On Being A Sous Chef


  1. For those of you not in the know I recently was hired on at the University of Houston as a sous chef.  This is a big deal for me as this is my first job as a sous chef.  I was very excited when I got my first chef coats with my name sowed in.  Well this happened back in mid August and it seems as things have finally settled down.  My schedule has been hammered down into a predictable pattern and I am finally starting to get a handle on all that I need to do as a sous chef.  I just want to share with you some thoughts as a first time sous chef.

    The first challenge I had was getting used to my "boss legs".  What I mean by that is that when you come from a place that you are on equal footing with all of the other employees and you are suddenly put in a supervisory role it is a bit of an adjustment.  I was just not used to telling people, "hey you need to do this" or "no, don't do that" with the authority of being a supervisor.  It is not a role that I naturally take to.  But with this job comes some of that and I am still getting used to it.  I also know that I cannot lord that authority over people because no one response well to that.  My personal philosophy is to try to let everyone know that ultimately we are all on the same team and I am there to help them as much as possible.

    Another aspect of being a sous chef I am noticing is that you have to pay attention to so many more things.  It is all about the bigger picture.  When I was just a cook all I had to worry about was my area, my station, and my food.  As a sous chef I have to over look everyone and make sure that all the cooks and stations have everything they need and if they don't then what can we do about that.  How are we going to fix the situation?  I once joked that the reason the sous chefs were given red coats was because we were more like fire men than chefs, putting out fires where ever they popped up.  When I was just a line cook I knew that the chef and sous chef were ultimately dealing with more than what I was, but it is a very different experience knowing that and actively dealing with it.

    As a sous chef it is also important to know your crew.  Every person is different.  Every person has their strengths, weaknesses, good attributes and flaws.  As I get to know the people I work with better I am starting to differentiate what those qualities are.  I know which people on which nights will need some help and which can function on their own.  I am starting to learn that in some cases you might have to pay closer attention to someone less they wander off and leave their area unattended.  It is also important to make sure everyone is executing the menu correctly.  I have had one instance where the menu called for fajitas and my cooks were making quesadillas. 

    I am also doing a lot more administrative tasks.  I am usually the one who is doing the produce order for our location.  That is a challenge in that you have to take into account what you have on hand, what you need to maintain par levels and what you need for the next day.  These values could vary greatly from day to day.  That is not even mentioning that you have to get a feel for what you actually need versus what is called for.  What I learned and mean by this is that even though your needs list may call for 200 lbs of beets, the fact of the matter is roasted beets as a side dish will probably not be very popular amongst college kids.  Therefore, you could probably get away with only half of that.  Besides ordering there is also the task of checking coolers, temperatures, making sure everyone has soap and sanitizer, and making sure everyone has all that they need to actually make the food.

    This position has also forced me to keep thinking ahead.  Just because this meal period is running smoothly does not mean I can take it easy.  I have to start thinking about dinner during lunch or start thinking about tomorrow's service during dinner.  By thinking ahead we can do things like pulling frozen product out of the freezer to make sure it thaws out or if I know there is something that is labor intensive during the next meal period I can jump in and get a head start for the people who have to execute it.  I am also always looking in what we call the over production cooler where we keep all of our leftovers from previous meal periods to see what and where we can utilize some of that product.

    Some of the challenges I have come across as a sous chef are just being on top of everything constantly and maintaining my skills.  When you are a cook and you have a bad day or you miss something it only really affects you.  Chances are you have someone else with you to give you a hand.  As a sous chef if you miss something or screw something up, it is affect others and their ability to do the job correctly.  Luckily we have a strong team and I am not the only sous chef.  But I would still rather not depend on others for my success or that of my team.  As far as maintaining my skills go...  Well, as they say practice makes perfect and when you stop practicing your skills degrade.  I don't want that to happen to me so I rather enjoy the opportunity to get back "in the trenches".  At my previous job I worked with a man who was being hired on as an executive chef for another location.  While I don't doubt his skills, his hustle and sense of urgency was gone.  It was a challenge to work with him that day.  That is the worst case scenario for me in the future.

    Being a sous chef means you have to be as sharp as your knives and pay attention to fifteen different things all at once.  It means going to do one task and end up doing five before you are done.  It is demanding and stressful and exhilarating and aggravating and fulfilling all at once.  It is a job I hope to be doing well and I am ever grateful for the opportunity to do it!

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  1. myron kirby
    Insightful, thank you for that. I too recently accepted my first Sous gig and I am eager to begin. I especially liked the part regarding the order of 200 lbs. of beets. Contrarily, I had to learn the hard way once that Ohio State University's football team eats more chicken potatoes and gravy then your average Joe. Like by threefold haha.
  2. chefwd
    At least in my experience, the one thing that jumped out to me more than anything is that even though I walked out the door, it was not the end of the day. I remember at the beginning, waking up in the middle of the night wondering if I had completed everything, did I check to make sure a piece of equipment was off on nights that I closed. Heck, I can't count how many times I would show up at 2am, just to check. It has never stopped....sometimes drives my loving wife nuts. Thank goodness, she has learned to deal with it for over 18 years.