Chef Jobs: Dreaming of Being America's Next Top Chef?
Admit it. You sit there watching the amazing culinary experts on the Food Network and reality series like Top Chef, and you start having food fantasies that involve preparing sumptuous feasts for thousands of adoring diners. Maybe you've passed by a great location for a new restaurant, and you think, "I'm great in the kitchen! I could make that work!" Almost everyone who eats has thought longingly of starting a restaurant.
But what does it really take to make those culinary dreams come true? More effort than most people can or should invest, according to Nicko Sahlas, a chef who went to culinary school, worked in some of the finest restaurants in Europe and the US, then decided to forgo it all and go back to school--to study software development. He then started a popular website devoted to the business of being a chef, called ChefTalk.com.
Why did he give up fine food prep after investing so much time and money in it? "The chefs who have their own restaurants and achieve great success put in up to 100 hours a week and more. That leaves very little time for a family, or just about anything else in life," he says. "Not to mention the lack of benefits, and the difficulty of running a successful business that involves so much more than just cooking."
"A lot of people are intrigued by the glamor of owning a high end restaurant, and everybody likes to be creative," says Sahlas, "but not many people measure what is required to start a restaurant. Only a handful of people who go to culinary school are still in the business ten years later."
But just because you don't have your own fancy restaurant doesn't mean you can't be a success in the culinary business. Sahlas says there are hundreds of other jobs involving food prep that allow you to work with food, be creative, and still have time for a family, a social life, and to pursue other interests. He suggests being a:
- Pastry chef: you go in, you make your desserts you leave. While fine dining chefs are constantly called back to the restaurant to handle anything from a alleged food poisoning to a backed up toilet, there is seldom a chocolate emergency.
- Institutional Food Supervisor: being in charge of the menus for hospitals or schools/universities and the like may not be glamorous, but the pay is good, the work is steady, there are benefits, and your work week is 40-45 hours.
- Culinary Instructor: Whether you're at a cooking/culinary school or a junior college or university, you're still working with food, have regular hours, and often benefits.
- Private Chef: Working for a wealthy family can be low stress and involve many perks, and working for a private company that has its own dining room can also be rewarding, and again, give you regular hours and other benefits.
- Cake Decorator: As with the pastry chef, you're in, you're out, and there's plenty of room to express your creativity.
- Caterer: A lot of chefs start out catering, which is not as easy as some people think. In many states, you must have your own certified kitchen, and you almost always have to work holidays. Still, the overhead and the business management side are much less complicated.
One culinary school grad whose career Sahlas admires is Doug Sohn, of Hot Doug's in Chicago. He serves ultra gourmet hot dogs in the city that arguably loves them best. Amazing, exotic concoctions like ostrich sausage with blackberry-fig mustard and venison pate, and smoked shrimp and pork sausage with Cajun remoulade and Moody Blue cheese. On Friday and Saturday there are duck fat fries. Classic dogs are always offered as well.
The beauty of the business? The hours, according to Sohn. He's open Monday through Saturday, 10:30 am to 4:00 pm. He closes Sunday, takes many holidays off, and closes down for vacation several weeks each summer. By doing this, he covers all his financial bases quite nicely, leads the lifestyle he's always hoped to, and has no intention of expanding or franchising, although people ask him about it all the time.
"I went to culinary school and had no idea of what I would do after that," he says. "I worked in a a restaurant, did corporate dining and did catering for about a year, but my age and temperament just weren't right for it. Then I saw an ad in the paper for a cookbook editor, so I applied for that." Sohn got the job, and worked with the publishing company for more than five years. During that time, he and some friends decided to find the best hot dogs in Chicago, and do reviews. When he grew tired with editing, he made the leap and opened his own gourmet hot dog place.
"I've been in business for ten years now," he laughs. "That's about nine-and-a-half more than I expected.
Sahlas advises working in the restaurant industry for at least a year before going to culinary school. That way you know what you'll eventually be getting into, and can decide on a school and take classes that correspond to your specific interests. "Don't get me wrong--a career in fine dining can be great. I worked in France, Switzerland, Greece and Italy and had amazing experiences. I just didn't want to commit to that lifestyle forever," he says.
For more info on which branch of the culinary industry might be for you, job opportunities, culinary schools and other resources, check out Sahlas's website, ChefTalk.com.
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