Becoming a Chef
Inspiration | 31st July 2019
I, along with 40 other students have just completed the Culinary Arts degree in TU Dublin. We’ve spent the last four years in college kitchens and lectures with industry placements every summer. We know our way around the kitchen and a lot of us, when we were not in college, spent most of our lives in professional kitchens. Becoming a chef is a physically and mentally demanding task but it’s the career we want to pursue.
Coming through the training in TU Dublin has been invaluable, you learn about other aspects of the industry that you wouldn’t know for years working as a chef. They provided incentives to help us excel throughout the four years. Since 2016, Musgrave, a partner to the college, has provided the college with annual scholarships for certain categories. This gave us an extra incentive to work for something, more than just a mark on the results sheet. For placements each year, we weren’t just isolated to working in kitchens, we were given the opportunity to work in food product development, food styling and even food photography. The Culinary course in TU Dublin is definitely worth the time and effort as it will give you the experience you need to enter the industry on the route that is best for you.
Why Do It?
You can try to list out the pros and cons of being a chef and run out of paper before either side finds an end. A familiar question is why do you do it. The driving force behind every chef is different but absolutely necessary. Being a chef is different now to the version of the kitchen from 90’s reality TV. The tantrums and standards of Gordon and Marco that came to define the chef stereotype back then is altered now.
My classmates and I spent the last stretch of college focusing on exams and dissertations, the majority had to juggle a part-time job in a kitchen, although, in a lot of restaurants, part-time isn’t really an option, in no small part due to the chef shortage, and it’s standard for people in the course to go to work straight after class, work until 1am and be in class the next day for 9am.
In the kitchen, there’s an openness in saying you don’t know something and there’s a willingness to teach, most skills can’t be taught in kitchen classes but in the speed and environment of a real-world kitchen. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes but at the same time, there are bounds of room for learning.
I really enjoy the time right before service, everyone is a bit tense, the talking and joking quieten down and everyone tries to get into the zone, like athletes getting ready for a race. Each person on the team meticulously cleans down their station. The kitchen is transformed from a prep area into a clutter-free kitchen ready for the first orders. The mis en place is lined up just so, fresh tea towels are collected, utensils are at hand. It really is the joy of the job and service can be exhilarating, especially when there’s a sweet spot, where you’re on top of each dish going out. Service can become a dance, your movements are practised and confident, your timing steady and rhythmic. The good definitely outweighs the bad when you love what you do!
With that said there are also lots of reasons not to be a chef; it’s definitely not a lucrative job, you work long hours, you will miss family and friends and that event you’ve been wanting to go to because it’s on a Saturday night and you haven’t stepped outside on a Saturday night in years. My family don’t understand when I tell them I can’t make it to their weekend barbecue. Not to mention the emotional abuse inside of almost every kitchen. Do you want to work 80 hours a week on barely a living wage or most likely a lot under it? I do because when all is said and done, your team becomes your family, you make friends that last a lifetime, like war buddies, shell shocked from the shift before but with absolute faith that with them you can do it all over again.
The Process of Becoming a Chef
It’s a profession that can come with it much acclaim but to get there, can be a gruelling process. Nothing feels better than coming out of a Saturday night service knowing that everything went perfectly but, on the other side, making one silly mistake can totally knock you down. The environment is harsh and competitive. You have to earn respect from each of your colleagues. Yet earning this respect becomes part of the reward. Hard work does get recognised and opportunities can arise from the work.
‘Becoming a chef and being a chef’ is a surprisingly abstract concept. It’s waking up early and going to bed late. It means you can travel and work anywhere. You’re constantly learning and other chefs are willing to teach. You spend days off eating in new places or planning trips just around the restaurants you want to go to. You become socially awkward from not spending enough time with normal people, during normal socialising hours, something you and your colleagues can relate to. This isn’t a job where you stay in the one position for 30 odd years, you’ll change restaurants every few years, go travelling and working in kitchens abroad, you’ll steadily rise through the ranks. You make memorable meals for guests and genuinely make people happy.
Your colleagues will become your second family and you’ll probably spend more time with them than your actual friends and family. If there is any animosity within the team, it’s usually at the start and doesn’t work like office politics. It’s a strange system, some of the chefs that were the most hostile to me when I started in a kitchen became some of my closest friends later on. Sometimes it’s just a matter of gaining respect, a weird system but once you get another person’s respect, you’re in the clear.
In a kitchen, you can thrive off the creativity of others and work together to perfect a dish. The atmosphere in a kitchen, personalities and outlook of individuals make a difference. The team will support one another. In one of the restaurants, I worked in, when a chef was struggling to finish their prep before service, the rest of the team would hum the Titanic theme song, as the chef was ‘going down’, but eventually the team would come together to get everything finished on time. We always have each other’s backs!
Each day is different, one service could go smoothly while the next could be a nightmare. So it’s only natural that mental health and cheffing go hand in hand. Mental health in kitchens has always been topical, there are so many elements that can contribute towards bad mental health and it can be hard to speak up about it, in fear of being seen as weak. Only in recent years has it become the norm to openly talk about mental health and even then, it’s rare. The mentality in a kitchen is don’t complain. That system is flawed, creating a constant loop of not talking and pent up emotions. Fortunately, the tradition of not talking is starting to show cracks, and with more young people with a healthier outlook on mental health filling out positions in kitchens the future holds greater potential. After all, strength is not about never being upset or feeling burnt out, it’s being able to talk about what’s going on inside your head and facing it with people that have the strength to care.
The way the industry is going, it’s looking like it’s going to be harder out there for the independent owners, competing with VAT rates and key money. We’ll have stable positions as we enter the industry, with the ability to hop between establishments but once it comes to us setting up our own businesses, the future on that is unclear.
The food in restaurants is changing. We’re seeing a huge emphasis on locally grown food with sustainability in mind. The industry has changed and there are more opportunities to move around and more routes to go down to become a chef. Everyone has a different experience, it’s a physically and mentally demanding job but it’s the career we want to pursue and if it’s the career you want to pursue, we will welcome you with open arms, just make sure it’s what you want! Good luck on your path to ‘Becoming a Chef’.
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