SO, YOU WANT TO BE A CHEF?

Dear Sir,
I am writing in answer to your advertisement for an apprentice chef. I am very good looking and my friends always tell me I’d be great on television. I am interested in cooking and watch all the shows with my Mum. She is my inspiration in the kitchen and I am very good at baking, she tells me. I want to be a celebrity and I think that working as a chef would be a good start. Can you please consider me for the job?
Yours sincerely,
Jason Likes-To-Cook.

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Anthony Bourdain has some illuminating advice for the budding cooks who constantly ask for his advice on how to be a chef. In his book Medium Raw he addresses the question of whether or not to go to culinary school on your route to being a successful chef. Despite the fact that he attended what is considered to be the best culinary college in the US, the Culinary Institute of America, his answer is “no”.

He also advises not to bother if you are over 30, or fat, if you want to have a relationship, or spend weekends and holidays with family or friends, or if you want to earn more than minimum wage, work a 40-hour week (or even a 60-hour week), or if you are any kind of normal. There is no shortage of articles on the subject if you browse the internet and you will come across many a chef cataloguing all the reasons you don’t want to be one. And the suggestion of it not being a career for anyone “normal” arises often.

Having said that, kids who have grown up on a steady diet of cooking shows doled up by the rock stars of culinary cleverness, dream not just of turning out the perfect souffl é but also of stardom and riches. If someone like Australia’s Master Chef winner, Julie Goodwin can do it; fat, forty and perfectly suburban, why can’t I?

The reality of it is that even if you graduate from a leading culinary college you will enter the kitchen on the lowest rung. You will spend endless hours cleaning potatoes, peeling artichokes, creating the perfect mise en place for a boss who more than likely won’t know your name for the first two years, and could care less if he did. You’ll stand up for twelve hours plus a day, sweating, filthy and flustered as around you people under enormous pressure shout at you, howl when they burn themselves, cut themselves and worse.

“Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen,” advises Bourdain.

Despite the fact that Bourdain was once a broken down line cook, suffering from the excesses that countless chefs succumb to in their careers – namely drugs, alcohol, too little sleep and no stable home life – he is still held up as a golden icon of the kitchen because he managed to make his way on to our small screens and into our lives. It must be said, however, that it was all by sheer luck and a healthy amount of cynicism – his cooking ability had very little to do with it. The overriding wisdom is don’t become a chef unless you don’t mind giving up any form of a life for years that begin with your role as a “dish pig”.

As a food writer I come across a lot of chefs, and cooks. Some have made the grade and are at the top of their game, others have got the job but not necessarily the goods. Once they gain the title of Executive Chef or go on to own their own restaurants, the ultimate for most chefs, there are but a handful who still have time to cook, or even want to.

Richard Millar, Culinary Director at W Resort in Bali, is one of the chefs who has carved himself his own station in the smaller of the resort’s restaurant because he wants to cook with his team. He doesn’t have stars in his eyes, is more comfortable behind the flames than at the front of house and, while he is sometimes forced to pose for photos, has no great love of it.

I have observed other chefs too who love cooking so much that they will stay into the small hours to finish the administration jobs so they can still spend time in the kitchen. It is however a long hard road to get there and the chance of being picked up by a publisher or a network, to become a celebrity chef, are as likely as winning the lottery.

Chef and blogger, Young and Hungry, has this to say to those considering cooking as a career: take heed Jason Likes to Cook.

You will miss important life occasions.
There is no such thing as sick.
Introduction into alcohol and drug abuse will be very high.
Romantic relationships will be very difficult.
Your hours are mental.
You’re a piece of filth.
That said, you’re never too good, you’re never too old and you’re never too unintelligent to do it if you really want to.

So, the next time you wander into a restaurant and sit down to a meal, ponder all that you have read here and consider what the chef had to go through to get where he is. That is dedication, and without it, all the soufflés in the world would turn to slop if you don’t keep your eye on the stove and forget all you ever saw on TV.

Sarah D.