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How You Can Become a Chef Without Going to Culinary School

Updated on April 1, 2017
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Graham is a former chef, and food stylist with a passion for all things food-related. She has also never been known to decline dessert.

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.

1. Energy

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.

3. Passion

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!

So You Wanna Be a Chef — by Bourdain | Michael Ruhlman

Should You Go To Culinary School? | David Lebovitz

Commis Certification: Commis Schools Offering Test Preperation, Training Courses & Exams

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.

K&L Bistro

A markerSebastopol, CA -
119 S Main St
get directions

Where It All Began: The Endicott Grill Cheers!

Please Leave Your Comments Here. Thank You and Good Luck.

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      Cathie 5 years ago

      Great story...and great advice! Amazing how some people seem to just fall into their niche.

    • profile image

      Pam 5 years ago

      That really is a great story! I'm downright jealous as my goal, for a second career, is in the Culinary Arts. I'm very, very impressed and that picture is wonderful - you haven't changed a bit!

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      Jami 5 years ago

      Great article. Enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

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      Glenn Mathews 5 years ago

      Well done! This really put a big smile on my face. Very, Very Cool!!

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      jethru isidro 5 years ago

      You gave me hope.Very inspiring indeed..

      i will use your story and advice as a tool for my goal.


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      Graham Gifford 5 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi jethru. If becoming a chef is a dream of yours-STAY TRUE! You will get there. I'm so happy that my article inspired you. Best of luck achieving your goal. ;)

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      Sarah Hill 5 years ago

      I understand what you are saying, and it's a good point. But I wouldn't give up my experience at Kendall College Culinary School for anything. The connections, the fresh ideas, and all the new techniques I learn are worth every penny. Just my two cents!

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 5 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Sarah, Thank you for reading and congratulations on your culinary degree! EVERY opportunity for education is an opportunity NOT to be missed! I hope that you didn't read into my article the thought that I think culinary school is a wasted education. I was simply sharing my story on how I ended up in the culinary world-simply as that. Best of Luck in your endeavors. Let me know where your path takes you and where you and your knife land. Best Regards,

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      Jeon sh 4 years ago

      What i wanna be a chef. I'm a Korean student. I don't have any mento, such as teacher , and famous chef. Please give me any advice.

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      Graham Gifford 4 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Jeon sh. I would highly recommend that you get a job in a restaurant that you aspire to chef at one day...even if that means working as a dishwasher or prep cook. Ask one of the chefs there if they would mentor you. Many chefs enjoy having 'students' watch them work. Watch the cooks around the kitchen and begin to understand what they do and their techniques. Bring your studies as many cook books as you can, especially books that discuss techniques. The last bit of advice that I can offer...cook...cook a lot...cook all the time for yourself, your family, your friends. Cook different foods and cuisines. Eat as you go so that you understand what things taste like and eventually you will have a more educated palette. Practice your knife skills-ALOT! Good Luck to you, friend!

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      Limo Les 4 years ago

      Hi. You're article has inspired me to follow my passion and try to get a job in one of the local restaurants. I definitely have the work ethic, energy and passion but what two skills do you think I should hone to improve my chances? Thanks

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 4 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Limo Les, fantastic! The first one is tenacity. In any profession, there are people who aspire to help others in their personal pursuits. Then, there are those that not only won't help, but will do things to make you fail. Sad? Yes. Negative, Yes. True, Yes. Have an honest chat with someone at one the two restaurants you are interested in. Ask if anyone there will be your mentor. If someone takes you under their wing do everything that they say and do everything that they ask of you. Consume the information that they are sharing with you. Knife skills-practice, practice and then practice some more. When you can handle knives (all kinds of knives) and understand their purposes and how to care for them, that is something that many chefs look for. Must I stop at two?

      Read. Read all the magazines and test books that you can to gain valuable information about ingredients, trends, and chefs. Talk the talk, as they say.

