What to Consider Before Pursuing a Career in the Culinary Industry?
Making the First Move
Any major life decision is accompanied by a check list of questions that must be answered before pursuing the next step. Considering a career in the professional culinary world is no different.
Whether you have your sights set on attending culinary, baking or pastry school or even if you are ambitious enough to jump right into a professional kitchen and get your hands dirty with practical experience, there are certain considerations you should not overlook.
Regardless if you are in or out of the classroom, you will be working up to a career in a professional restaurant or food service setting—meaning that there are some important decisions you need to make before taking the next step into this demanding yet extremely rewarding field.
1. Can You Handle the Stress
If you have ever had entry-level experience working in a restaurant or know somebody that has, you can attest to fact that the kitchen is one of the most stressful environments to work in—particularly without personal preparation or enthusiasm for the art of cooking or baking. Producing a product that will be served to patrons for their enjoyment and nourishment is stressful as it is.
Aside from ensuring that you are preparing delicious, high quality food there are health concerns that come with preparing a successful meal in the kitchen.
For example, is everything being made in a clean and safe environment with the correct ingredients? Are all components of the meal fresh and safe to ingest? Is the kitchen up to industry standards?
Furthermore, there is a chain of command in a kitchen setting. If everyone is not prepared to quickly and efficiently do their job then the entire process is disrupted—often causing a hold up in the kitchen and dissatisfied customers as well as a grumpy executive chef.
To enter into a professional kitchen setting, you have to be able to handle the stress and unpredictability of the job and be ready to perform. You know what they say: if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen!
2. Can You Handle the Hours
Unlike a typical 9-5 office job, professional chefs, bakers or pastry chefs often work long nights, weekends and holidays. The process of food prep, cooking and cleanup may mean that you are at work for large chunks of time and away from your family.
For instance, consider a career working in a bakery. This would require rising early to freshly bake the goods for early-morning costumers. Consider working as a sous chef in a restaurant.
It may be the winter holidays and you will likely be working long hours to help prepare a holiday menu for a rush of patrons making reservations over Christmas or Hanukkah. If you are adaptable and prepared to spend time away from your family and out of the house, then this is a career you will be well suited to do. Consider working 55-60 hours in a heavy work week.
3. Can You Handle the Physicality?
You may not even realize it, but working in a kitchen is physically strenuous. You will be on your feet for the majority of the job, often lifting heavy kitchen supplies and constantly chopping ingredients throughout the work day. What’s more, say goodbye to nicely manicured hands!
As a professional chef or cook, smooth skin will be sacrificed for blisters and burn marks from the kitchen on your hands. On top of that, the kitchen temperature is hot—particularly as you will be in constant motion in room full of hot ovens and other big machines such as dishwashers that give off ambient heat.
Working in a restaurant with firebrick pizza ovens will be the hottest conditions to work under of course—consider breaking a sweat in 100+ degree temps every night. Frequent lifting and bending are also in the job description of a professional chef or sous chef. Get ready for a fast paced and physical work environment!
Before entering a career in the culinary industry, ask yourself: are you doing this for the money?
You must know exactly why you are getting into the field and realize that a very small percentage of cooks become celebrity chefs who become extremely wealthy in top-notch salaried positions.
It may take years to work your way up to a high-paying position and you will most likely be working under an hourly wage for the majority of your entry-level career. Make sure that you really love what you do and that the reasons for entering the field are independent of money.
Starting/Entry Level salaries for the following:
Pastry Chefs: $26,000-50,000 annually
Sous Chef: $24,000 to just under $50,000 annually. More experience results in a higher pay scale.
Assistant Chef: Average, median salary is around $30,000-60,000 annually
Executive chef: with a short time of experience in the kitchen, annually wages start out around $50,000 a year. As their experience grows in the field, the salary can increase to over $85,000 annually—typically higher in five-star restaurants or hotels
5. Can You Handle the Temptations?
In today’s culinary industry, you must be extremely professional and ready for promotions, interactions with patrons and top executive chefs at all times. Although you may be working in a fun and fast paced environment, it is easy to fall privy to a plethora of temptations.
For example, late nights in the kitchen are typical, meaning that free drinks from the bartender come with the job after hours. Be careful that these late nights are not becoming unproductive and dangerous.
There is a culture of drugs, alcohol and smoking that are associated with working late restaurant nights. However, the industry is changing and this type of “after hours job fun” is no longer accepted at a top restaurant or food service setting.
6. Can You Handle the Downers?
Cooks who have been in the business too long sometimes lose their passion and forget the reason they chose this as their profession. In a situation where you don’t see much upward movement in your career, it is easy to resist change altogether and refuse to try new things (whether that be learning new tricks of the trade or moving from sous chef to head chef).
Remember the reason you began in the first place and be ready to embrace new dishes, techniques and job openings that may require you to step outside your comfort zone. To avoid getting down, lean on the energy of others around you in the kitchen and remember that networking is just an important in a culinary job as it is in an office environment.
Coworkers and other people working in the food line will help keep your spirits up and ready to take the next step into a promotion!
7. Can You Handle the Work Load?
A professional culinary career equates to a strict schedule and hard work! Consider the steps of a day. Prep work may include hours of chopping ingredients before you even start cooking.
On top of that, working the line – fryer, saucier, desserts, plating, etc. can often feel tedious. Lastly, cleaning up and getting ready for next day may seem like a difficult routine to stick to. Remember that this schedule is a necessary element of the job that you must work through it in order to be successful.
8. Can You Handle the Humility
It takes years to get to a place where you feel as if you are a “master” chef. You will make mistakes, especially when starting out in an entry level position.
As in any job, you will have to do the dirty work at the beginning of your career including peeling, chopping, cleaning, mopping floors and putting in time with the simplest jobs no matter how talented you are in the kitchen. Remember that these are the steps you must take in order to advance.
9. Can You Handle the Learning Curve
Cooking is a science as much as it is an art! You have to keep up with the latest culinary trends to be the best!
It is a job where you always learning and constantly reading, tasting new recipes and stepping outside your comfort zone to be successful in the culture of food. When applying for jobs, keep in mind that working for the most demanding chefs may mean that you will learn more.
Be ready to embrace a bunch of different techniques and recipes to learn as much as you can—particularly as you are starting out.
10. Can You Handle a Career in the Culinary Industry
After answering all the questions above, is becoming a chef what you really love to do? Is this your passion and ambition?
Some people love to cook as a hobby, but this is a field you should only enter if it something you want to pursue as your career. It is a profession that requires hard work, little recognition, and low pay.
However, the benefits of doing what you love and providing customer satisfaction are priceless. Sit down and create pros and cons list before making a decision. But here is the pro that outweighs all the cons: entering a career that you are truly passionate about.
Read, Read and Read Some MoreOne of the best suggestions I have for anyone thinking of going to culinary school or just getting into the restaurant industry is to read everything you can get your hands on. Learn from professional chefs who have worked in the industry and those who have taught in culinary schools.
There are many great books available to get you started in your culinary education and I suggest you read as much as possible before making that big decision to make sure this is the right move for you. Below is just a sample of books you might be interested in checking out.
For a much more comprehensive list of books for aspiring culinary, baking and restaurant management students, I suggest checking out my post on books for future culinary students and chefs.