How You Can Become a Chef Without Going to Culinary School
After graduating from college, I couldn't find a job in my field. Rent was due and I needed money. I interviewed for a sous chef position at a local restaurant because I liked to cook and, frankly, I thought that I would be pretty good at it. Clearly, the chef was unimpressed with my lack of skills, but while discussing the job he mentioned that he'd already fired 3 cooks who had failed to meet his expectations. Hearing that, I thought that I had nothing to lose and offered to work for him until he found a suitable replacement. I made every effort to do as I was taught and learn everything that he was willing to show me. He was a very generous teacher. I was a very eager student. He never hired a replacement.
So how do you become a chef without a culinary degree? In my experience, these five things are a must.
Physical and emotional energy is critical. Working in a restaurant is grueling and the hours are long. A typical shift could be 10-17 hours.
2. Work Ethic
When your work is being consumed by the public, you are not afforded a bad day. You must always work toward perfection.
A love of food is not the only passion needed to succeed in the culinary arts. You must have a passion for discovery. You must educate yourself on new ingredients, new techniques, new skills, and other new talent blazing trails that you will want to follow.
4. Practice. (Practice. Practice.)
It is just as your mother told you. Practice makes perfect. That's no guarantee you'll become a chef, but it increases your odds considerably.
5. Find a mentor; or work as a dishwasher at the best restaurant in town
The benefits of having a mentor may seem obvious, but many talented chefs began their careers much lower on the culinary ladder. Frankly, I worked with several culinary students who unfortunately lacked the abilities to out perform the prep cook. Yes, it is necessary to have knife skills and the creative aptitude to create delicious food. You just need to know how to make that same dish for 300 guests in under an hour.
Oh yeah, knife skills. You'll need those, too.
This next statement is going to roll more than a few eyes and offend even more, but I don't say it lightly. I've seen, first hand, way too many culinary students with wrechedly poor knife skills and it makes me cringe. There are two reasons why I cringe when I witness knives being smacked down onto a cutting board; first, culinary school is expensive. Like any other education, it should be taken seriously (no matter who is flipping the bill) and second, the most poorly skilled students always seemed to have the most gloriously beautiful (read:$$$$$$) knife sets.
While a beautiful knife set may help you look the part of a chef, they require adept hands to work their magic. So again, I find myself referring back to number 4: Practice. Practice. Practice.
Proper Knife Skills
There are some exceptional culinary schools that offer excellent programs, but if you choose, for whatever reason, not to go, you can still become a chef.
Take a look at these links that may help you to decide if becoming a chef without getting a degree is suitable for you. Good Luck!
A little bit more about my mentor: His name is Lucas Martin. He and his wife Karen own and operate K&L Bistro in Sebastopol, California. If you are ever in the area, stop by and pay him a visit. His food is scrumptious.