Concocting A Culinary Career

With Gordon Ramsay barking orders at underlings and Rachel Ray giggling her way through an easy-to-make meal it is clear professional cooking has cemented itself as a popular way to make a living. Celebrity chefs, however, are just a small part of the pie when it comes to jobs within the realm of the kitchen. There are a host of other opportunities in this industry and it doesn’t require catchphrases or shouting matches to make this a viable career choice.

That said, the successful ones in this field have far more than a love for food. While this is certainly a pre-requisite, an attention to detail and ability to work under pressure are just a few of the other vital components. The art of execution is where professional chefs are expected to excel. This means they need to be able to juggle the essential variables of delivering a good meal including knife skills, logistics management, safety awareness—and mastery of a little thing called ingredients. Multi-taskers are perfect for the job. Jennifer White, President of the California Culinary Academy, says that students who come to her school have been cooking since a young age and are born with a passion to work in this profession.

To get a job in theculinary arts a degree is highly recommended. Of course it is possible to work your way up from dishwasher to line cook but it can be a long road that opens up few options. By obtaining a degree graduates enter the workforce with experience in a variety of methods and cuisines. It is this versatility that increases the number of jobs that will be available to a new graduate.

Within culinary specialties there are a wide variety of degrees out there—from certificates to academic degrees. California Academy for the Culinary Arts, for example, offers both types of programs with several areas of focus. Their two-year academic degree program offers students intensive exposure to the culinary world since students spend five hours a day, five days a week attending lectures, demos, and hands-on learning labs. “You can watch the Food Network all day long and read every cookbook but it only works if you have the practice,” says White. “Getting your hands to do what your brain is thinking takes time.” CCA also offers nine-month certificate programs in Baking and Pastry Arts as well as Hospitality and Restaurant Management.

In addition to breadth of training, applicants should look for programs with work-experience built into the program. This usually shows up in the form of charity events, student-staffed restaurants, and internships at kitchens around town. It is one thing to be able to create a perfect Baked Alaska in the classroom, but quite another to create several of them plus a host of other entrees during the dinner rush.

The career path for someone with culinary training goes far beyond the stereotypical route of being a line cook. Personal chefs, cruise ships, food writers, airline culinary consultants, and wine experts are just some of the avenues available to a trained professional. Luckily all of these paths are always available even if someone has spent a few years committing to a different niche within the industry. A few years of cruise ship kitchen experience doesn’t mean you can’t become a wine connoisseur down the road. The breadth within this career choice is one of the many reasons people tend to stay in this line of work for decades after they have started.

Of course most people just starting out in the field will put some time in as a traditional line cook. Here they can expect a typical day to follow the same ebb and flow regardless of the type of cuisine. There is the lunch rush and afternoon lull followed by the dinner rush and kitchen clean-up. From the outside it looks challenging to work in an environment where everything needs to happen all at once, but those in the industry say that this is the fun part. The sense of satisfaction that results from handling a steady stream of orders and getting them out to customers with the same level of quality is pure bliss. Not many other jobs have the opportunity to see such immediate and tangible results. “A well-run kitchen has an amazing fluidity,” says White. “It’s like a ballet.”

The other rewards of the job include the great camaraderie that comes along with working with like-minded people. Additionally, employment at any major hotel chain usually translates to being able to stay in other cities at highly discounted rates. While some might see the unconventional hours as a downside—working when others are out on the town, for example—most people in this line of work relish the late mornings and mid-week days off. With perks like these all that needs to be said is order up!

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