There will always be a need for those who can prepare meals that are
pleasing to the palate. After all, no matter what else is going on in the
world, people have to eat!
Cooks and chefs are those hard-working professionals who prepare meals
in all kinds of settings -- from fast food restaurants to fancy establishments
with fine white linens.
Typically, a cook is a lower-level position, while a chef has more responsibilities
and is often a graduate of a recognized cooking program.
But anyone can call themselves a chef. The traditional lines of distinction
have faded away. What matters more than the job title is the ability to prepare
meals that appeal to customers.
John Ash started a highly successful restaurant in California called John
Ash & Company, has hosted two TV shows on the Food Network, and currently
teaches at the Culinary Institute of America.
"When I think back about it, the seed was probably planted in me by my
grandmother," says Ash. "I grew up with my grandparents on a cattle ranch
in Colorado, so even as a little kid among my chores was to cook to feed the
ranch hands (the ranch employees) and all that stuff, and I can just remember
that being such a magical accomplishment.
"She was just a great, intuitive cook, and things would seem to just magically
happen," says Ash. "So I think I probably carried that unconsciously with
me. I graduated as an undergraduate from college in fine arts, as a painter.
And... somewhere along the line I discovered that everything I ever wanted
to do was paint on a canvas like I do with food on a plate."
Cooking shows abound on TV these days. This draws many people to the profession.
But be warned -- it's probably not like what you see on TV. Cooking is not
a route to money and fame for most people.
"I think too many people are going into the (cooking) field because they've
watched Cupcake Wars or [other TV shows]," says pastry chef Ann Amernick.
This can give a false impression of what cooking is all about, she says.
"When I started in this profession it was something you did because you
had a talent for it, or your father and your grandfather did it," says Amernick.
"You understood that the hours were hard and grueling and the work was endless,
but that was not an issue."
Amernick's hard work led to a highly successful career as a pastry chef.
She has owned a restaurant, has won many prizes for her work, and currently
teaches baking and pastry classes in Baltimore. Amernick even worked for a
short time in the White House!
"I was just an independent contractor but I ended up working every single
day, and finally they ended up giving me a permanent pass [and] I was able
to get my top security clearance, because I had to go sometimes into the family
quarters," says Amernick.
The reality for most cooks and chefs is long hours, low pay and very hard
work. Competition for jobs can be fierce, especially at the finer restaurants.
"It's such a tough field now," says Amernick. "It didn't used to be that
way. There are just so many people out there, all vying for those few positions.
Restaurants are opening and closing all the time."
There isn't just one path into the cooking profession. Formal training
can give you some security, but many chefs have built successful careers by
simply finding mentors and working their way up.
In the industry there's something called "staging." For an aspiring chef
seeking an internship, the "stage" is often the step following the interview.
It involves a cook or chef working for free for a short time in a kitchen
to learn new techniques and recipes. A stage lets the restaurant assess how
well the cook or chef can adapt to their kitchen.
"A stage is an investment of your time," says chef and cookbook author
Matt Binkley. "You go and work for a chef that... you want to learn from,
and you work for free, and even in some of the really high-end restaurants,
the pay is peanuts. To get into some really prestigious restaurants you almost
have to work for six months to a year for free just to get a paid job."
Aspiring cooks and chefs can find formal training in a variety of settings.
These include community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools
and colleges offering degrees in hospitality.
On-the-job mentoring is a common alternative to formal schooling. In addition,
there are apprenticeship programs sponsored by industry associations, professional
culinary institutes and trade unions. Apprenticeships are typically two years
in duration and combine classroom instruction with work experience.
"It's always a dilemma for me when young people ask the question, 'Should
I go to school or should I go out and work?'" says Ash. "And I think some
formal, cerebral training is absolutely important."
"It could be through community college programs, many of which are just
absolutely fabulous," Ash says. "But ultimately, I tell people that it's very
expensive to go someplace like the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and
you come out perhaps owing a lot of money.
"If you find that you don't have those bucks, then find a chef you admire
and go to work for them, even if it means you work for nothing at the beginning,
just to be there, to show your interest," says Ash.
There will always be opportunities for cooks and chefs who combine a love
of cooking with a lot of persistence. At the end of the day, this is the recipe
"That's the thing about this industry -- it's a ton of work and it's grueling
at the beginning, but if you [stick with] it then doors really start to open,"
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