How many years does it take to become a parent? Or a musician? There’s no magic number. It depends on what kind of a chef you’re talking about and the person who’s desiring to attain that status, but the answer in any case is, “Many.” Becoming a chef is a long hard road.
To quote from the seventh edition of Professional Cooking by Wayne Gisslen, a textbook used in many culinary programs, “One title that is often misunderstood and much abused is chef. The general public tends to refer to anyone with a white hat as a chef, and people who like to cook for guests in their homes refer to themselves as amateur chefs. Strictly speaking, the term chef is reserved for one who is in charge of a kitchen or a part of a kitchen … The title must be earned by experience not only in preparing food but also in managing a staff and in planning production.”
There are different kinds of chefs – small business owner or working chefs, pastry chefs, station chefs, sous chefs, and executive chefs. While some traits for each are common, there are different skills and skill levels associated with each position. Skills and knowledge can be acquired by formal or on-the-job training (or both), but practice, experience, and time are what go into creating a chef.
A working chef is in charge of operations that are too small for an executive chef. It may be someone who started out doing dishes, then worked up to cooking on a line, and eventually to a chef’s position. In a small or relatively uncomplicated food service establishment like a diner or a specialty operation such as a barbecue joint, there may not be many people in the back of the house, as kitchen operations are referred to. So learning the ropes may not take all that long for a quick study. In a large operation like a hotel kitchen or a full-service restaurant, the learning curve could be decades.
Station chefs specialize in one particular part of a larger operation – the pantry, the grill, the deep fryer, vegetables and cold station, meats or fish, soups. In smaller operations, these positions often overlap. Station chefs report to the sous chef, who in turn reports to the executive chef, who’s in charge of the entire organization (chef means “chief”), or directly to the executive chef.
A pastry chef handles desserts and confectionery and is more independent. Their skills and hours are different; they usually report directly to the executive chef. Again, this is in a larger scale operation.
Don’t believe for a minute that graduating from even a four-year culinary program makes one a chef. Someone who can master the material and pass the tests may not have what it takes to manage a staff and run a food service establishment. And many’s the chef who began washing dishes or peeling potatoes and over time worked his/her way up to the top. It’s fascinating to read about their journeys – Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit and Red Rooster Harlem wrote about his experiences in Yes, Chef (read ‘Bout Books review at the link — Ed.) and Jacques Pepín’s book The Apprentice tells of his road to fame. I highly recommend both books to get a sense of what goes into the making of a chef.
If you’re inquiring because you’re thinking of becoming a chef, my advice would be to find a reputable one- or two-year program and hone your skills, then work in the industry for a time to see if it’s really for you. Depending on where you are, it’s rewarding work, but rarely the glamorous field it’s often made out to be. Better yet, go interview some of the chefs in your area and see what they have to say. If you’re still motivated to try your hand, best of luck to you.