Chefs say pastry chefs are a crazy lot. Seriously, ask around. They do. Yet, chefs today often display a sort of schizophrenic seeming attitude toward their jobs. They love it. They get great satisfaction. It is thankless grueling work and no, you should not become a chef.
Why is it that we seem to come across so many chefs who actively discourage people from entering into a culinary career? Young people ask on various internet forums, “Should I go to culinary school?” and you tend to see at least one grumpy character pop up and say, “I’ve been a chef for a thousand years. Don’t become a chef. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
If it’s that bad, why is this guy who was cooking the first dinosaur steaks still at it today?
Unlike many of the articles here, I can offer you little more than speculation and subjective opinion. We could, however, see the writing on the wall.
Becoming a Head Chef is Becoming Harder and Harder
Those who want to get into restaurant cooking, or go to culinary school and then “become a head chef” may not know that few actually make it to this pinnacle. While working up through the ranks from entry-level cook and onward is still the norm, it is becoming quite difficult to reach that vaunted executive chef position. Even among students, employers are becoming more discerning about academic standards, let alone talent.
Not All Culinary Schools are Created Equal
There are almost 600 culinary schools in the U.S. (don’t quote me on this number). How many are certified, say, by the American Culinary Federation? While a lot more programs are certified than they were a decade or so ago, there are still plenty of what are sometimes called diploma mills.
Sure you expect programs like Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School or the Culinary Schools at the Art Institutes to be accredited. Many people, though are unaware how easy it it to be duped in your education, and that research must be done to make sure you are entering into a quality program.
And even while a culinary school may be accredited as opposed to another, some, like those mentioned above, are incredibly expensive. Culinary students acquire many times the debt of a typical college student to prepare for an entry-level job that pays perhaps 8 to 10 bucks an hour. This has lead many in the culinary industry to question whether culinary school is worth it. I certainly question it. Michael Ruhlman, in The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, says,
Because of the illusion created by the recent celebrity of chefs, many who enter culinary school are disillusioned or disappointed after leaving it yoked by student-loan debt and grueling work are subsistence level pay. Yet, this is exactly what one should expect upon graduating, and it is not a bad thing.1
As is often the case, I find myself in vehement disagreement with Ruhlman. Skyrocketing student debt is already a huge problem in this country. To encourage young people to amass twice the average debt, or even more, with no hope of paying it off until they have too many gray hairs to count, is not something I could get behind, especially with all the predatory lenders out there who would love to sink their teeth into a young kid with dreams of becoming a celebrity chef.
However, there are less expensive and high-quality options.
Even the diploma mills will claim to be accredited, but, unfortunately, with diploma mills come accreditation mills.
The U.S Department of Education keeps a database of accredited post-secondary institutions and programs and, of course, you can check on culinary programs accredited by the American Culinary Federation. See also an overview of regional accreditation.
So, chefs are probably aware that many unprepared culinary school graduates are entering the market with stars in their eyes, only to quickly burn out when handed a dose of kitchen reality. I think most will agree though, that rising to a top cooking position without some type of culinary education in your background, whether it is a degree in culinary arts, hotel and restaurant management, or even a certificate or two, is not the norm.
As I’ve stated before, a quick turnover is normal in restaurants, but so is complete burnout.
Being a Chef is Not Glamorous
The heading should speak for itself. The rise of Food Network and the ever-growing ranks of celebrity chefshas opened up the public’s eyes to chefdom, so to speak. These celebrities lead glamorous lives, and the way their jobs are portrayed on Food TV makes working in a restaurant kitchen seem glamorous as well. It’s not. It is quite often thankless.
Have you ever cleaned a grease trap? I’ve cleaned many. It’s a stinky, nasty job. Nothing glamorous about it. In fact, the word grease is something you will have to get used to, as in “cleaning it up.” This is true whether you skip culinary school or attend culinary school. Grease is just the beginning.