      Watch. Watch everyone. Some of the best cooks that I have ever known were line cooks. Some of the most amazing prep cooks were dishwashers. Just because someone has a title doesn't mean they are premier. Likewise, for the degree of disrespect that dishwashers and line cooks put up with, they are, in fact, some of the most valuable members of the kitchen.

      With that last statement in mind. If cooking is your passion, you may decide that becoming a "chef" is not in your plan. You may decide to work in a great pub or bistro as one of those line cooks that I just mentioned.....GOOD FOR YOU. That, too, is an admirable profession that brings you closer to what you love-food.

      Happy to offer more help sometime if you'd like. I wish luck in your endeavor.

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      nimrod 4 years ago

      hello! i am 27 and i am pursuing a culinary career...i want to enroll in a culinary school but i have no money to do so...i am now enrolled in a technical/vocational school..thanks for your article it boosted my passion on becoming a it too late for me to pursue a career knowing that im 27years old now? thanks..

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 4 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi 'nimrod', I'm so happy that my article helped boost your passion!! Never listen naysayers, if you want it - you'll find a way to make it. So you can't afford a culinary school, you've figured out another way to meet your goal and that is FANTASTIC! Look to the folks that inspire you. Some may have had a culinary education - some may not have. Forge your own path. Too old? NEVER. Besides you are very young. Even if you asked me the same question and you mentioned that you were 47 - I would say the same thing (different hurdles, but still attainable) Hey, think of Julia Childs! I wish you much success. Work hard, practice and surround yourself with people you want to be like and you'll get there.

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      Rahmat Hidayat 3 years ago

      Hello...I have 6 years working experience as a Kitchen Porter in the Pub Industry. I am now 34 yrs old. I want to move to the next level but I have to be energetic and outperform my chefs. I do have the passion but don't meet my Headchefs expectations. I try very very hard and still trying. Is there a future in my career? I have to earn a living though. Rgds,

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 3 years ago from New Hamphire

      Rahmat, thank you for reading my article and YES, yes there is a future for you if you want it! What does your Chef say about your skills? Is he/she supportive of you and providing you with good, constructive suggestions? If so, do what ever he/she is suggested and continue to work hard!If your Chef is not meeting YOUR expectations, then I suggest you find a mentor elsewhere and work toward your dream at a different restaurant. Focus your energies on outperforming your skills that you have TODAY. Don't worry about outperforming the other Chefs-not yet-that time will come. Best of Luck to you!!!!

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      Prasun kedia 3 years ago


      I'm prasun , 23 from india. I'm from commerce background but I want to switch into culinary. I don't have any experience about cooking. I just like making coffee sandwich , noodles with little experiments , bake a cake(no fancy designing on top of it) or a chocolate chip cookie. I don't know if I'm really passionate about it. But every time at home when I switch my tv , I love watching cooking or food related tv shows like eat street , man v food, you gotta eat here, master chef usa australia, gordan ramsay kitchen nightmares , food factory, food detectives and our india 's own vikas khanna twist of taste , Sanjeev kapoor khanna khazana. Even though I'm a full veggie ( not even eggs) i love watching these shows where they cook non veg food. I dream about converting our indian dishes into a futuristic one. Plus I dream about how to come up with a vegetarian version of sausage so that we can have a veggie hot dogs. Also if required i would turn into a non vegetarian if required.

      I'm having tough luck in my commerce background as I don't find it interesting. I have completed my degree and completed 2 levels of my chartered accountant and company secretary degrees after failing 3 times in each to pass the 2nd level of each and right now only one final level left which I find really tough. So I really don't know whether I'm passionate to go into the culinary field. Plus it feels scary to break this news to my parents that I want to switch into culinary. They have invested so many money in teaching me. Help me and suggest me whether it's an illusion or am I day dreaming about going into culinary and learn the skills.

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      Graham Gifford 2 years ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Prasun,

      Thank you for reading my article and I hope that I can offer a bit of help to you. My first thought is this: if you're not certain that you are passionate about cooking - you probably are not and I would therefore ask that you give this more thought. There are many professions that require us to put in 110% of our, can very often, ask for 200%. So you much be sure. That is not to say that you should give up entirely, but you should have a plan "A" and a plan "B".

