The path to becoming a chef used to be relatively straight-forward: Go to culinary school; rack up an enormous and unsustainable amount of debt; slave away in the best kitchens; then work your way up so that, if you’re lucky, you might become one the top 2% of chefs that manage to achieve success and retirement without early-onset heart disease.
Then along came the self-taught Heston Blumenthals, caterers-turned-chefs like Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal in Los Angeles, and TV personalities that were billed as “chefs” yet somehow had zero practical restaurant experience. To the dismay (and delight) of cooks everywhere, the path to chefdom was no longer linear. It had become a choose-your-own-adventure tale, rife with Fernet shots, substance abuse, and the occasional, if not rare, happy ending.
Now, every year it seems that there is a new superstar who trained solely at his own pop-up, or found notoriety through a beloved food truck, and the rules are thrown out the window once again. Still, cooks everywhere commiserate over post-shift drinks about the proper way to work your way up the kitchen ladder, while others insist good food is just good food, so who cares how you get here.
So what sort of life cycle can a chef expect nowadays? To bring you up to speed, we break down the various phases of a modern-day chef, from the lowest lows to the less low lows—and then, usually, more lows. What can I say—cooking is hard.
Illustrations by Louie Chin (@loubot)
1. Culinary School
You just changed your Instagram handle to add the word chef before your name, and you mostly post close-ups of late-night meals that you “Iron-Cheffed” together while stoned. The counselor that convinced you culinary school was a great idea promised you would be a sous chef within a year, and you believed her. But so far no one wants to hire you because you talk too much and make a mess everywhere you go, and a couple of chefs have told you that if you come into work wearing those dirty checkered pants again, they will burn them. Your knives are dull, your station is dirty, and you have already applied twice to be on Top Chef.
Times a week you wear entire uniform on public transportation on the way to school: 5
Number of people you have told that you’re “really into Asian flavor profiles”: 14
2. First Job: Prep or Pantry cook
As a doe-eyed scrub mesmerized by Bobby Flay throw-downs and grizzly, tatted line cooks, you jump the gun at your first opportunity to work in a kitchen. But reality sets in very quickly: You thought you were going to be cooking and creating like your idols, but instead you peel four quarts of garlic every day, and your dog won’t let you pet him anymore because of the smell. No one knows your name, much less likes you, and you find a way to get yelled at every day. The specter of getting fired constantly looms over you. It’s not easy hanging with the crew, and inevitably you fuck up and ask to go home early—and now everyone REALLY hates you. As the resident whipping boy, no one ever leaves family meal for you. And on the day when you’re given an opportunity to shine and asked to make eight liters of aioli, you break the emulsion. Eventually the nighttime tournant no-shows and you are asked to cover his shift. You are now a…
Sharpies loaned out and never returned: 9
Cuts sealed with super glue: 4
Times tricked into eating a creme brûlée filled with mayonnaise: 2
3. Line cook
You were convinced culinary school had prepared you for this magic moment, but now you realize that instead of reading Modernist Cuisine and spending hours fussing over the perfect set of tweezers, you should’ve been practicing poaching eggs in the student cafeteria. Every day you come in an hour early and work off-the-clock to prep your station, and every day you end up in the weeds—with the PM sous always bailing you out. You make every single mistake possible: over-dressed salads, forgotten garnishes, frito misto that’s somehow burnt on the outside and gooey on the inside. One day your oven’s pilot blows out and you don’t realize it for a whole hour. Because of this, the chef de cuisine has to 86 the vanilla souffle off of the dessert menu, and wouldn’t you know, tonight was the night the pastry chef came in to eat with her parents. Everyone still hates you, you begin to hate yourself, but at least you get family meal now—solely because you’re the one responsible for prepping it every night. A year passes by, and with hopes that a change of scenery will renew your dampened spirit, you tell your chef you want to stage someplace, and she sets you up.
Times bank account has been overdrawn: 6
Third degree burns where you should’ve gone to the hospital but didn’t: 2
You have heard the term stage since culinary school—hell, you were even convinced that the day you shucked peas in the basement at Coi you were on a stage. This is completely different. You are in a foreign place like Denmark with no support system, making food far beyond your skill level and imagination. Sure, in your last kitchen you weren’t well liked, but in this kitchen you are completely invisible. Every morning you wake up in the crowded, smelly dorm the restaurant has you staying in for the next eight months, immediately go into work, take a half an hour in the afternoon to sleep, then go back and work until 2am. You have never been so tired in your whole life. Eventually the sous from Montreal takes a liking to you and moves you to hot appetizers, then to garnish, and by the end of your run you are allowed to cook fish during lunch service. You can *kind of* cook now, but more importantly, you actually have a bit of confidence in the kitchen—maybe a little too much confidence. You can’t stop telling everyone about the techniques that you learned, and are already starting to think about promoting a pop-up series so you can showcase the lacquered langoustine dish that you kinda saw someone prep one time but never actually cooked. Your stage ends and your chef tells you that his well known-chef friend is opening a new place in LA/SF/NYC. You decide starting from the ground up would be a valuable lesson learned.
