“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” -Harriet Van Horne
Chefs have been held in high esteem for a long time, but over the last couple of decades, the growth of cooking channels and the high visibility of celebrity chefs has made the culinary industry all the more glamorous. While only a few chefs ever get to the level of superstardom experienced by professional cooks like Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, a career in the culinary arts can be just as exhilarating and fulfilling off-camera. Working as a chef is primarily a creative pursuit, which tests your extensive knowledge of food theory and pushes you to create an outstanding culinary experience for your diners each day. It combines the mental gymnastics of pairing ingredients with the physical exertion of hours spent chopping, peeling, and tasting. It comes with cuts, bruises, and burnt dishes, requiring perseverance and strength of character to make it.
If you’ve ever pictured yourself in chef whites and pretended your kitchen was a restaurant, or flipped through the food channels and wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of the screen, there might be a chef inside of you waiting to come out. If you enjoy playing around in the kitchen, perfecting old dishes, or coming up with new ones, then a career as a chef just might be your calling. The following pros and cons can help you decide whether you are ready and willing to do what it takes to get started on the road to success.
The Pros of Becoming a Chef
You’ll learn how to cook
If you don’t know how to cook, culinary school is one of the best ways to learn the theory behind putting delicious meals together and the basic skills that will help you master any dish. Even if you don’t want to work as a professional chef, cooking skills are a vital part of everyday living. When you know how to cook, the power is in your hands. You get to choose the best, healthiest ingredients, knowing what they contain. You will be able to decipher food labels, discerning which packages contain harmful products. You can cook for friends or family, hosting dinner or birthday parties instead of spending huge amounts of money at restaurants. There’s so much more you can do for yourself and others when you know how to cook.
You get to be creative
One of the best aspects of this career is that you can really delve deep into your own creativity. While technically everybody has access to the same ingredients, it’s up to you to find new, exciting ways to prepare and combine them. You also get to play around with plating, experimenting wherever your mind takes you. No matter how exotic or eccentric your tastes, the culinary arts are a great place to explore them and let your imagination run wild.
There are lots of specialties to choose from
There are so many different directions that your career can go as a chef. Executive Chefs are the highest-ranked chefs in the kitchen. This is more of a managerial position as they don’t usually cook and spend time overseeing everything going on in the kitchen. Saucier’s are in charge of all the sauces, from steak sauce to salad dressing, while a Butcher Chef is tasked with butchering all the different cuts of meat needed during service. If you enjoy baking, you can train as a Pastry Chef, making all the desserts and different types of bread on the restaurant menu. Or you can specialize in fish as a Fish Chef, deciding which fish is best during each season and finding exciting items to pair them with.
If the idea of working in a restaurant setting isn’t for you, there are other career paths in the industry that you can choose from. You can start a catering company, working on a per-event basis or securing long-term contracts. You can buy a food truck and find your niche, serving anything from sandwiches to gourmet fried ice cream. You can become a private chef, hosting dinner parties for your clients in their homes, or providing ready-made meals to customers by request. You can also merge your cooking skills with other creative arts, writing cookbooks or becoming a food photographer. You can even offer cooking classes to aspiring chefs. The possibilities are endless.
You can get certified quickly
Unlike most careers, it doesn’t take a lot of time to become a certified chef. The average culinary school training program runs for two years and covers everything you need to know for a career in the kitchen.
However, there aren’t really any strict educational guidelines for becoming a chef, and the journey is different for each person. You can do three- or six-month courses in basic kitchen skills or a twelve-month pastry course if you’re looking to specialize right from the beginning. You can even learn to cook in the comfort of your own home by watching cooking shows and taking down recipes and tips to practice later. Jamie Oliver, one of the most famous contemporary British chefs, grew up in his parents’ pub. After college, he spent time learning how to cook in different restaurants around London before landing the job that would set him on his way to culinary stardom. American superstar Racheal Ray prefers to call herself a cook because she never had any formal training. She started by teaching ‘30 Minute Meals’ to wary shoppers at a grocery store in New York.
If your interest lies in restaurants, you can learn how to cook while also gaining the skills you’ll need to run your own restaurant by enrolling in a four-year Bachelor’s degree which will include courses in management, accounting, and business.
