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The reality is that you will work long days standing on your feet for hours at a time with no breaks. His typical day now is 10-14 hours, 5 days per week. He has had some positions where he was in the kitchen 16 hours at a stretch. In one fine-dining establishment, it was typical that you would work 8 hours, clock out, and then work another 6-8 hours off the clock. Illegal as heck. But, young cooks and were willing to do this to get the experience. They knew if they didn't do it that there was someone else who was willing, and they would gladly take your spot. This is the stuff that is taboo to talk about in the industry. You can expect to have at least one day off per week. If you are working at a large chain hotel you can expect to have more corporate structure in place. This will probably allow you to have two days off per week and 8-10 hour shifts during the slow season. The kitchen culture is an "interesting" one. They are built of strong camaraderie that withstands a lot of ribbing and sarcasm and the language can be strong. A word of advice: Stay away from any environment where the 21+-year-old employees are allowed to drink heavily at the bar after hours.
The pay starts out low (around $15-$17 in SanFrancisco and about $10 an hour in Florida, around $14-$15 in Boston) for cooks. Even after graduating from the CIA, this family member made near minimum wage at a very nice, fine-dining establishment. It was rough for a while. After two years as a cook, he became an Assistant Chef, and then finally a Chef about two years after that. His first chef gig earned him an annual salary of $35,000 in Florida. He moved two years later to the northeast and earned $ 55K. He worked at an independent restaurant and had very long hours - a budding workaholic. Work-life balance is essential for long-term survival anywhere. This can be very difficult in the restaurant industry. It is very possible to earn a good living. Especially if you are the chef-owner of the restaurant. The risks are high but the financial rewards can be just as high, too. Large corporate environments offer good benefits with a lot of support and a hierarchy of command that is sometimes missing in the small, independent restaurants. You won't have a lot of time for a second job.
Think about what type of environment you want to work in and do your homework. Check out Canlis Restaurant in Seattle, Washington. Research their business model and in particular how they treat their chefs. It is very interesting and worth the research. It is my opinion that more restaurants should be run this way. A lot of chefs are promoted because they are good at their craft and not necessarily good at managing people. Find a place to work that values the people. The craft will follow if there is talent.
Protect your intellectual property. Recipes are your intellectual property. Read the fine print in an employment contract and make sure that you are justly compensated for recipes and menu development when the time comes. Consulting can be a lucrative side job once you are established but ALWAYS read the fine print. Don't let someone steal your intellectual property or get away with not justly compensating you for creativity.
Market yourself well. Create your own website and Instagram pages where you can post photos and leave a positive digital footprint and protect your digital reputation. You can purchase your own .com for a small annual fee. You'll want to create a portfolio of your work as you progress. Directing someone to your website or Instagram page makes this easy. This will help when you apply for your first chef job.
After only 10 years in the business, and at the top of his game (he even received THE call from The Food Network), the chef in my family has decided on a career change. Burnout is real. The work can be very rewarding and grueling all at the same time. He is going back to school to earn a degree in Computer Engineering. He starts classes in January. It's quite the departure.....
Lesley recommends the following next steps:
- Work in the industry for 6 months
- Consider attending a top culinary school such as the CIA. There is one in Northern California.
- Research the best environment for you and apply. If you get rejected, keep applying!
- Create the work-life balance early for yourself. Chefs sometimes compete for who works the hardest. It's okay to be runner-up!
- Protect your intellectual property and you progress as a chef. And market yourself well.
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