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Chef's Table

Kitchen life can be nasty, brutish and hot

Published January 19, 2005

So you wanna be a chef?

Many people I meet tell me they do: high school students, career changers, home cooks and amateurs. They imagine they'll never be out of work, will have job opportunities around the world and a stomach always full of delicious food. They want to unleash their creativity on something we all appreciate: food.

Alas, the realities of being a professional chef are grimmer. Forget about the rosy movie (and book) Chocolat, Kitchen Confidential is the required reading. Chef Anthony Bourdain tells it like it is, relating the brutal life of haute cuisine.

If you are considering becoming a chef, hopefully you've already noted when restaurants are open. When a chef's friends and family are off, the chef is working. When the chef is off, friends and family are working.

The hours are long. I can still remember the puzzled look on my wife's face when I set the alarm for 6 a.m. the night before my first dinner shift at Bistro St. Tropez, one of Philadelphia's best restaurants. Sixteen-hour days are common.

And hey, have you ever shaken a chef's hand? They are are cut, cracked and burnt, sometimes dirty beyond the power of soap or detergent. They are rugged and rough, and our spouses don't love us any better for that. On each of our inner forearms, for example, there is a seemingly permanent cross-shaped scar, made by taking hot half-sheet pans out of the oven.

As much as you like food, you might hate working in commercial kitchens, which are hot, busy, cramped, dangerous, sometimes dirty and stinky. Forget about being creative, you'll need to be productive.

After your shift, you'll crave natural light and sunsets, comfy couches and massage chairs, some quiet and maybe a Band-Aid. You may not want a burger, though, mainly because working with so much food around, tasting it, will disgust you.

Culinary school is boot camp with stoves. Programs, internships and older French chefs (watch those!) are demanding and require serious commitment. The Culinary Institute of America demands a six-month restaurant work experience for admission. By working in a restaurant, they think you'll know what you're getting into.

Culinary school is demanding on your finances, too. A month course at Le Cordon Bleu costs about $7,000. These schools don't come cheap. And that brings me to another point: Is being a chef worthwhile?

Yes, Emeril Lagasse is a millionaire, but the Food Network has made only a handful of stars. The average executive chef salary is $40,000 to $70,000 a year.

Don't expect to be an executive chef right out of school. Prep cook is the entry level, and for that you'll make $25,000. Several years of cuts and burns will elevate you to a more comfortable position.

Perhaps I am tempering your initial enthusiasm. But read on, once you know what you are getting into, and despite the rough hands, life is good in this artistic profession. Still want to do it? What are your options?

You may decide to start learning on the job, in which case knocking on restaurants' doors will get you started.

Although some great chefs have no formal training, it is, however, a must. You must master basic French techniques. Although French cuisine per se is not, in the global community, the cuisine of reference anymore, it is responsible for the codification of culinary skills.

Virtually every restaurant kitchen, every chef, every recipe and many world cuisines use basic French techniques such as making a chiffonade or a demiglaze, roasting, steaming asparagus and braising. Once these technical skills are mastered, any recipe from any cuisine can be prepared successfully and presented attractively. Ingredients change, trends emerge, new creations appear, but these get incorporated into the basic French techniques.

And that is precisely what culinary schools teach. The CIA, French Culinary Institute, Johnson and Wales University or the Florida Culinary Institute will make you understand and master these skills before you can even start creating.

There are many places to get a culinary education. (See accompanying list.) Unfortunately, the Academy in Lakeland and the Tampa Bay Cooking Academy in downtown St. Petersburg have recently closed. Pinellas Technical Education Center and Hillsborough Community College have culinary programs.

People often ask my advice on how to become a chef; few take it. Dave West, the owner of Rolling Pin stores at WestShore Plaza and Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon was the exception.

After 20 years as an executive for McDonald's, West made the jump. He attended the pricey French Culinary Institute in New York City and graduated with the highest honors, having a blast along the way. He is back in the Tampa Bay area and off to some interesting cooking endeavors.

West had the drive to go back to school. And even though I complain about my job sometimes, I have the drive to be a chef too. I like the challenge and creativity, the contact with food and clients. That's what motivates me and that's what you'll need to succeed in the culinary field.

Chef Gui Alinat welcomes questions about cooking and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, he can't take phone calls or answer individual requests. Send questions to him in care of Taste, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail him at Please include your name and city of residence.


Le CORDON BLEU: 12 locations in the United States.

ORLANDO CULINARY ACADEMY Cordon Bleu program: 8511 Commodity Circle, Suite 100, Orlando, FL 32819.

CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA: 1946 Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY 12538-1499; Or 2555 Main St. Helena, CA 94574.

FRENCH CULINARY INSTITUTE: 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013-2618.

JOHNSON & WALES UNIVERSITY: 1701 NE 127th St. North Miami, FL 33181.

FLORIDA CULINARY INSTITUTE: 2410 Metrocentre Blvd. West Palm Beach, FL 33407.

[Last modified January 18, 2005, 10:54:30]

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