The glossy, camera-ready world of TV celebrity chefs is far removed from the everyday reality of the profession. Cooking is a stressful career, requiring stamina, physical ability, creativity and a high level of organizational skill. Only a small percentage of cooks have the combination of aptitude and perseverance to reach the executive chef's position. Chefs can start with formal or informal training, but will refine their skills over a long period of years.
Graduate from high school, or earn a GED. It helps to have strong math and computer skills, and to learn good written and verbal communications.
Apply to the culinary program of your choice. Some are highly competitive, and you might need to apply to multiple schools or engage in a lengthy round of interviews.
Complete your culinary program. One-year programs typically teach the fundamentals of professional cooking. Two-year programs provide a structured education in classical and modern cuisine, including practical experience in the major techniques. Four-year degree programs include business and management course work, which can be useful as you grow into positions of greater responsibility. All programs strongly emphasize hygiene and safe food-handling practices.
Find work in a professional kitchen. Depending on your career goals this could be in a restaurant, a hotel or an institutional setting. As a culinary graduate you'll understand the basic skills, theory and techniques of professional cooking, but that's not the same as doing it in the real world. Your first job will teach you a great deal about the pace and demands of professional cooking.
Apply for admission into a formal cooking apprenticeship, such as the ones administered by the American Culinary Federation. Apprentices must be at least 18 in most states, and high school graduates. Alternatively, approach a chef directly and ask to be taken on as an informal apprentice/trainee.
Learn the basics of hygiene and safe food handling from your chef or co-workers.
Acquire basic cooking skills, beginning with basic preparations such as peeling and trimming vegetables to your chef's standards, portioning ingredients for use by the cooks, sharpening your knife skills, and gradually learning the work duties at each of the kitchen's production areas.
Complete 144 to 200 hours of classroom instruction each year, as directed by your state, if you're in a formal apprenticeship program. This provides a foundational education in culinary theory and history, to go with your practical experience. If you're not formally an apprentice, spend time reading books and websites in your off hours. It's not mandatory, but will help you keep up with your formally-trained colleagues.
Paying Your Dues
Work for a variety of experienced chefs, in restaurants where the food interests you or the chef's reputation is substantial. Learn as much as you can from each chef and other co-workers. If you can manage it, work unpaid "stages" periodically at high-end restaurants.
Master the work at every station in the kitchen and take every opportunity to learn about the organizational and management side of restaurant life. When you take control of your own kitchen, you'll need to understand how everything works.
Pursue professional certifications, such as those offered by the American Culinary Federation. It's not necessary, but learning the skills required for each certification will help you understand the industry's best practices. Alternatively, grow your skills through a business or hospitality-management degree.
Work your way up through the kitchen's heirarchy, becoming a sous-chef, executive sous-chef or chef de cuisine, and finally executive chef. This can take some time. A recent survey by industry portal StarChefs found that the average executive chef had been in the industry for 20 years.
- Only a very small percentage of cooks ever rise to become chefs. According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, there were 100,600 chefs or head cooks in the country in 2011, and 2,050,800 cooks. That means there are around 20 cooks for every chef.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Chefs and Head Cooks
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Cooks
- American Culinary Federation: Becoming an Apprentice
- American Culinary Federation: Certification Designations
- StarChefs: 2010 StarChefs.com Chef Salary Report
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images