Look at what the modern chef is dealing with. Diners, more and more, appreciate the artistry of what a chef does. While in the past they wouldn’t give the person slaving in the kitchen a second thought, they now are interested in who’s behind the dishes they eat. They want to know about them and perhaps even meet them.
Chefs are more appreciated. What they do is seen is important, exciting, and artful. But there is a flip-side to this appreciation. Those same diners think they are experts on food. Coupled with Food TV is the instant access to all aspects of culinary information. This website is an example of such access. Yet, what takes a chef many years to accomplish, the TV viewer or website visitor accomplishes in a few minutes. Instant expertise is a sign of the times.
So, chefs have to deal with diners who think they know how to cook better than the chef does! When a young aspiring chef comes around, perhaps many of the grizzled veterans just see another kid brought up on Food Network who thinks they are going to BAM! their way to cooking stardom. The actual physical requirements of being a restaurant cook will quickly dissuade them from this notion.
May as well warn them off now, right? Instead of preening for a camera or schmoozing with your delighted diners, you’ll be lifting heavy pots and cases of food, standing on your feet in front of hot stoves for at least eight hours, if not more, and working your hands, arms, and shoulders to exhaustion.
The Grumpy Chef – There’s One in Every Bunch
We could probably surmise, then, some of the subjective reasons why a few chefs would choose to warn people off of culinary careers. There could be many other reasons. One reason, however, may be no reason at all. Simply speaking, there are grumpy, nasty-tempered, and bitter people in all walks of life. Perhaps you’ve encountered one who happens to be a chef.
There is, after all, a certain cachet in being an asshole. Grumpy is, after all, how the classical French chef is often portrayed. Folks like Anthony Bourdain ride the grumpy train to fame. And, Gordon Ramsey just wouldn’t be Ramsey without all the yelling. Do some research and you will see many books and articles that are exposing the reality behind the restaurant industry. They want to regale you with the nasty habits the culinary profession has towards each other, and even towards the food. Being a contrarian pays, and sometimes it pays well. Oh, yeah, chefs don’t always get paid very well, either. Another reason to be grumpy and bitter, especially given, again, TV chefs raking in millions.
If it sounds like I mean there may be some cooks out there who think it is cool to be nasty, bitter, and pseudo tough-guy a la Bourdain, yes, that is what I am saying.
Do I think that this is a prevailing tendency? Of course not! One reason you may encounter a lot of high-strung trigger-happy chefs is because working in a busy kitchen is often a high-pressure frenetic experience.
Yet, there is one other explanation for this seeming discouragement.
Maybe Chefs Don’t Discourage Others as Much as You Think
If you ask a question and receive a discouraging and angry answer, often in choice language, it tends to stick with you. Out of a dozen encouraging people, the one or two rude discouraging people will often center themselves on your consciousness.
I’ll give you an example. You think more people die in car accidents than die from heart attacks? No, deaths from heart attack are much more common. The drama of a car accident brings it forward in your mind, making it seem as if it is more common than it really is. This is called an availability heuristic. Well, nasty, rude, and discouraging people are like a car wreck.
The truth, and I think this is objective fact, is that most culinary professionals are not discouraging. If asked, they may try to give you an honest idea about what to expect in the culinary field, and warn you that it is not all daisies. They may tell you that you may find it is not for you, but if it is really your dream, you should follow it. They will also tell you of the camaraderie and of the great satisfaction they derive from working with food and pleasing people with delicious dishes. If you don’t want to please people, then cooking is not for you.
There is not a job out there that people do not complain about! This, perhaps, is one of the most ironic parts of culinary culture today. The very same bitter chefs who decry the TV celebrity whom they feel has not earned the vaulted mantle of “CHEF” don’t seem to grasp that it is these celebrities, and the culture of food media in general, that has led them to believe they should be treated as some type of culinary hero, as if cooking in a restaurant is akin fighting on the front lines of a bitter war.
Angry chef image © Andreas Berheide.
- Ruhlman, Michael. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.