Pulling up to a tollbooth, I stuck a
handful of coins out into the predawn gloom and told the attendant
where I was heading. She turned, and a big smile broke across her face.
“Oh,” she chirped, obviously having been awake a lot longer than I,
“I’ve always wanted to be a chef!”
Apparently so do many other people. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal
reported a 40 percent increase in enrollment in culinary education in
the last four years. But many quickly become disgruntled and even angry
about the grueling work, low pay and long hours.
It’s important here to say that I’m not a chef. I have
some professional training (the scenario above is from my time at the
Culinary Institute of America, considered the “Harvard of culinary
schools.” It was intimidating, but I didn’t disgrace myself; my only
embarrassing moment involved an improperly stored knife and a nasty
cut). I’ve spent some time in professional kitchens and done some
catering, but that doesn’t make me a chef. This isn’t necessarily bad:
As someone who teaches and writes about food and cooking but isn’t a
professional chef, I’m in the company of—though certainly not in the
same league as—people such as Julia Child and James Beard.
What most people don’t realize from watching those fun
shows on the Food Network is that professional cooking is hard
work—really, really hard work. I don’t want to trash all TV food shows.
True, some are pretty silly. Even so, most bring an awareness of the
value of good ingredients and the vast and varied world of good cooking
to the general public. But even the best of those TV chefs rose from
years of low-paying slave labor. They didn’t just magically show up on
a kitchen set and start making big bucks.
As an aspiring chef, my nephew Max has prospects better
than those of most. His family lives and works in a converted warehouse
in one of Chicago’s trendiest areas. Growing up in a professional
photographic studio/event site, Max gets to rub shoulders with the
famous and powerful (Michael Jordan, Aerosmith, Chicago Mayor Richard
Daley). But he’s also the most capable 12-year-old I’ve ever known:
He’s a better photographer than many professionals and handles
expensive, delicate and oftentimes heavy equipment with ease. He can
set up and break down events for hundreds of people and hang drywall
like a pro. Max understands the satisfaction of hard work, unlike a
pampered young woman I know. She’s never worked a day and thinks she
might like to be a chef because she enjoys making salsa.
For anyone considering becoming a chef, here are a few pieces of advice from the fringes of the profession:
Read Kitchen Confidential, by the undisputed bad boy of chefs, Anthony Bourdain. Warning! This book is R-rated—maybe even NC-17. The subtitle is “Adventures
in the Culinary Underbelly,” and Bourdain means it. It’s not for the
young or easily offended, but every chef I know says, “Yeah, that’s
exactly how it is.”
Read The Making of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman.
This account of his experiences at the CIA is a fascinating look at the
rigors and rewards of culinary education.
Work in a restaurant in any capacity, but especially in
the kitchen. I mean a real restaurant where they make the food on
premises, not some place where cooking means opening Cryovac bags from
If you do all the above and still want to be a chef, go for it—and if not, you can always have fun making salsa.
This article originally appeared in The Illinois Times.