Getting Started as a Chef

I was a picky eater as a kid. I hated just about everything my mother made. Finally, she got so fed up that she would make me go grocery shopping with her. We would walk down the aisles together and I would pick the things I was willing to eat. For every snack or sugary cereal I wanted in the cart, I had to have one fruit or vegetable in there as well.

One day, I saw my mom looking through a recipe book. She was trying to figure out what she could make with the jicama I had chosen (I remember I picked it because I thought it was a funny word at the time). I sat down with her and we went through it together. We found a fairly simple recipe for a salad and I wanted to help make it. It turned out that I wasn’t so much a picky eater as my mom wasn’t a very good cook.

That was it. At the age of seven, I knew what I wanted to do.

Not everyone has that moment. I have met chefs who start out taking a line cook job because it is there and work their way up. Others start by cooking for family and then find themselves taking cooking classes, which leads to culinary school, which leads to a job in a kitchen.

I think the thing that anybody who puts on that chef’s apron will tell you is that you have to love food. Whether you love eating it, experimenting with it, or simply serving it to others, that is the one thing that you really need to get you started. I know lots of chefs who can’t make a cake from scratch (that’s why we have pastry chefs!) and others who couldn’t tell the difference between eggplant and chicken if their eyes are closed. Nobody is born with great knife skills or the inherent ability to know how to make an excellent red sauce. It comes from recipes, trial and error, and most of all: hard work.

If you are interested in becoming a chef, or even simply developing better cooking skills, start in your own kitchen. Watch cooking shows or check recipe books out of the library to learn different techniques. Tweak existing recipes to build your confidence. Challenge yourself when you go ingredient shopping; get things you aren’t familiar with and test them out. The results might not be gourmet, but you’ll learn every time you make something. Take a class or two—there are classes offered at community colleges, culinary schools, and even some grocery stores or restaurants. Travel if you can and learn about the local cuisine, or start right where you live with popular local fare. Then get yourself into a professional kitchen. It doesn’t have to be at a 5 star restaurant. You’ll learn something at a diner or even a chain restaurant. Just keep challenging yourself. Ask questions. Experiment. Take notes. Some dishes are going to be terrible, and that’s fine. Figure out why. Don’t do it again.

Just get into the kitchen and get cooking.