A Day in the Life of Chef
People ask me from time to time, what’s it like to be a chef? That’s a complicated and deep answer, worthy of more than just the stock “it’s cool” answer. You work long, odd, hours, oftentimes for underwhelming pay and an overwhelming work load. Your environment is hot and filled with dangerous hazards such as razor-sharp knives, searing hot oil, and unpredictable personalities. The stress level during a busy service in an acclaimed restaurant can be off-the-charts, complete with angry cooks, frustrated servers, and a monstrously hectic environment. Being a real chef is very little like it appears on the Food Network, and even less than it looks like in a culinary school brochure.
Being a chef, a real actual chef, is not for the faint of heart. It is for those with thick skin, laser-like focus, an unwavering work ethic, and a serious mind. It is often far less like being a rock star, and far more like being a factory worker. But if you ask most of us, we wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It’s in our blood, it consumes us, and putting out that next stunning plate is what drives us. The line is our operating room, our court room, the knife our scalpel, the plate our artist’s palette, the presentation our architects blueprint, the foundation of flavor our all-consuming master work.
Is Being a Chef a Good Career?
Sure! If you love food, have a passion for art, creativity, and enjoy the rush of adrenaline produced from a 300-cover Friday Night in a professional kitchen, then this is the career for you. It can be a highly rewarding career; making people happy with your art is a feeling like no other. There are also many career avenues that can be taken as a chef. The most obvious, of course, is to work in restaurants with the eventual goal of owning your own place. This is the goal and aspiration for many young chefs, but it is far from the only path. For example, the path that I’ve taken is quite unique. I’ve created a company that brings together my two worlds; fine food and outdoor adventure. Of course, it took me many years to get here, but this is no different than most chefs who want to get ANYWHERE.
There are myriad avenues available to you. You can become a food writer, for instance. This is becoming a far more competitive field with the advent of the food blogger, but it is a tremendous avenue, nonetheless. In fact, you can do nearly anything you want as a chef. You are, after all, a provider of food and good times. This can be a widely-needed skill set. Cooking is a skill set that will never go out of style, will never be passe, and will always be needed. Being able to conceptualize and execute a delicious meal is something that will be with you everywhere you go, and will always be in demand. As a chef, do not confine yourself simply to the idea of working in a restaurant. Create your own identity, whatever you do.
So, are you going to answer the question?
The answer is yes, being a chef can be a great career. However, don’t be fooled by hype. It is just like any other career; fraught with pitfalls and pratfalls, filled with horrible and demanding bosses, monotony, fear, deep anxiety, and whatever else you can think of. In fact, many chefs suffer from mental health and addiction issues, the pay for the first several years of your career is likely to be minimum wage, and you are expendable at a moment’s notice (no matter what you think of yourself). Not feeling well? Tough, go to work. Broke up with your girlfriend? Tough, go to work. Chef’s screaming at you? Tough, take it or be fired. Want that vacation? Ha, good luck!
Beware that the chefs you see on TV are but one-in-a-million. For every Gordon Ramsey or Woflgang Puck there are 10,000 Bill Woodses. Who’s that, you ask? Nobody, just me. Somebody who “made it”, but is still essentially anonymous. For every Bill Woods, there’s another 10,000 nobodies who may never make more than minimum wage, toiling in failing restaurants before they quit and find another line of work (that was also me (sort of), why else do you think I own this weird hybrid company?)
Being a chef requires a level of seriousness that many folks do not possess as young people. They see superstar chefs on TV and in the media, and think, “hey that seems like a pretty good gig!”. What those shows tell you little of is how they got there. Thomas Keller, a personal mentor of mine and perhaps the best chef in the world, worked over 20 years in a self-styled apprenticeship, often working for free. He shared stories with us about having things thrown at him, having his very manhood challenged by small, angry French chefs, and otherwise being mistreated almost daily.
Should I go to Culinary School?
Personally, I do not think culinary school is necessary, or even wise. Many schools can cost students upwards of $100,000 to go get a minimum wage job. The first time I made slightly more than minimum wage, I had been in the industry for nearly 4 years. I literally could have been better compensated, with better benefits, retirements, and health care working as a garbage man or janitor. Consider this before going to culinary school.
It’s not only the money, it’s also the experience. I can’t tell you how many kids straight out of Johnson and Wales or Culinary Institute of America that I worked with over the years. By and large they were arrogant, woefully inexperienced in a restaurant, and in some cases totally incompetent. You are better off just working in restaurants and learning the craft.
What I would recommend is a paid apprenticeship program, or a self-styled apprenticeship of sorts. Point is, work in real, functioning professional kitchens. Sponge it up, and don’t waste your money and time with some culinary school that makes unrealistic promises.
Is Being a Chef a Stressful Job?
Short story…yep. There are numerous responsibilities that have nothing to do with cooking. There are budgets, costs, staff, and that’s not even to mention service. Managing stress is a major part of the job, and the unfortunate side of the industry is that there is lots of addiction and mental health issues. Be aware.
Do Chefs Make Good Money?
