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Forget What You See on TV: Here's What It Really Takes to be a Chef

Forget What You See on TV: Here's What It Really Takes to be a Chef

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Some of the country’s leading chefs weigh in on what it's really like to run a kitchen

Doug Psaltis

“All the office work involved — being a chef is not just about cooking. There is so much clerical and financial work in the day-to-day that many aspiring chefs and non-chefs don't realize. It's a financially sound business, and you will be putting in so many long hours. You will be the first one in and the last one out. You also really have to step up as the leader and mentor for the staff to create a cohesive and efficient team.”

Eric Bromberg

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“The food is the easy part. Running a business and being a chef/leader is the key to success. Lead by example and teach.”

Jeff Mahin

“One of the biggest things is that you have to be a leader. Leadership is a huge part of the kitchen; you are responsible for other people’s lives, training, etc. You have to train people to execute your vision. Additionally, the higher you go up the chain in a restaurant, the less you take care of yourself, and the more you take care of others. You’re not just a chef, you’re a therapist, plumber, and family member. There is a ton of responsibility that is not seen in the restaurant. The decisions you make affect numerous lives.”

Lydia Shire

“I don't think people understand what it takes (or the real pressure it takes ) to stay ‘on top.’ It is not about rolling out of bed in the morning, rolling into work, cooking status quo, then rolling back to bed. The pressure never subsides. Many days I awake at 4 a.m., struggle to stay in bed until 5, get up, and go right to work. I am constantly reading (about food), writing ideas down on flimsy napkins, stuffing them in my pocketbook no matter where I am. Funny, I just had my whole basement painted, floors and walls, and had to move every item out of there to do so. Over the years (some 33 of them) I have saved every yellow-lined pad of paper with all my menu 'scratchings,' ideas for each season. We change the menu four times a year, so that would be roughly 132 pads of paper with ideas! And I can't get rid of them. Someday I will write a cookbook . There is nothing 'casual' about what we do.”

Marc Vetri

Chef Vetri directed us to this recent blog post that he wrote, in which he lays out the following ten pieces of advice:
1. No one cares about your résumé.
2. Don't worry about what you get paid.
3. Work ethic and attitude is everything.
4. Learn the basics.
5. Don't ever think you're above learning from anyone.
6. If you're getting into cooking and the restaurant business for the sole reason of just wanting to be on TV, do us all a favor...stop...turn around...and just go away.
7. Don't get involved in kitchen drama.
8. The best cooks develop their own styles.

Maria Loi

“Being a chef has become a glorified, elevated career choice, as compared to a decade ago. However, it’s not all fun and games, new dishes, and cool tools. In order to succeed and be able to create new flavor combinations, interesting components and beautiful plates, you must start from the bottom. Peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes, crying while chopping hundreds of pounds of onions, cooking the same dish the same way and plating it identically 300 times a night, takes a certain level of devotion and insanity that few people can maintain over the long haul. It takes a long time before we’re given the freedom to experiment and even longer until the experiment succeeds and the dish is put on the menu. If the dishwasher doesn’t show up, you wash dishes. If the grill man gets sick, you work the line. Whatever needs to be done, you get it done – there’s no ego when it comes to making sure your kitchen runs smoothly day in and day out.”

Michael Ferraro

“When having conversations about being a chef I often get responses like ‘Chef, wow, that’s so glamorous’ and use of the term ‘celebrity chef.’ But in reality, being a chef and restaurateur is more often not glamorous. Over the last 10 years, TV chef shows have flooded the industry with beginners that have more hopes and dreams of being a celebrity chef or TV chef rather than cooking for the love and passion of food.”

Norman Van Aken

“The world of cooking I entered, fellows would have thought Top Chef came from the minds of the writers of The Twilight Zone. A show about people cooking for a living? On actual television?? It would have made us laugh hard and long. A healthy percentage (20?) of the folks I worked with either had been in jail or should have been for some grievance or another. And these were not ink ‘sleeve' adorned misfits from white collar homes who got cracked for a hash pipe in their really not too shabby car while speeding home from an after-work drink at Bennigan’s. They were the lost souls of the 1970’s who kited checks, or were late for alimony, or worse, child support. They were the guys who bounced out of the service with no bankable skills. They were largely older, alcoholic men who never had their name on a chef coat for God’s sake. Men who would not have a subscription to “Lucky Peach” even if it had been invented back then. They would have spent the $14.00 cover price at the race track. What they didn’t tell me about being a chef? They didn’t tell me I better start reading some f**king Jacques Pepin books or I’d be mostly like them when I hit 50. Yet… I loved it. It was way better than factory work. And it was ten times better than hot tar roofing. It was less fun maybe than the gig in the Carny… but I got electrocuted by a Ferris wheel during that little adventure and took up cutting grass at a golf club for a while. I got to eat as a cook. I got to learn a skill as a cook. I got to see cooking become something honorable and fine in my lifetime. I got to hang out with some major folks who you might be surprised to hear sing.”

Paul Kahan

“The things they don't tell you are that ultimately being a good manager of people is more important in ensuring your success than being a great cook. Also, that there’s absolutely no glamor involved-- imagine being lowered into a sewer to change a sump pump motor covered with sh*t at 8pm in the middle of the rush on Saturday night with water backing up everywhere… and more. No glamor at all. And ultimately, being a chef is all about work ethic.”

Forget What You See on TV: Here's What It Really Takes to be a Chef

We reached out to 10 of the country’s most well-regarded chefs ask asked them to answer the question, “What are some things they don’t tell you about being a chef?"

Tim Love

​"It truly is long hours – 12 hour days are commonplace. It's not a job as much as it is a commitment. Also, to be a great chef you must be business savvy. Learn to negotiate not only a salary, but more importantly a future on beef!"