What Does IT Take to Be a Chef?

The many duties of a chef include hiring, training and supervising food-preparation staff, creating original dishes, determining portion sizes and writing menus. With experience and perhaps a 2- or 4-year college degree in culinary arts, a chef may find work in restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, specialty food stores, private homes, carry-out businesses, hospitals, nursing facilities and retirement centers.

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Be a Chef: Five Steps to a Career in the Culinary Arts

Step One: Earning a High School Diploma

Although it's possible to find employment in kitchens before completing high school, a diploma helps if you want to get full-time work in better restaurants. While you're in high school, you may be able to take vocational classes in food safety, handling and cooking.

Step Two: Exploring the Art and Business of Cooking

Working at any level in a restaurant kitchen is a great way to find out if the business is for you. According to the National Restaurant Association (www.restaurant.org), well-known chefs have been known to start as dishwashers. It's a good idea to read cookbooks, watch cooking shows, experiment with recipes and feed your family and friends. A love of cooking is needed in a business that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), can be keenly competitive at the higher levels of pay and prestige (www.bls.gov).

Step Three: Getting Initial Training and Experience

With some postsecondary training in a community college, technical institute, or independent cooking school, you may be able to get an entry-level position such as food preparation worker, short-order cook or sous chef. This allows one to watch experts at work and to consider specialized chef jobs, such as executive chef or chef de cuisine. At this stage, work is often done under a mentor.

Step Four: Considering Culinary School

It's possible to work your way up in the restaurant world, but aspiring chefs benefit greatly from formal training. Some culinary schools or college cooking departments offer 4-year degrees such as a Bachelor of Professional Studies in culinary arts; some grant various associate degrees in cooking geared toward those who want to finish their training faster or who already have college degrees in other areas. Some culinary institutes also offer specialized associate degree programs just for highly experienced chefs who've worked for years without previous postsecondary 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 an art, it's possible to make it into a lifetime study. One way to advance beyond postsecondary training is to master a language particularly important to the culinary world, such as Italian or French. Another way is to travel and learn the cuisines of other cultures by sampling them first-hand.

In addition, the American Culinary Federation certifies chefs at 14 levels, each with its own requirements for past experience and expertise. Some are in specialized areas such as pastry, while the Certified Master Chef distinction 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.

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