This is an excellent question. While I've never held the title of "chef," I've worked in the food industry for most of my career in many capacities. I've been a prep cook for a catering company, and a line cook in a couple of restaurants. But possibly the most relevant insight I can share is from my experience hiring and managing chefs to run our kitchens at Bi-Rite in San Francisco.
I would certainly echo all of Teresa's comments on a good balance of classroom and on-the-job training. A key area I would add is the chef's ability to nurture, train, and develop others in their kitchens. A successful kitchen is one that runs like a well-oiled machine, and a crucial ingredient here is the chef's leadership skills. This means that in addition to learning your culinary chops and honing your knife skills, you must also hone your people skills. Otherwise, brilliant as you may become in producing great food, you won't succeed in an equally important area, which is inspiring and growing your team to do the same.
Gaining relevant experience here, from what I've witnessed over time, usually comes from three areas:
- Seeking out great chef mentors: if you can find an internship or entry level job working under chefs and sous-chefs who take the time to teach and delegate, you can learn those skills as well.
- Taking advantage of on-the-job leadership opportunities: if you have the opportunity to become a trainer, or later a supervisor or sous-chef, use those opportunities to understand how to motivate and grow the folks in your charge. Listen, accept feedback, but be decisive in key moments. Learn how to mess up and recover from it! Leading others is challenging and you're likely to fail sometimes at first. The first management job I took involved managing people who had been at the company a lot longer than I had. I had to learn to make decisions, but also defer to their institutional expertise to show deference and respect for their tenure. I also had to have some direct conversations about how to make the relationships work. All of these skills took practice.
- Taking advantage of leadership coursework: if you decide to become enrolled in a culinary program, be sure to tackle coursework in leadership and management. Some students can feel like these courses aren't relevant for them as they focus on the cooking part of the job, but the more you can learn about these skills from an early stage the better.
And finally, if you're interested in some good reading on the subject, here are a couple of my favorite books:
Ari Weinzweig: Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading , Part 2
Jack Stack is always a good place to start too: The Great Game of Business