Ask any person working in the culinary industry about what it’s like to be a chef and you will get some of the same points and then you will get completely different stories. There are articles about the "Top 5 reasons to become a chef," which talk about the glamorous life of a chef. Your ego is soothed and stroked when you are in culinary school and there is talk of grander horizons, traveling the world to see new and exciting cuisines, working under great chefs and tasting foods that only one could dream about.
But in the real world that is not always true. The truth is that the highest divorce rate of any profession in America is that of a chef. Restaurant hours are long and do not coincide with the hours of the jobs of your partner, family and friends. I have personally gone to the extent of having my spouse bring a friend and eat dinner in my restaurant while I was on duty, just so we could see each other. If you want a 9 to 5 job, you are most likely in the wrong industry. If you want a day job, or a life, expect to stay a cook and not move up in pay or position.
To be a cook, all you need to do is to be able to put food together and make a satisfying meal. To be a chef however, you need a creative flair that allows you to express yourself in many different ways. You can let your imagination take the reins when it comes to creating the recipes you prepare, the way you put together your meals, and the way that you present each dish. Being a chef is really an art form, and one that many appreciate. But please be careful, for the old adage that “if you cook it, they will come” is not true. I have made this mistake once in my career for I thought I was bigger than I was, and I almost left the industry altogether. But I learned from my mistake and kept on my path.
There are thousands of people who graduate every year and they are told that they are chefs. It takes at least five years to become a good chef. More like 10 to become a great one. Smart culinary professionals build a provenance in their career line, working for extremely demanding and exacting chefs. Learning the details and trivia of a professional kitchen is not a kind process. It takes correction, which is essentially criticism. It takes working 12 days before you get a day off and working 12 to 16 hours a day on your feet.
I think the biggest misconception of chefs is that the pay must outweigh the everyday process of being a chef. Unless you are the chef/owner, an executive chef or a corporate chef, the starting pay is low and the only way you survive is because you get to eat at the restaurant you work for. But, in the long run it’s never about you, or your cuisine, it’s about that chef and what you can offer them at that time. Those who do not have the patience or the character to undergo the forging process will never be great in their fields.
The straight and narrow may or may not work in keeping you out of the flames of hell, but it is the only way to get ahead in the restaurant industry. Those who dropped out for private chef jobs paying top dollar for the least work in the late '90s are not, as a whole, finding their way back into the industry. They are certainly not getting the jobs that would have been theirs if they had stayed their course. Easy money in this industry usually has high after-cost. I have found this to be the case since I have left the commercial kitchen and decided to go on my own.
When I first started my venture as a personal chef I was scared by the thought that I was going to go broke and would end up back in a commercial kitchen. I soon found out that once you leave for any given amount of time it is hard to get back in. Chefs want someone with viable, recent work experience. But at some point, you have to make up your mind and take the plunge. As a culinarian who loves the art of creation through food, I had to make the decision between my cuisine in the private sector or another chef’s cuisine in a professional restaurant.
I have made a few mistakes by trusting known chefs who will promise you the world to get you on board with them only to be disappointed and left broken when they can’t, or won’t, deliver what they promised. I have chosen my path in the culinary industry and rose through the ranks and became a Corporate Executive Chef. I have chosen several relationships and a marriage over my profession, and for that I have been hurt and hurt a lot of people all in the name of being a chef and trying to become a household name.
Going on 12 years in the profession I have had the pleasure to work alongside three known chefs who have been on national television. I have turned down jobs from other well known chefs that would make you wonder what I was thinking. It’s a cruel industry that will give you great joy at times but will leave you empty, wondering why you even wasted your time.
But, in the whole grand scheme of things, I am glad I chose this road. When it comes down to it, most chefs chose their profession because they love to cook. There are few people who can follow their passion and reap such high rewards as those with a talent for the culinary arts. The satisfaction of seeing your guests’ eyes light up when they taste your food, of having people come to you to cater their parties or weddings, of being able to create meals that no one else can. Those are the reasons you become a chef, and are the most enjoyable times you remember.
Jeff Holmes is the Executive Chef at Twisted Fork Culinary Concepts, which offers personal chef and catering services and private cooking classes. He studied at The Art Institute Culinary School in Texas, and has worked as a chef for 12 years, including with Michael Siry, Wade Burch and Stanley Licairac. He serves up Southern-style recipes and more at his blog at twistedforkny.com.
Go to page 2 for Jeff Holmes' recipe for Jambalaya Sandwich