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 three 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.
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 wretchedly 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.
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!
Read More From Toughnickel
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.
Where It All Began: The Endicott Grill Cheers!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can I become a chef with just a high school degree?
Answer: With seriously hard work, I'd say yes you can! Look at people like Gabrielle Hamilton and what she has achieved over the years [impressive]! The first thing I would suggest is get in a kitchen where you can learn and DO. Be a sponge. Read, watch cooks, watch cooking videos, ask questions, eat. If you want to be a cook - cook!
Please Leave Your Comments Here. Thank You and Good Luck.
Aela B on August 01, 2020:
You decide weather you want to be qualified expert in the culinary field.If yes then a short time certification goes a long way and will help you in going up the hierarchy.If you still want to directly pursue cooking as career without any basic certification then choice is yours and you can still do it. But as a culinary careers Counsellor for almost one and half decade I always suggest that a basic culinary certification will always be an added advantage when you are looking to grow up the hierarchy.
Culinary Careers Counsellor
Culinary Academy of India
kennedy duah on July 27, 2020:
This is a successful vocational course.
Anac on February 27, 2020:
Hi quiet impressive story same story I have I have started my job from kitchen hen now After many years struggles I become a Sous chef in reputed 5 star hotel , But I need certificates in culinary level 4 any one can suggest me please how I can get this
Jessica on July 17, 2019:
I have no formal training but I own a hand pie company and cook in a family italian restaurant. I love what I do and I am always learning and experimenting. I have advice for all you young ones! Be the thing you desire! If you want to be a chef keep cooking, keep practicing. I worked in retail for many years and practiced my cooking at home and for friends and started researching commercial kitchen processes and never stopped searching and learning. Dont be afraid, life is to short to not do the things you love!
Nagma on April 25, 2019:
Hello. I am 39 years old and I do cook and sell food from my home. Every one love my food. Since I was a child I use to dream about getting famous about my cooking skills, I never went to any cooking school. I want to learn about food pricing.
Yena jang on March 05, 2019:
Now I'm 17years old and dreaming to be a chef.
But my parents are missionary so that they can't support me.
I don't know what to do. How to start.
My dream is go to a culinary school in the United States but have no money.
Please give me some examples how to be a chef without graduating good schools, not having enough money.
Lyn on March 02, 2019:
Hi good day , I read this confession that we help some people to become a chef and also to help my dream passion , seriously I read this because I want to become a successful chef someday , even this course is need to a big money but we don't have enough money for that ,. I am grade 12 student that being a chef someday is one of my dream , but my father wants me to study an education if I'm a college student now , but my mother said I take an HRM course , I hope someday , God helps me to succeed what I want to become someday ❤️
Kausik Sau on November 02, 2018:
I am work now a restaurant as a crew mainly kitchen .can I start chef job?.what way? I am excited for answer .plezz send me way
Mia on October 17, 2018:
This article was written ages ago but I just felt like dropping a comment anyway... this article has been very motivational for me. I am one of those who has been fortunate enough to get the opportunity to train in a professional kitchen without any culinary qualifications. I have six months experience so far and managed to get my second job in quite a prestigious kitchen and felt quite intimidated by the fact that most people either came via the culinary college route or just had decades of experience if not. But this article has reminded me (as my previous head chef who also didn’t go to culinary school, started out as a pot wash and ended up running quite a prestigious restaurant told me) that it is possible to become a chef without formal education as long as you’ve got the drive and passion to achieve what you want. Thanks for the inspiration!
Yeez on March 19, 2018:
Hi, I’m currently a junior in college majoring in Anthropology and environmental studies. Honestly, Taking these courses have left me wondering what I ever hoped to accomplish and if they were simply crutches to hold onto while taking interest in food and the culinary world. Right now, the hardest part about not already being in culinary school is the fact that I am running out of time where I can be experimenting with my careers. While I have some kitchen experience, I still question whether or not just trying will outcompete the resumes of culinary students. Most of the kitchen I even aspire to wash dishes for expect some sort of association with a culinary school. Even now, I have worked under a mentor whose entire life has been in the industry and is just now receiving acf certificates
RamaC on March 16, 2018:
Its a very good article and also very focussed. Yes as mentioned there are so many people who did not go to a culinary school but still have become chefs. In todays world of professional careers one has to have a formal degree in the stream he/she wants to specialise. Going to a professional culinary school actually helps the individual; to grow up the hierarchy faster .Also people who are in technical career streams need a strong academic foundation which actually helps the person in analysing the things in relation to the theoretical aspect. This is my opinion. People with no academic qualification in culinary arts in India have remained as cooks and people who are having some level of certification have become chefs.
Higher Education Counsellor
Culinary Academy of India.
Merrin Sairah James on February 14, 2018:
Hey, I'm Merrin.... i am in tenth grade right now and i am really really passionate about cooking and becoming a chef. but no one supports me. my parents wants me to become a doctor or something thst is safe and popular in india(since i am in india, ofcourse). but i dont wanna do that. i want to go to france and learn culinary techniques. they just dont understand. they think the culinary industry is male dominated. i know they want what's best for me, but whose dream should i follow? mine or someone else's dream for me? neither my parents nor my grandparents support me. even some of my friends tell me its a bad idea.... what should i do?
Alan on December 08, 2017:
Hi i am passionate about cooking i wanna open my own restaurant.do i need to memorise the recipes or am i supposed to find something new by myself.
Kabo Ntemba on September 13, 2017:
Hi, I am Kabo, 24 from Botswana.Intrested in cooking, but i don't have any degree and i have been working as a chef in 3 different lodges for the past 3 years,and i have a great passin in cooking.I want to become a professinal chef in big hotel even abroad so tell me what to do exactly?
Bandita Sahoo on June 02, 2017:
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?
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on March 21, 2017:
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!!
Alice on March 18, 2017:
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
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on January 08, 2016:
That's what cooking is all about...bringing friends and family together and making them smile! Cheers!
Thank you for reading and sharing.
promise ndobela on January 07, 2016:
I dont have much experience but I love to cook for my family and friend especially on sunday
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on September 28, 2015:
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
findingnina on September 27, 2015:
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?
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on September 03, 2015:
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!
Sarah on August 28, 2015:
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
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on August 12, 2014:
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 lives....cooking, 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,
Prasun kedia on June 08, 2014:
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 b.com 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.
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on December 09, 2013:
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!!!!
Rahmat Hidayat on December 09, 2013:
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,
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on March 27, 2013:
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.
nimrod on March 25, 2013:
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 chef..is it too late for me to pursue a career knowing that im 27years old now? thanks..
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on October 19, 2012:
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.
Limo Les on October 19, 2012:
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
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on September 17, 2012:
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 home...read 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!
Jeon sh on September 13, 2012:
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.
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on May 31, 2012:
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,
Sarah Hill on May 23, 2012:
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!
Graham Gifford (author) from New Hamphire on March 28, 2012:
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. ;)
jethru isidro on March 23, 2012:
You gave me hope.Very inspiring indeed..
i will use your story and advice as a tool for my goal.
Glenn Mathews on November 19, 2011:
Well done! This really put a big smile on my face. Very, Very Cool!!
Jami on November 17, 2011:
Great article. Enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.
Pam on November 17, 2011:
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!
Cathie on November 17, 2011:
Great story...and great advice! Amazing how some people seem to just fall into their niche.