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I've always thought it'd be cool to work in a restaurant as a chef or own one (though I could be sorely mistaken). I'm speaking of small town, mom and pop kinds of restaurants; the kind you'd see on Food Network or other TV shows. I enjoy cooking quite a bit, but the only experience I have is cooking for myself and random learning (via here or talking with people or reading other things). I'm curious to know how much experience is needed to work as a chef in those types of places and what kind? Is cooking school pretty much mandatory?

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I think people will be able to give you okay answers, but if you have any particular kinds of restaurants in mind, you might want to mention that. There's a lot of variety out there, and while at some kinds of restaurants cooking school might be the norm, at other kinds it's unlikely. –  Jefromi Jul 18 '12 at 4:21
    
5 star Michelin, family-owned countryside restaurant, fancy sushi bar, fast food chain, etc. etc. ... these all require VERY different skills. –  nico Jul 18 '12 at 6:16
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you'd be surprised how many started out washing dishes, next rung, peeling onions, fry cook etc. More than one path to being Chef –  Pat Sommer Jul 18 '12 at 7:14
    
The really obvious examples where culinary school is unlikely are things like street food and food trucks, especially with foreign cuisines, where people are often just making things they know how to make, so the real difficulty is in all of the management type stuff that BobMcGee's answer addresses. –  Jefromi Jul 18 '12 at 17:22
    
If you have access to the Food Network, there is a show you should watch at least a few episodes of, "Restaurant: Impossible" with Robert Irvine. What you will see demonstrated is how people with no experience can muck up a perfectly good restaurant and practical examples the value of @BobMcGee answer. –  Cos Callis Jul 19 '12 at 2:48
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1 Answer

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I also liked home cooking and thought it would be a good idea to try it professionally, and here's what I learned:

The best way to learn to cook professionally is by getting an entry level job. This is what I did. People will hire you without experience if you seem humble, reliable, and willing to learn. Come in cocky or expecting a lot right in the door, and you'll be ruled out. You should apply for a chain/fast food fry cook, or in fine dining, a prep cook or dishwasher. Culinary school can help speed this up, but you'll be paying tuition to learn a job that starts out a little above minimum wage. In my mind, this is a really craptastic deal, although the schools make out like bandits.

Once you get your first job, even if you've done culinary school, you'll be useless for a few months. Home cooking emphasizes creativity, but professional cooking is all about speed, efficiency, and consistency. Think of it as assembly-line cooking. Restaurants are the very definition of "School of Hard Knocks." Be prepared for hazing and getting grief from the other staff. You'll get your ass kicked for a while, and then slowly start to become useful. But once you get the hang of it, it can be an incredible rush!

If you're a fast learner and can handle the environment, it's possible to start out as a dishwasher and end up owning your own restaurant. It's also very possible to end up a single, scarred alcoholic with an empty bank account. If this already describes you well, then you'll fit in just fine. How well you do is entirely up to you and your abilities.

The industry advice for anyone who says they want to become a chef is "Don't do it!" Go read Kitchen Confidential. Now imagine you're responsible for managing that madness of drugs and mayhem, working 60 hours a week for a wage that barely touches middle class! Still sound good to you?

There are 5 different skill-sets you'll need to make it to head chef:

  1. Line cooking skills. You need to be able to manage your time to cook rapidly and reliably, with every dish turning out the same. Culinary school can help a bit with this, but experience is the real teacher.
  2. Stress management and calm. If you aren't the type to keep your cool in a crisis, you'll never make it. Professional cooking is one of the most stressful jobs out there; you will have nights where the dish machine breaks and a cook walks out, all before a busy weekend. In those situations, it's up to you to figure out what to do.
  3. Management. You need to be able to earn the respect of a team of cooks, many of which will be "difficult personality types," ranging from prima donnas to lazy assholes to hardened felons. The only way to learn this is experience.
  4. Business sense. The restaurant industry is a challenging business at best, with high rates of failure and slim profit margins. You need to be able to cut deals with suppliers, figure out how to promote your establishment and build business, and manage expenses.
  5. Creative cooking. You need to be able to come up with delectable specials to use up the 20 pounds of squash you got for a steal, or something special for a catered dessert.

Buying a restaurant with no food service experience is a phenomenal way to get rid of excess money. Excess money, as in everything you have. On the other hand, starting from the bottom is a good way to see how you'd do. To open a restaurant as chef/owner you'll want a minimum of management & business experience plus 3 years in multiple restaurant kitchens. That's the minimum if you're very talented and driven. Honestly, 5-10 years experience is a more reasonable expectation. If you try to do it without the experience... well, new restaurants have a failure rate of about 60%. Even restaurants with experienced management and a solid business model can fail.

I don't want to crush your hopes and dreams, but this is something you really don't want to jump into without trying it at a lower level. The Food Network makes a chef's job seem glamorous, but what they do is just the opposite.

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+1. "one of the most stressful jobs out there" even police (wo)men or fire-fighters have it easy compared. :-) –  BaffledCook Jul 20 '12 at 9:43
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@BaffledCook I can't compare, not having worked police or fire fighting, but have heard that the get more slow down time. They definitely receive better pay and benefits. Especially since the restaurant industry version of benefits is free food and a band-aid when you slice something off. –  BobMcGee Jul 20 '12 at 11:39
    
@BobMcGee, just kidding. I've no experience myself either. –  BaffledCook Jul 20 '12 at 13:29
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