If you love to cook and don't want to spend your working years in an office, you may be considering a career as a chef in a restaurant. Culinary experts have been quoted in the media recently talking about a plethora of available positions for kitchen professionals in New York City.
Wages here are competitive as well: According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for all restaurant professionals in New York state was $50,430 in 2014, and experts say some make six figures. But other than knowing the ins and outs of a frying pan, you may not know what it takes to get there. We spoke with Maureen Drum Fagin, director of career services at the Institute of Culinary Education about the qualities that make a person a good chef and what to expect when you first set out to find a job.
What kind of a person would make a good chef?
The key piece is really a passion for food, that's got to be there. It's a tough industry, you have to work hard and unless you've got a real passion for it you're really not going to succeed or sustain yourself as a long-time career. A disciplined person, a person who is very organized and is always looking to learn because even the biggest chefs out there continue to learn from their peers out there on a regular basis. That's what really provides the inspiration and ability to continue to innovate.
Why do you have to be organized?
Organization allows you to make sure that the quality is consistent with each dish that you put out. It also enables you to get [food] out efficiently.
Do you have to be good at human relations?
Absolutely, that's key and that's one of the most diff aspects of being a head chef or an executive chef is personal considerations. Whether it's hiring the right people or training them and also managing, scheduling of your people that does eat up a lot of a chef's time.
What's the difference between a chef and a cook?
The chef is like the head, it's almost like a military brigade, the kitchen brigade where you have an executive chef or head chef, then under that person you have the sous chef, they're really second in command so if the chef is not there they're the one leading the kitchen. And you might have multiple sous chef depending on the size of the kitchen. And then under that you have a cook and each cook would have their own station.
Is a culinary degree a requirement?
To be a chef it's not a requirement to have a culinary degree however for those entering into the industry it does allow you to get into kitchens and rise up more quickly instead of spending the first few years of your career washing dishes and then moving into prep. It does shorten the length of time that you would be expected to work in one of those areas. But there are certainly people who have been self-taught and have attained great success.
What is the entry-level position to become a chef?
If you're just starting out getting in there however you can, washing dishes being a prep cook is often the first way and coming out of culinary school, prep cook or a line cook would be the entry level position.
Do chefs need cover letters and resumes?
Yes. However a cover letter in the culinary world does not need to be a book, it needs to be a few simple lines to indicate to the chef that you understand a little something about his or her restaurant. Chefs are looking to see that you've researched they're place. What are they into? Are they into farm to table? The cuisine of Piedmont? They would like to see that you have some understanding of their place and have a passion for what they're doing. And a resume is very important as well but it will be really validated by coming in and doing what's called a trail at the restaurant.
What's the interview process like to become a chef?
What can take place is what's called a trail where you might chat with the chef for a little while but you would then spend a shift in the kitchen -- it's almost like a trial -- to see how you do on the job. They'll give you some prep tasks, some things off of their production list for the day to prep, and see how you work. Do you work cleanly efficiently? How are you in taking direction? And then often they can extend you an offer right there on the spot.
How should someone dress for it?
We recommend to our students that are going out there to kind of a take a cue from the restaurant itself. Wear a nice shirt or blouse, a nice pair of pants for an interview, but you don't have to dress in business attire with a suit and tie. What you want to convey is professionalism, that you have a nice clean appearance, that you aren't wearing a ton of makeup or perfume. You don't want to wear nail polish. You want to be hygienically appropriate in a kitchen. No rings other than a simple band. Neat, clean, professional. Sanitation is first and foremost in this industry.