The culinary industry has always been a competitive one, but I suspect things might just get even more competitive following a pandemic and many unfortunate layoffs.
The nice thing is, while culinary seems cutthroat on the surface, it actually doesn’t have to be. Finding strong mentors, peers, and organizations to which you can belong only helps grow your connections, opportunities, and support networks. Here are some of my tips for self-empowerment and advancing your career in this exciting and passion-filled industry.
1. Recognize your passion for cooking
The first step in getting into the culinary industry is to simply recognize your passion for the action of cooking food. Feeding others is a way to show love and connection. It’s a gift that’s truly satisfying. Recognizing this is an important step, especially if you want to do this for the rest of your life, because cooking professionally is not an easy job. There will be a lot of blood, sweat, and tears — and probably even some burns and cuts along the way — so you really need to love what you do. It can be a mini warzone out there, so it’s important to truly enjoy being in the kitchen. Personally, I have had many amazing opportunities to travel, meet people, and make others happy, so cooking has always been the profession for me.
2. Find a good mentor or apprenticeship program
Many chefs love to teach up-and-coming chefs what they know. In my experience, I have had a long line of incredible members, many of whom came through my membership in the American Culinary Federation. When looking for a mentor, identify the qualities in that chef that you appreciate and want to see in yourself. Think about who you would aspire to be like. You can meet people and expand your network by belonging to organizations like the ACF and others in the culinary industry, and by attending events and conferences (even virtual ones these days). I also use the ACF’s online forum, Chef’s Table, to connect with other chefs and join in conversations about what’s going on in our industry. Applying to an apprenticeship program is an easy way to meet people and find amazing mentors. The ACF has a number of these programs, but many country clubs like the one where I work offer them as well.
3. Choose to get certified
Throughout the past year’s crisis, we lost many people in the industry. Now, I definitely see some competitiveness for key positions in a kitchen. Employers want to know they’re getting the cream of the crop. A great way — and maybe even the best way — to really differentiate yourself is to earn a certification, starting with Certified Culinarian, which you can earn after graduating from an accredited culinary school. This shows employers that you know the fundamentals of cooking as well as sanitation and some of the business aspects of being a chef — more than many cooks can show with just a basic resume. There are also certifications for sous chefs, pastry chefs, executive chefs, and master chefs. ACF certifications are a little different because they involve not only a written exam, but a practical one too. That proves you really know your stuff, and employers can even verify with the organization that you indeed have your certification and keep it current. This separates you from others and shows that you have discipline in your craft.
4. Constantly keep learning
If you do earn a certification, you’ll need a certain number of continuing education hours in order to renew it. You can earn those by attending qualified events, listening in on webinars, or in the case of ACF, taking classes in the organization’s online learning center. Even though I have been a professional chef for many years, I took all of the courses being offered complimentary last year. Whether you’re certified or not, it’s important to stay current with trends as a cook. You also need to stay on top of any new safety and sanitation procedures, HAACP laws, or other guidelines coming out of the industry. The method for breaking down a chicken might never change much, but how it’s being prepared has changed greatly over the last 100 years, from roasting to poaching to sous-vide cooking it — this is just an example of how trends impact our industry. There are always more things to learn in this industry, and that’s just another reason why I love being a chef.
5. Consider competitions
The idea of competing in a culinary competition seems like a very daunting proposition. And it is at first, but once you get involved, it can open the doorway for amazing job opportunities and lifelong connections. I competed for the first time last year before the pandemic hit, and it was a huge learning experience. I met some fantastic, very accomplished chefs, and I even enjoyed the criticism — the evaluators were very constructive, and I learned a lot from some of the mistakes I made, even though I have been cooking professionally for decades. Competing is just another way to strengthen your skills and problem-solving capabilities quickly — all with people you may not know, helping you become a better communicator. The ACF website, acfchefs.org, has more information about competitions and where to find potential events in your area.
In conclusion, I encourage those of you looking to get into or get ahead in the culinary industry to surround yourselves with people who believe in you, and to never give up on yourself. Set realistic and achievable goals, be disciplined in the small things in and out of the kitchen, stay humble, give back to others what has been given to you, and always respect the food! All of these things will set you up for measured success.