It’s a chance to dazzle your friends
You can share your new-found culinary brilliance with your friends and family, dazzling them with the delicious dishes you’ve learned to prepare. You also get to try out new recipes on them before taking them to the public, knowing that they’ll be honest and kind in their reviews.
You can work anywhere in the world
People congregate around food, share it, cook it, and eat it together in every culture. There are luxurious restaurants serving gourmet dishes with a side of mountain views, and you can find top-rated eateries in some of the most remote places that most people have never even heard of. As a chef, you can pack up and go where the food takes you, spending time in different places and picking up new skills as you move along. You can learn how to make tortillas like a Mexican, how to pair wines in France, or how to make the best southern African cornbread. The world is literally your oyster.
The Cons of Becoming a Chef
The pay isn’t that great to start
Most people don’t enter this industry to become rich, and when you’re still starting out, the pay as a chef won’t be that great. Potential earnings are based on a number of different factors, including whether or not you are certified, how much experience you have, which country or city you’re in, and even which industry. The average salary for chefs in the US is $15 per hour, but even that can increase or decrease depending on what type of chef you are, and the job very rarely comes with benefits like health insurance or paid vacation time. Executive chefs earn double what regular chefs make, but it takes years of diligent practice to get to that level.
You work long hours with very little time off
As a chef, you’ll most likely be working long days and nights servicing the appetites of the lunch and dinner crowds. The average chef works over 50 hours a week, and don’t think you’ll get weekends off. Public holidays, your anniversary, your grandmother’s birthday—none of these matter in the culinary industry. As a restaurant chef, you can expect to work 12- to 14-hour shifts, seven days a week.
Slaving over a hot stove isn’t easy
Chefs spend most of their time on their feet, standing in front of a hot stove, stirring, frying, flipping. They also spend a lot of time walking up and down in a hot, crowded environment. Working in a professional kitchen is repetitive work that requires absolute precision and timing down to the last second if you are to deliver high-quality food that is delicious every time. The job demands high levels of physical activity, from walking (and even jogging carefully) back and forth around the kitchen to lifting heavy pots and pans over and over again for hours on end. Add the pressure of a full restaurant at dinner time, and the job can be highly stressful. This isn’t a recommended career path if you don’t work well under pressure or can’t handle high-stress environments.
It can be dangerous
Things can get a little dangerous in a professional kitchen, and no matter how careful you are, accidents do happen. Working under pressure in a hot kitchen filled with moving bodies, sharp knives, and pots of boiling soups and stocks puts you at increased risk of cuts, bruises, and burns.
There’s a lot of cleaning involved
Something most aspiring chefs aren’t aware of is that cleaning is a big part of the job. A clean, tidy, and ordered workstation is an imperative part of any professional kitchen. From wiping down surfaces over and over to avoiding cross-contamination by soaping down knives and chopping boards after dealing with raw meat, a chef is constantly washing, rinsing, and washing again. You will also wash your hands more times than you can count each day, and the kitchen will have to be cleaned from top to bottom every night before you go home, which can be exhausting after a particularly busy shift.
You may have to start at the bottom
If you have no professional training as a chef but want to get into the industry, you’ll have to start at the bottom of the culinary food chain, washing dishes or peeling and chopping vegetables for stocks. It may not be glamorous work, but it is kitchen work, and the skills you’ll learn at the bottom will make you an even better chef when you get to the top.
All your friends will expect you to cook for them
When you’ve spent seven days a week preparing the perfect steak and potatoes, the last thing you want to do might be to make the same meal for your friends or family on your one day off. But the reality of being a chef is that your loved ones will also want to benefit from your skills, and once in a while, you will have to indulge them.
The industry is very competitive
Restaurants, cafés, and bistros all compete for the same clientele: hungry people with money in their pockets. They therefore only want to hire the best, most hardworking, and creative chefs to give them the competitive edge, and if you aren’t willing to extend yourself, it will be very hard to find work in the industry. One missed shift or mistake can get you unceremoniously fired, especially in the fine dining industry, where a reputation for excellence is key.