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All About Becoming a Sous Chef

Aug 17, 2007
A sous chef is a ranking on the chef hierarchy just below an executive chef or chef of cuisine. The word "sous" is French for "under", related to the word "sub" in English; so a sous chef is second-in-command after the executive chef. The sous chef is directly in charge of kitchen production. Because the executive chef's responsibilities require spending a great deal of time at a desk, the sous chef takes command of the actual production and the immediate supervision of the kitchen staff and the meals that it prepares.

The career

Aspiring chefs will do well to understand the broad area food service covers. Hospitals, corporate contract, schools, hotels, senior environments, catering, airlines, and many more. Many students might enter this field with the feeling of having to sacrifice all that they love for a job as a chef; the reality is that you can specialize in an industry and also find a wide variety of flexible schedules and options.

Because the food service industry tends to promote from within, expect to start "on the ground floor" in the company, and never stop striving for a better pay or more responsibility. Post-grad career services at your culinary school will be an excellent resource, so you should use that to your advantage. Tell them what you are looking for and they'll find you the work!

The average salaried Chef is generally paid about $30,000/year. The pay may not be as high as it would be in a restaurant, but your quality of life is above and beyond that of a hotel chef. At the top of this field, you can be expected to hit a peak at about $45,000/year. Just remember, in food service the more responsibility you are willing to take on, the more you should get in return.

An "externship" is when a student works for free in the area which they want to work after graduation, working for the experience and the education. An unpaid externship is very significant in finding a high quality job. Recently cable channel TV has devoted shows to the topic of aspiring chefs, and "Apprentice" style contests are held. Getting a spot on these shows at a young age almost guarantees a successful career.


Education is the most powerful asset in the chef career; although you meet plenty of Chefs who have "worked their way up from the bottom", there is a distinct advantage in the school-trained chef as well as in keeping your education going. During school you are exposed to many different food styles, including international cooking, new techniques, and nutritional ways of cooking. You might also pick up a Specialized Associates Degree in Culinary Arts, or become certified as a Safe Food Handler. The "Safe Food Handler" certification is something more culinary schools are offering, and is increasing becoming a must-have on your resume. Food safety has been getting a lot of attention in the press.

You should never put a cap on the amount of education or certifications that you wish to achieve. Never stop striving to be better. After starting your career you might go for a Chef Exchange Program, a Masterworks Series, the District Chef, HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), and more.

The best-known schools that are held in highest regard include the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales University, and the New England Culinary Institute. But do not think that it is the name of the school that graduates successful students and prospective chefs. It has a lot to do with the quality of the teachers, their communication abilities and how energetic and passionate the students are. It feels good to say that you graduated from a "marque" or famous culinary school, but at the end of the day, it's all about what you got out of the school that counts.

Being an executive chef is only one avenue which you can take. You can always learn it all, and then decide on a specialty or area to focus on.

Some industry trends

The more energetic you are, and the better you are at expressing it, the more valuable you will be in the industry. Not is it only about skill, but if you cannot speak and satisfy both the customers and your employees, you will not get far. Leadership skills come into play the higher you climb. Thankfully, the industry tends to promote from within, so there's no "90 day wonder" managers brought in. A good leader in the kitchen is one who has been "in the trenches", because the kitchen staff will have more respect for someone who knows the job from the ground up.

As for today's food market, think healthy. People are trying more and more to eat healthier with various fads such as the no-carbs craze coming and going. The challenge is to come up with menus that are balanced, healthy, and tasty all at the same time. Borrow heavily from cooking methods all over the world. In today's age of instant information, diners are always wanting to try an exciting new recipe or cultural food that they're hearing about.

Speaking of information, Internet and computer technology have greatly increased the available resources for chefs. The more computer literate you are, the easier your job becomes. Computers have made it very easy to create new menus, even daily menus and have them look very professional without them having cost a fortune or having to be sent out and specially printed. Most questions that you have can be answered within a few minutes with the use of the Internet. There are websites with vast archives of recipes, food articles, cooking discussion groups, and specialty forums for chefs.

Gone are the days when you worked in a cultural vacuum. Trends spread quickly through the world wide web, and you'll have a fun time keeping up because it always gives you a new technique to try. The worldwide communication network allows chefs to share ideas and pool their resources; through it you have the opportunity to rub elbows with the finest in your industry.
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