You love food. You love to cook. You have a fantastic set of knives and you know how to use them. And you’re looking to turn your passion into a satisfying career as a professional chef. While you decide which culinary school best matches your career goals, you might also want to consider that it takes more to make a great chef than passion and training. The perfect recipe for success as a chef also includes some intangible personality traits. We’ve identified seven traits that we think are most important. Read our list to decide whether you have the right characteristics to make it professionally as a chef.
First, a great professional chef has stamina, or the ability to keep going for long periods under high pressure. Cooking in a professional setting is different from cooking at home: you’ll work odd hours with long stretches of high demand, and you need stamina to stay focused and productive during that time. Good chefs need to stamina cope with tedium: you’ll find yourself making the same cuts over and over again as you prep dishes for big crowds. Over a long shift, your back will ache and your feet will hurt. You’ll cut yourself, you’ll burn yourself, and you will get greasy and sweaty. But if you have stamina, you’ll push through the physical discomfort day after day.
And, looking at the bigger picture, you’ll need stamina to pay your dues in the foodservice industry. It can take years of work before you secure a primary role in the kitchen. Meanwhile, you may have to put up with lower pay and less creative work than you were hoping for, along with the knowledge that your hard work will often go uncredited. Being able to go the distance, physically and mentally, will serve you well in your career.
Good chefs are organized. This goes beyond mise en place—making sure your ingredients are ready, your ovens are hot, and that you know where the pots and knives are in the kitchen. Organization, for a chef, touches every aspect of your job, especially once you begin taking leadership roles in the kitchen. Are you using your staff effectively? Does traffic flow easily in the kitchen, especially during big rushes? Have you analysed your menus to spot what items are most profitable and which are least profitable? Have you done your best to minimize wasting ingredients, and do you get the best possible deals from your food suppliers? Are you up-to-date on food safety requirements, and do you understand employment law for your town? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you are on your way to being organized in the way a top chef needs to be.
In addition to organization, a top chef is flexible. There will be times when you’re short of staff, so it’s important to have a broad array of fundamental cooking and preparation skills mastered so that all food preparation stations can be covered (it also doesn’t hurt to know how to operate the restaurant’s dishwasher or mix a drink!). For the best chefs, no job is too mundane or lowly—if it’s got to be done in your kitchen, you should know how to do it, and be willing to do it well.
You’ll already know that top chefs need to be creative, too—the creative aspect of cooking is what attracts many people to a culinary career in the first place. Good chefs take what they’ve learned studying cuisines in culinary school and apply it in unexpectedly delicious ways. Creativity, when it’s grounded by excellent cooking skills, also allows chefs to cope with difficult situations—a shortage of key ingredients, for example, can be treated as a challenge rather than a tragedy when a creative chef is in the kitchen.
Producing great meals on a commercial scale is a collaborative effort, so every successful chef needs to be a team player. While the stereotype of the head chef as furious dictator gets played out so often on television, in most restaurants and commercial kitchens the reality isn’t so dramatic. Yes, real kitchens have a hierarchy—an efficient business of any kind needs clear lines of authority for work to flow smoothly. Customers in restaurants expect delicious, well-presented food that arrives in a timely fashion, and a chef who doesn’t play his part as necessary risks hurting the restaurant’s reputation. Head chefs need to guide, coach, and monitor the staff members who report to them, while everyone else needs to know his job and perform it flawlessly.
6. Customer Focus
Without the customers, you don’t have a job. A good chef knows that customers want fresh, delicious food that’s presented attractively, and does his or her best to make sure that happens for every customer that enters the restaurant. In addition to making customers happy, successful chefs also handle complaints gracefully, and do their best to draw a lesson (or at least a laugh) from even the most unreasonable or outrageous customer grievances.
7. Desire to Learn
All professionals who are truly passionate about their jobs never lose the desire to keep learning, and this is especially true of creative professionals like chefs. Great chefs know they have to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in their field, and they also are interested in learning more about specific cuisines to an expert level. Testing new equipment, trying new ingredients, eating at new restaurants—these learning experiences are part of the joy of being a chef that happens outside the kitchen, but can enrich and improve your performance in it. Finally, a good chef is never afraid to go back to the classroom now and then to brush up on old skills or master new ones.
So, do you think you have what it takes to be a great chef? You’ll need help along the way. Find a culinary program that suits your interests and career goals via your local university or a focused culinary school, such as the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which offers programs that touch every aspect of professional cooking and hospitality management in cities across America. With the right personality traits and the right training, you’re well on your way to a rewarding career in the culinary arts.