Ultimately you can make very good money as a chef. However, the chances of becoming a Food Network celebrity are extremely low, and it takes years of toil making minimum wage (or even less in some cases). If you own a successful restaurant, your earnings can be significant. In the private game, earnings can be very high, as well. However, entrepreneurial pursuits are far from guaranteed. If you choose to work your way up the ladder, there are executive chef jobs that offer six-figure salaries, just don’t expect to get there one year out of school.
10 Reasons Being a Chef is Harder than it Looks
1. So you want to have a relationship?
So much of your time is occupied by your career. It is also stressful, and often requires odd hours, working on weekends, holidays, and nights. Therefore, relationships can be difficult. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of opportunities to interact physically with the opposite sex, just know that it can be a challenge to nurture a meaningful relationship with someone outside the industry
2. You can forget about holidays
See above. Want to party on New Year’s Eve? Forget that. Want to spend some time kicking it on Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, etc.? Sure, whatever. Think you want to take out that special someone for Valentine’s Day? Uh-huh. You’ll be working.
3. Taking a sick day?
Chefs/cooks are not really allowed the conventional “sick days”. It seems counterintuitive that people who are handling food would be encouraged (see demanded) to work while ill, but it happens all the time. The reason is that each position in the kitchen is of utmost importance. It’s not like an office where work can be pushed back a day or two, or shared. I
If one person doesn’t show, that could be disastrous for the kitchen. Therefore, everyone is expected to work their schedule, regardless of their physical or mental health. To be honest, calling in sick may get you fired, especially in serious restaurants with loads of applications. I’ll put it this way: I once had a my sous chef at a great restaurant blithely tell me “line cooks are a dime a dozen”. I found that pretty insulting and did not want to hear it. However, it was very, very true. If I didn’t want to show up, there would be some warm body who would, and they may even do it for less money.
4. Stay on your feet!
The majority (see all) of a chef’s day is spent on their feet. You may get to sit down for small periods, but by and large you will be on your feet and moving constantly for 8+ hours.
5. The ways of the Kitchen
Kitchens, and restaurants overall, can contain lots of volatile personalities and flying hazards (food, oil, even knives). I’ve seen chefs pick up and throw food. I’ve cut myself, many times. I’ve seen a cook put an oyster knife through his thumb. I’ve watched people slip and fall. I’ve seen boiling water get dumped on feet. I’ve witnessed the drama of people who were fucking, then break up and ruin the whole damn restaurant.
I’ve witnessed rampant drug use and binge drinking, sometimes on the job. Restaurants can be wild places. I’ve witnessed yelling matches between massive egos. Just about whatever crazy shit you can imagine happens in restaurants. It’s wild. That’s part of the allure, especially for young people, just be aware that things will get crazy.
6. Restaurant Customers are a fun bunch
We love the people who patronize our restaurant. Of course we do. However, we also hate them. They want special orders. They want vegan-this and gluten-free that. They want something that’s not on the menu. They want well done filet mignon. They put ketchup on a Kobe Ribeye (Donald Trump is a famously grotesque ruiner of fine food and meat, especially). They demand all sorts of things, then stiff the server. They will leave bad reviews out of spite.
Restaurant patrons can be a fickle bunch. By and large they are wonderful, loyal, and your best marketing tools. However, there are some who are simply unbearably stupid, selfish, and ass-hattish. You’ve been warned.
7. Whatever can go wrong, almost certainly will
Being a chef is essentially being able to manage chaos. Putting out fires, both literal and metaphorical, is a massive part of the job. Dishwasher doesn’t show? That’s your problem. Line cook overcooks a nice piece of fish, that’s on you. Food costs come in too high? That’s your problem. Everything in the kitchen, and oftentimes the entire restaurant, falls on Chef’s shoulders. You will carry a heavy burden.
8. Our friends at the health department
It’s 7pm, Friday night, and you’re doing 200 covers on a multi-course tasting menu. Guess who shows up? Your friendly neighborhood health inspector! Get ready to put on those gloves, temp everything, wipe everything down, and basically have your whole routine get completely fucked for an hour or two while they browse around looking for something that’s slightly amiss. Don’t get me wrong, some inspectors are really great, and the scenario I described is a bit exaggerated (typically they won’t show up during service), but once again, everything falls to Chef.
9. Fame? That’s funny!
You have about the same chance to become a celebrity chef as you do to become any other kind of celebrity. In fact, there are brilliant chefs that are otherwise very successful, that are not famous. If you are getting into this career because you want to be famous, make different life choices right now.
10. People are always looking for something free
This kind of harkens back to the commentary on restaurant patrons, but it also needs a separate section. There will constantly be people wanting you to do appearances, donate food or time, or other “causes”. That’s not even to mention the patrons who will make a complaint simply to try to get a free meal. These are minor annoyances, generally, but still garbage that you have to deal with.
Having worked in some of the finest kitchens in the country and with some of the finest chefs perhaps in the world, I can plainly tell you that being a chef is a truly unique experience. It is both maddening and intoxicating, both frustrating and soothing, both predictable and enigmatic, both hobby and career, both passion and pain, both love and hate, both rich and poor, both, both , both. That, ladies and gentleman, is the true answer of what it’s like to be a chef. It’s cool.
Billy Woods is an acclaimed Private Chef in Flagstaff and Sedona, Arizona
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