From Cook to Chef: An Open Letter To Aspiring Cooks
So, now that you have established that you want to become a Chef, let’s see how you can get there. Many established chefs will try to warn you not to join our ranks. This probably comes from chefs who are tired of the position they are in at the moment or who never really made it to the top of our profession or are simply burned out after many years of hard work under less then pretty circumstances. Keep in mind that for those chefs, in order to get to where they are now, at one point they had to be as enthusiastic, positive and full of dreams as you are at this moment.
The first question that pops up is usually: “Should I go to culinary school?”
Until a few years ago I would have told everybody that this is a waste of time and money. Unfortunately these day’s, without a piece of paper which proves that you attended school for a certain amount of time, your life/professional expertise is useless in this country and many others. These day’s it is nearly impossible to get to a management position without proof of a degree or at least a diploma from a prestigious school, no matter how much actual experience and skills you possess.
On the other hand, one has to realize that to be a very good cook will only be the minimum requirement once you reach the Executive Chefs position. You must also be very knowledgeable in human resource matters, food cost, labor cost, design, union rules, cleaning, public relations and a myriad of other such things. Most places will hire you to fix those things, not to teach them to you. There is a reason the other chef is not there anymore. A wealth of knowledge and skills, patience and diplomacy is expected from you when you walk in the door. Most of this you cannot learn in a school. It will take years of acquired skills and knowledge to become the Chef that you aspire to be. So here it is : You first need to get your papers (diploma) THEN (maybe) you will be given the chance to actually learn, experience and practice what you already are “licensed” to do. “Catch 22″, really.
Don’t be discouraged if things seem to go slow and tedious at the beginning. Think of your culinary career as a kind of snowball: Lay a small snowball (your Career) on a snowy hill and see what happens: Nothing! But push, push, push and it starts to slowly roll down the hill and after a short time it will start to gain momentum all by itself and off it goes to become a giant snowball ( your Career).
Here now, in a few words, is how the snowball of my career rolled for me:
I started as an apprentice when I was thirteen and a half years old, in a small hotel in the black forest in Germany (Hotel Wiedenfelsen in Buehlertal). Tough times. Hard work. Long hours, sometimes no day off for many weeks. At that time there were no “shifts” you were assigned to. It was normal for everybody to work breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eight hour workdays ?! Go work at a bank! During my first year I earned room and board and approximately $20 cash a month. Second year about $60 a month and during the third year probably around $100. From the second year on, an apprentice was expected to run his or her own station. (VERY few girls in the kitchen at that time, 1967). My secret dream at that time was to become a disc jockey as soon as I’d finish my apprenticeship. Thank God my dad found out and gave me a few fresh ones to set my head straight. The next stations on my journey, as much as I remember now, were as follows:
One winter season as a Commis de Cuisine during winter season in Austria. (Hotel Alpenhof: Jungholz, Tyrol)
One summer season as a Commis de cuisine at the German seaboard. (Hotel See Schloesschen, Timmendorfer Strand).
One summer and winter (1972 summer olympics) as the lone cook with two helpers in a small restaurant and banquet facility in Munich (Gaststaette Zunfthaus).
One year during which I was promoted from Chef Tournant to Executive Chef at a Congress Center in Germany (Congresshalle Boeblingen) The Chef got sick and I had to take over – there it was, my first big chance.
After that I took a year off to live in Hollywood, California. (A whole different story)
After that, back to Germany for some time, working in a five-star restaurant as Chef de Partie (Ratskeller Ludwigsburg) and then going back as Executive Chef to the Congress Center in Boeblingen.
At around 1980 I took a position as Sous Chef at the Manila Midtown Hotel in Manila, Philippines. I stayed there for a few years and was promoted to my first international position as Executive Chef.
From Manila I moved to Singapore (Excelsior Hotel) and Thailand (VERY extended vacation 🙂 ) and eventually to Miami where I joined Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. During my time there as Senior Executive Chef I met my lovely wife Maria who also worked for RCCL.
For the next 15 years Maria and I traveled the world, living and working in a variety of Countries.
During my career in the hospitality industry I have held the positions of:
Apprentice, Commis de Cuisine, Chef de Partie, Sous Chef, Executive Sous Chef, Executive Chef, Senior Executive Chef, Area Executive Chef, F&B Manager, Owner, Chef Instructor, Program Chair for the English Program at a Culinary College, Program Chair for the Spanish Program at a Culinary College.
I have worked in restaurants, hotels and cruise ships.
I worked in places where I was the only cook, in places where I was leading a staff of a few hundred and in places of any size in between.
I have lived and worked in such places as: Germany, United States, Jamaica, Grenada, US Virgin Islands, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, France, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and probably a few more which I cannot remember right now. According to my wife Maria who keeps track of those things, I have lived, worked and/or visited 128 countries in total.
Not bad for a kid who left school before he was 14 years old and, after apprenticeship, had no further formal education.
During the past 25 years in the hospitality industry my specialty for which companies hired me was to open new ventures or to bring back the former glory that many places had lost. This made for some very hectic and stressful but nevertheless beautiful and exciting years, which I would not want to miss for anything. (The money was great too). I lived mostly in five-star hotels or other high-class accommodations, provided by the companies I worked for. If one works at this level, most companies provide a high-class expatriate package, which can include great amenities for the whole family such as free travel, maid service, company car and chauffeur, free food, drinks, laundry, medical service, etc, etc.
During the past seven years I have worked as a chef instructor at a local culinary college (Le Cordon Bleu, Miami). Life is good, even without the stress and hectic. Sometimes I miss the crazy action, most times I don’t.
Well folks, there you have it. It is all out there, just waiting for you ! All you have to do is work hard, never give up and understand that all beginnings are tough.