You may think the only way to become a chef is to go to culinary school and then seek work in a restaurant. Or, to work your way up in restaurants until you become sous chef or executive chef. However, the most time-honored way to become a chef is to be a chef’s apprentice. Apprenticeships, where you learn under the guidance of a working chef, are still a recognized and relevant way to learn your trade, not only in the culinary arts but in many other fields. In fact, if you are preparing to attend culinary school, you could seek an apprenticeship before, or after you attend school.
Still, you can’t just walk into a top restaurant and ask the chef to take you under his or her wing, can you? Probably not. As well, there is a big problem with “word of mouth” apprenticeships where someone you know hooks you up with a chef they know.
One problem is that an “unofficial” and informal apprenticeship may not be all that it is cracked up to be. Seeking an apprenticeship is about seeking education. The question is, then, does the chef really have time? Is he or she organized? Is there a plan for how you will rotate through learning different jobs and aspects of kitchen work?
Even worse, as happens in many internships and so-called apprenticeships, are you simply going to become a gopher or slave labor? Some apprenticeships may actually pay you while you learn, but probably not a great deal. Regardless, you are there to learn while you work, not just work. Spending half your time washing dishes will not be a very valuable education.
Therefore, it is best if an apprenticeship is governed by some type of standards and organization, with clear “curriculum” and a plan of progression. You may be able to find this on your own, but it is an intimidating and daunting challenge. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, apprenticeships are as relevant today as they ever were. To this end, The American Culinary Federation has an apprenticeship program that may be just what you are looking for.
ACFEF Culinary Apprenticeship
The ACFEF Culinary Apprenticeship program was begun in 1974 and has continually updated its standards. You can enroll in the program even with no experience, earn while you learn, be mentored by professional chefs, learn cooking and baking skills, food handling, management, and many other aspects of culinary work. Whats more, the skills you learn will be documented, so that they can be transferred.
What Types of Programs are Available?
There is a two-year program, in which you will get 4,000 hours of hands-on training, and 445 related instruction hours covering ten concentration areas.
The three-year program gives you 6,000 hours of on-the-job training.
You will earn money while you learn, recieving personal mentoring from professional chefs. Among the areas covered by the program are:
- basic cooking and baking skills
- basic principles of nutrition and dietetics
- proper food handling requirements, sanitation, and hygiene
- management and supervirsory knowledge
As an apprentice you will be assigned to what the ACF calls a “sponsoring house.” This may be a restaurant, hospital, adult living community, or other foodservice operation. As you train, you will rotate through different stations, according to a logbook, which you will mark as you progress.
For example, Cook Apprentice Stations are as follows:
- Vegetable, Starch & Pasta
- Soup & Sauce
- Pantry & Cold Foods
- Cooking Techniques
- Baking & Pastry
- Supervisory Development
- Pastry Shop Orientation
- Bakery Production
- Pastry Production
- Related Kitchen Production
- Lead Pastry Cook
The 445 hours of related instruction courses are separate from your hands-on training, but are related to what you will learn during on-the-job training. They may include classroom, qualified in-house instruction and online courses, depending on the approach of the individual program.
Do I Need Restaurant Experience?
The ACF apprenticeship program requires no experience to enroll. However, you must be at least 17 years old and be a high school graduate or equivalent (such as having your GED).
DO I Still Need to Go to Culinary School?
A well-designed apprenticeship program can take the place of culinary school, and can even provide superior training and experience, as you will be learning on the job. You will also be paid. Since the leading culinary schools are tremendously expensive, even more so than a typical college education, an ACFEF apprenticeship may be a better choice than culinary school or be a valuable adjunct to a culinary education.