      I would also suggest that you find a part-time job in the culinary field and see if that helps you make a more permanent decision. You'll start small, I'm sure. Ask if you can assist a baker in your town or wash dishes in your favorite restaurant. See if you even like the atmosphere of a restaurant. I understand that 'breaking this news' to your parents maybe difficult, but this is clearly a stressor for you, as well. I wish you the most of luck and I wish you a happy future! Best Regards,

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      Sarah 22 months ago

      Hi there, thanks for the article. I was planning on going to Kendall College in Chicago, I even was enrolled and had all my ducks in a row. Then I found out I was going to have to take out a private loan for about 32,000 dollars - a loan nobody was going to lend me given I have very little credit. Now I'm looking at other paths toward becoming a cook/chef for a living. Your advice is great

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      Graham Gifford 22 months ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Sarah,

      Educational loans are CRAZY these days - very disappointing. I'm glad to hear that you're not giving up, however. There are MANY paths to the same goal - you will find one of those paths. I wish you the best of good fortune!

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      findingnina 21 months ago

      Hello, I loved your story and passion for your job, and I can really relate to where you started, as it is where I stand currently.

      I recently graduated college and am full of passion to work for something but sadly no outlet for it. Some nights i lay awake frustrated because I know I have a drive to do something but I cannot find an occupation that would echo it. Maybe it's because I am an art major but making money has to come first.

      Although I have no experience working as a chef, the dedication and drive that you've covered in this article I can emphasize with a lot. I've always dreamed of doing something food related but been too scared to actually make it a living. As a result, I'm now employed at a retail store to make money and bide the time as I try to work towards teaching credentials. Do you have any advice for someone aspiring to go into cooking but needs a way to start?

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 21 months ago from New Hamphire

      findingnina, hello..

      I'm so pleased that you enjoyed my article. Your words, also resonated with me. A few thoughts come immediately to my mind; I recently watched a Maria Forleo interview with Melissa Gilbert. Gilbert discussed her drive and passion. I'm not sure if you appreciate Gilbert or not, but perhaps you'd like to check it out on YouTube. My other thought, yes, money is key, but be careful how you weigh this topic. If you can generate enough money to pay your rent, buy your food and stash a little away for emergencies, do that AS YOU BUILD A LIFE with your craft. I'm 49 now and I leaned this lesson later in my life. If you do want you love and can make it - great! If you make tons of money doing something that you DO NOT love - you'll be unhappy. Why not trade off that retail job for a job in a restaurant? You'll be earning $ and learning at the same time. On another note, you've just offered me such kind and lovely words on this article, I want you to know that this was my FIRST article. I was timid to start and one day I just sat down and wrote. This will not win any awards, but it made me happy. My advice - take one step and the second step will be easier. I wish you well. Graham

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      promise ndobela 17 months ago

      I dont have much experience but I love to cook for my family and friend especially on sunday

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 17 months ago from New Hamphire


      That's what cooking is all about...bringing friends and family together and making them smile! Cheers!

      Thank you for reading and sharing.


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      Alice 3 months ago

      Hi am really glad to hear your story it has really raised myspirit ,i dont have a degree in being a chef but my passion and dedication has made my life different was currently working as a cook and they really apreciated my effort and were impressed and that has given me the reason to persuade being a chef without the certificate because i almost gave up

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      Graham Gifford 3 months ago from New Hamphire

      Hi Alice, While a formal education in any field has tremendous value, we live in a world that offers opportunities through other portals. Don't give up! Place yourself in situations that offer you experience. Try to find yourself a mentor. Be the best student that you can be. Best of luck to you!!

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      Bandita Sahoo 3 weeks ago

      Hi, I am Bandita, 25 from India. i am intrested in cooking. But i don't have any degree in cooking. I have only done 2 months course in hotel management in food production. i have a great passion in cooking. I always tried to learn new recipies and cooking styles. I want to be a chef in a good hotel or restaurant. can you tell me how should i begin my career in this line.what should i do?

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