Careers in Cooking

Feb 11, 2011

Thinking about cooking up a career in the culinary arts? If you love cooking for friends and family, going pro may be a good career choice. But there's a difference between cooking for fun and cooking as a career. The following steps are a good recipe for finding out if working as a professional chef will work for you.

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Step 1: Assess Yourself

The first step is to take an inventory of your interests, values, personality traits, aptitudes, and strengths, and see if there's a fit. You can start by asking yourself the following questions:

Do you have an interest in working with things? All careers involve different combinations of working with people, data, ideas, or things. Although cooking includes a little work with people, data, and ideas, you're primarily working with real objects in the real world. If you prefer, for example, to help people or to solve abstract problems, cooking won't be for you.

Do you value practical activities that involve keeping things tidy and in their place? Cooking is hands-on work that requires taking care of equipment and keeping your things--as well as yourself--neat and clean (at the California Culinary Academy, you're even required to iron your uniform). Nobody wants a sloppy, slovenly chef preparing their food.

Do you work well in high pressure situations? You've probably heard the saying, 'If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.' Well, it's true. Professional kitchens are fast-paced, and the pressure's on to get it right. If your family and friends don't like your cooking at home, there's not much they can do about it. But customers can send their food back. So you've got to do it fast and do it right.

Do you have good stamina and manual dexterity? Cooking is intensely physical work that requires standing for long periods of time. It also requires you to be good with your hands. If you're all thumbs, then you probably don't want to go into the culinary arts--unless you're prepared to lose one of two of those thumbs. Sharp knives, boiling water, and scorching ovens go with the territory.

Are you good at multi-tasking? In cooking, you literally have to put things on the back burner while you deal with what's on the front ones. Some people are good at this. Others of us have a tendency to set the kitchen on fire when he have several things to deal with at once (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Those are some initial questions to ask yourself. You can also take career assessments online or read books like ''What Color Is Your Parachute'' or ''The Pathfinder''. If you need even more guidance, you can meet with a career counselor.

Step 2: Do Some Research

Once you've done some self-assessment, you'll want to find out more about how to become a chef or other culinary arts professional. You'll want to find information such as job options in your area, typical hours, average salaries, and where you can go to school to get some training. There are many different options in the culinary arts, including some non-cooking jobs such as recipe writer, culinary arts instructor, or restaurant buyer. You'll want to explore all your options. Here are some ways to do it:

Look online. O*NET is a resource for career information and a good place to start. Also search career websites like for cooking jobs in your area to get a sense of the local labor market.

Read some books. Visit your local library, bookstore, or community college bookstore and find some books about careers in cooking. ''Culinary Careers for Dummies'' is a good place to start.

Do some informational interviews. An informational interview is a meeting between you and a professional, in which you ask questions to get clearer about a particular career or position. Most people find meeting with professionals in the real world to be very helpful.You can find people to interview through friends and family, online social networks, or even cold calling. Most people are open to being interviewed (just about everybody likes to talk about themselves, right?). Interview a variety of people (e.g., an executive chef in a restaurant, a pastry chef in a bakery, a private chef in a family's home).

Visit some cooking schools or programs. You can get a certificate, Associate's degree, or Bachelor's degree in culinary arts. You'll find training at adult schools, community colleges, and culinary schools. Although formal training is a good idea to make you more marketable, it's also possible to get an entry level job as a line or prep cook, learn on the job, and work your way up to a chef position. You'll need to do your homework and weigh the pros and cons of each option.

Step 3: Make a Decision

After doing self-assessment and research, it's time to decide. If the answer is 'yes,' congratulations on your new career path! If the answer is 'no,' you can use what you've learned to help you choose a different career. If the answer is 'maybe,' keep doing more assessment and research, or schedule an appointment with a career counselor. Good luck, and bon apetit!

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