, the American Culinary Federation certifies chefs at a number of levels, each with its own requirements for past experience and expertise. Some are in specialized areas, such as the Certified Master Chef distinction, which is granted to chefs with years of experience who successfully complete an 8-day exam. Such certifications are signs of special expertise and may lead to promotion, higher pay, and wider recognition.

If you desire a job as a chef, complete a high school diploma (or GED equivalent), go through training, and - most importantly - get experience. Earning a college or culinary school degree is also recommended. Life as a chef can be challenging, but job growth in this field is faster than average, and the position can be rewarding for those whose passion is preparing food.

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