Times talked directly with Rene Redzepi: 0
Vacuum bags filled with cod milt that exploded inside the ultravac: 3
5. Opening a restaurant
When you were staging, you were overworked and exhausted, but opening a restaurant is stressful beyond comprehension. Every day is different: building shelves, painting, organizing dry storage, along with menu meetings, unpacking, and washing flatware and silverware. You have worked 22 days in a row, but your hard work has not gone unnoticed, and you earn a spot on the line as the PM meat cook. The opening is chaotic and hard, but the overall spirit is positive. The younger cooks look up to you and ask questions about your stage, and you even show them a few techniques you learned along the way. The restaurant winds up getting a good review, and the place is packed every night. You start drinking Fernet even though you don’t even really like it that much. After six months the PM sous gets caught drinking after hours at the bar and gets canned, and suddenly you are offered the position of…
Days worked that you didn’t get paid for: 4
Number of people that have cried: 5
6. Sous Chef
“The great thing about being sous chef is…well…um…I have a lot of responsibility and basically the kitchen doesn’t run without me. I’m my chef’s right hand,” you tell your mom, who’s been worried about your exhaustion ever since you took the position. She asks about the pay: You realize you made more as a line cook, but now that you’re on salary, at least you get health insurance! You feel as though you have arrived, and that the days of getting busted by the chef are behind you—but holy shit, you have never been berated like that when you messed up the weekend fish order. Occasionally you get to expo or put a special on, but ultimately you feel like you’re in limbo. The cooks no longer see you as one of them, but you’re definitely not ready to run a kitchen yet. Most of your 16-hour day is spent with a clipboard in hand, and your chef is more likely to take a cook to a special event and leave you behind to run the kitchen. Being sous, you realize, is cool and hard and dumb and often unfair. Your roommates point out that the grass-fed beef the restaurant serves probably gets more humane treatment than you do, and you can’t really argue. One night you run into the chef of a highly-regarded neighborhood place across town, and they ask if you would be interested in being their…
Matches on Tinder that you didn’t have time to actually go out with: 13
Beers drank in the shower a week: 11
Number of pig/butchery-related tattoos: 2
7. Chef de cuisine
This is it. You are the chef. It’s your kitchen. You write the menu, train the staff, do tastings for the executive chef, and when the place gets reviewed, it’s acknowledged that, yes, it’s YOUR food. Gone are the overdone flourishes and technique-of-the-week menu ideas. Cooking is where you find your peace now, and food has become less about expressing your creativity, and more about making something delicious for the guest. You bring cooks in on their days off to teach them butchery. You have relationships with purveyors and farmers instead of staying up all night drinking Fernet. You decide to start exercising because the chef from your first job just came down with gout. Your life has balanced out and things are good. The student-loan payments are generally keeping you from making any real headway in life and, no, you still can’t keep a steady significant other, but when the executive gets sued for unfair labor practices, you quietly relish your position.
Tattoos: I dunno man, it’s a lot
Really, really dark things known about the restaurant owner that is providing incredible job security: 3
8. Celebrity chef
Through a steady diet of brutal PR work, morning talk show cooking demos, and a favorable online profile, you have somehow become a celebrity chef. You don’t exactly cook anymore, per se, but you appear at every Food & Wine event. The third season of your cooking competition reality show just wrapped and next is a cookbook tour, followed by a high-end Cayman Islands Celebrity Chef getaway. Your restaurants are doing well but you haven’t set foot in any of them in months. Your PR “team” calls, texts, and emails you day and night, and it is starting to weigh on you. The American Express food festival won’t agree to your $10,000 appearance fee, and your line of custom knives is on clearance at Sur La Table. Some days you want to go back to being an unknown line cook, but then your Xanax kicks in and the feeling fades. Your money manager has been telling you to diversify your investments, maybe build an app or something, but your cocaine habit tells you that a line of Asian fast casual is the way to go, so as soon as you wrap up cooking at the White House at the end of the month, you’re headed to Laos for “research.” You text your assistant, “Is Laos near Vietnam? I’d like to see that girl I used to date that lives in Saigon on my trip.” She texts back “It’s your wife’s birthday.”
Bags of drugs in suitcase: 4? 5? Shit, did I forget my drugs?
Endorsement contracts about to expire: 3
Twitter direct message sexts accidentally sent as regular tweets: 1
9. Burn out chef
The relentless traveling, meetings, and brainstorm sessions take their toll. The name on your chef coat is frayed and faded, and despite your eco-conscious FOH managers’ protests, the bluefin-tuna tartare has stayed on the menu for ten years. In fact, not much has changed since the day that you got three stars and “best new restaurant 2006.” You often reminisce about the time you put in at Charlie Trotter and that time at Stars when Jeremiah Tower complimented your skill on the line. Lately, however, you just feel tired all of the time. The young, talented cooks that came up under you have moved onto varying degrees of success, and your client base is so entrenched that any type of a menu change would probably lead to your murder. Mostly you draw inspiration from a dozen or so Art Culinaires that you own, and increasingly that third whiskey during service comes earlier and earlier. Most evenings you retire to the front patio to “write the schedule” while chain-smoking Marlboro’s and creeping the hostesses’ Facebook page on your iPhone. People walk by and smile politely, but mostly it’s out of pity.
