So You Want to Be a Chef…

I’m always humbled by the many supportive readers I have on this blog. And a question I receive regularly is:

“I have just enrolled in culinary school. Do you have any advice you can give me?”

Well first off let me say that I’m honored that you’d think that I’d have advice worth listening to on the subject. I’ve always thought of this blog as more of a “cautionary tale” rather than a source of advice… But seeing as how I’ve been down this road, and to date have had a pretty successful career of it all, maybe I do have a few pointers that can help get you, or any other students starting down this road, on the right path.

For example: Why is it that every culture from Eastern Europe through Asia has some form of dumpling in their culinary history?

The first thing I would say, and this is the most important point I feel, is to stay curious about food and cooking. And not just in school, but outside of school, all the time. You have to try new recipes, new techniques, new styles – and not worry about failing as much as worry that you might not be learning while you try them. Your chef instructors will teach you lots, but they can’t teach you everything, so take it upon yourself to learn even more.

That includes the science of cooking, the history of cooking, the cultural aspects of cooking. Take it all in, and never stop. The second you stop being curious about all there is to know about food is the second you’re done in this business. A chef who is not interested in where food came from, and where the culinary world is going ceases to be a chef, and becomes merely a cook.

And it is in that sense of curiosity that I come to the second point. Get into the world of cooking as soon as you can manage. Again, your chef instructors will teach you a lot, but a classroom is nothing compared to the learning experience of a professional kitchen. The fast-paced, injury-laden, ego-busting experience that is working in a professional kitchen can’t possibly be replicated in a classroom – but it’s what we live for and learn from.

This learning comes mainly in the form of developing your own style based on what your chef will teach you. Sure, there are chefs out there who don’t want to teach, they want to keep you down in your career so you will never compete with them, but simply avoid working too long for jerks like this. There is more to learn than you can imagine from a good chef, so be open to what they are showing you and take it all in. But someday you will learn all you can from them, and when you realize that time has come, it is time to move on to the next place.

Be careful with this though. It’s easy to think you’ve learned all you can – hell, I moved through three kitchens in my first year – so don’t let your ego cloud your judgment on this one. I still stand by my decisions to move like I did, I really had learned what I could in those specific instances. But once you find a place that really “fits” for you, stick with it and learn from it – and some day you’ll have learned enough to pass on your knowledge to someone else.

The circle of life…yadda yadda…

And that brings me to the last piece of advice. Share what you learn with others. Be a teacher, a mentor, an advisor to anyone who’s willing to listen. Not to get all “Lion King” on ya, but that’s how the cycle continues. You learn all you can from others, and then pass it on to the next round of people like yourself who want to do the same. I enjoy this part so much, it’s why I became a culinary instructor, and why I’m passing even this knowledge on to you know.

After all that, the only thing I can say is: have fun and enjoy yourself. It’s one hell of a ride. :)

Chef Matt