Times through rehab: 4
Sexual harassment lawsuits: 5
Former employees who list you as their mentor: 0
10. Comeback Chef
In your heyday, you were the man. Wolfgang Puck used to steal ideas from you; every night, you drank Krug, did blow, and went home with the most beautiful people—then your restaurant closed. It didn’t stop there: there was the sex-tourism scandal when you visited Thailand, and when your former partner’s tell-all book came out it was mostly about your drug habits and sexual proclivities. Among an older group of chefs you are highly regarded for your influence and talents, but pretty much no one under 30 has heard of you. Most days you cook quietly in a seaside village in Chile until Drew Nieporent comes calling. He wants to bring you out of retirement to open a six-million dollar fine-dining spot in NYC that does only classical French. You make duck a l’orange and steamship rounds and pommel dauphinoise, and the dining room is adorned in silver and crystal chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters. It’s great, and that wonderful feeling once again surges throughout your body. You’re back on top! That is, until the food critic comes in one night and writes a scathing review, and Drew brings in a management company to “fix things.” Two days later you are back in Chile, but at least you have the case of Krug you lifted on your way out.
Commenters on your restaurant’s Yelp page who mention that they’ve never heard of you before: 102
Articles about you that have been nominated for James Beard Awards: 2
Alternative Paths in Chefdom
We all know that the path outlined above is not set-in-stone by any means. For many aspiring cooks, there are pit-stops and detours along the way that veer from a set course. If you’re a child prodigy getting profiled in the New York Times, why even bother enrolling in culinary school with other plebs? And, hell, maybe that corporate hotel gig is exactly the kind of stability a family-man needs. Here are four additional phases that could easily be inserted into the mix.
Food Truck Bro
Bro. You know what would be sick? If we got a food truck and did those bagel pizzas, bro. We could just park it outside the Blarney Stone on the weekends and make hella scrill, bro. Wait. We need a commissary kitchen? Shit, we need business insurance and licenses? Bro, managing all of these people and hauling this food all over the place is wearing me out, bro. Bro, I can’t stay out late tonight, I have an early morning trip to Restaurant Depot. BRO. What do you mean the truck is broken down?! Bro, the health inspector at the food-truck parking lot just shut us down because we’re out of fucking hand soap, bro. I know, I told him we just wear latex gloves, bro, but he was being such a dick!
Unintentionally fermented sauces due to bad refrigeration: 16 quarts of spicy ketchup mayo
You have been calling yourself a chef since you started doing vegan and gluten-free dinner parties in your Brooklyn brownstone, and now you cook for a fussy Manhattan family six days a week. Cooking gets in the way of you going to yoga and your barre class, but the $200K salary and car allowance is pretty nice. In July you are traveling with the family to Italy for their vacation and you’re not thrilled about it…I mean, last summer it was Spain, and they’re basically the same place, am I right? Every trip to the farmers’ market garners you some dirty looks from the restaurant chefs for taking a parking space while they circle the block, but those guys are so bitter anyways.
Pinterest followers: 12,000
Juice cleanses annually: 4
You’ve never actually worked in a restaurant, but through a mix of white privilege, good looks, outrageous family wealth, and a savvy PR campaign that documented your journey cooking through the Massimo Battura cookbook, you’ve made it…into your first Eater article, that is. Cooks and chefs hate you, but there’s this really hot food blogger in L.A. that thinks that you’re “cute,” which doesn’t hurt your visibility in the press. You don’t go to school anymore because your parents don’t want your culinary talents tainted by schools or, you know, other kids. You have a pop-up once a month that sells out in minutes, but strangely you have never seen a penny of it. Your knife bag contains $18,000 in knives, you have 20,000 Instagram followers, but at night as you crawl into your hyperbaric chamber to go to sleep, you cant help but wonder what that girl you made out with that one time is up to.
Bottles of hair gel used a month: 3
Chefs who have said they want to hurt you physically via social media: 8
Corporate Hotel chef
When you found out that, ‘SURPRISE, you’re going be a parent,’ you realized that your sous chef job that pays $32,000 a year was no longer going to cut it. You took a job at the Fairmont Hotel as a banquet chef and never really looked back. You have 300 employees and you vaguely know all of them, while also knowing none of them. You also have ten bosses, none of whom you are very sure of what they do. You oversee five restaurants, three cafes, room service, and a seasonal grill. Most of your day is spent working on spreadsheets and walking around with a clipboard. Your peers who have their own restaurants call you a sell-out, but they always ask you for discounts on hotel rooms. You are the only chef you know that makes a sustainable salary, has health insurance, and gets to see their kids. You actually use the skills you learned in culinary school, never read anything food media-related, and feel happy about it. Every now and again you get tired of doing banquets for thousands of pharmaceutical reps, but then you get your quarterly bonus and quickly ignore it.
Tall white chef hats worn in a week: 9
Culinary students that you think have “real potential”: 1