No BS advice on becoming a professional cook

Joined Nov 11, 2015
Hey, guys

     I'll start by explaining my situation and I appreciate any legitimate advice I can get. I have had a lot of trouble over the years deciding what kind of career is right for me. I was committed to climbing the ranks in a machine shop and once I pushed for my work ethic to be beyond everybody else I knew, for better or worse it opened a world of opportunity for me. I already had a hard time deciding what I was going to do before I committed myself to the machine shop, but as a manager there I was seeing the raw numbers of how much of an impact I was making and I thought if I apply this to a job I like, I'd probably be pretty successful.

So, long story short, I eventually took an interest in cooking after I made jagerschnitzel one night. I had no idea food could be that good! It threw me into a frenzy and I was cooking almost every night. I was cooking anything from obscure asian dishes to French. I was experimenting with anything and everything all the time. I became a better cook than my wife in a matter of months. I had never been so turned on by something in my life. I decided I could never get into the industry and manage my family at the same time, let alone find an actual chef that cooked actual food in the area who would be willing to teach me. So, I tossed the idea.

Now, it's just clawing at me in the back of my mind. I like working under stress, I like chaos, I like working fast but I can't get over the idea that the hours are going to put a huge dent in me seeing my kids grow up. I can do what I can do make sure I spend real quality time with them the little that I do, but that's all assuming I could learn at the hands of a truly exceptional chef.

So, this is where the "no BS" part comes in. I don't mean to come off as a jerk, but I know for a fact that almost everyone exaggerates about how much they work. Especially hard working people. Hard working people in every industry exaggerate about how many hours they put in all the freaking time. Chef's are no exception, I'm sure. So, what's it really like to learn to cook real quality food, like French classical? What does family and life balance? I think the loudest and most opinionated (reddit) who talk about how terrible the industry is probably hate their job and they just yell at their kids on their days off and say "this job has ruined my family".

No doubt it's a huge challenge, no doubt the hours are hard and the pressure is real, I'm not saying that at all. But, I really would like to hear some sound advice from some accomplished chefs out there who say how they do it and I'd like to avoid the people who bring dark clouds with their advice to boost their image. I'm not sure if I want to do this, after reading all the horror stories, but horror stories are also the only ones people like to write. Thanks, everyone.
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Joined Nov 11, 2015
I actually realized I already made a post just like this quite some time ago! I'll delete this asap. Sorry, moderators are having to approve of it first!! :(
Joined Dec 23, 2004
Hi, Scotchdew.  Great question!  It's hard to say how "hard" it is.  Some of it is natural talent but not much...some people seem to intuitively grasp the concepts but you can learn to cook if you're hard working and bright.  Working for "a truly exceptional chef" can be a challenge.  How many truly exceptional machinists do you know?  It's kind of like that.  My dad's best friend was a mechanical genius!  He could see complex parts in 3D in his head and fabricate them before CAD/CAM got big!/img/vbsmilies/smilies/eek.gif   He was kind of an artist.  How many people like that are there?  Same with chefs, for every supremely talented ones there are ten average journeyman-types.  As in sports there are only so many Steph Currys and Tom Bradys to go around.  And it may not be easy to work for one of them.  The best restaurants get stacks of resumes every month.  I have never worked in a Michelin-starred place; closest I have come is I was once Chef of a place on the R&I Magazine's Top 200 in America.  And we got dozens of resumes from the regions within a thousand miles of us every week.

But to learn the ropes you don't need to work under Thomas Keller.  Any good, experienced chef an teach you a lot.

The hours can be long, no doubt.  In some places that's not the norm for hourly employees as economics has led some employers to get away from having tons of OT.  For salaried staff the hours can be a bit much.  There can be early mornings and/or very late nights depending on the place.

Do you like being a machinist?  It seems like it would be a good field to me.  Decent pay (from what I'm told) and interesting work.  Do you really want to start over at the bottom and be the FNG?  Can you survive on $10-$15 per hour while you learn?  Does success interest you if it means working 55+ hours per week (that is about what the dish washer makes once you divide your pay by the hours you work!)?
Joined May 5, 2010
Phaedrus has pointed out but only a few of the different aspects of our industry.

As a beginner with no formal experience behind you, you will be starting at the bottom.

How fast you pick up what is being shown to you, the faster you will progress in the kitchen.

A life and work balance can be had but it depends on what segment of our industry you wish to pursue.

Fine dining Michelin will cost you in terms of a life. Very little pay, for many hours worked. You'd have to be VERY good at what you do to convince that Chef you are better than the 900 other applicants that send resumes to him/her

Cooking in a hospital or college may not satisfy your need for culinary knowledge, but it will pay the bills and allow you to have a life with your family.
Joined Jun 24, 2017
hours vary depending on position and food service type..  and how well you work..  if i were you id bother a chef on your days off as a machinist and try to get some part time kitchen work to fill those days..  i mean what are you willing to do to get a foot in the door? wash dishes for who knows how long until some prep/line guy doesnt show up one day...  or get into prep and be lost in that for years...  

i prepped at several places when i was young.. but this one job sticks in me mind.. idk how many chickens i broke down and how many breasts i butterflied.. but i did that for a couple of hours everyday for 8 months along with the other prep.. i hate chicken...  but i could do it blindfolded now...

idk just go pester a chef over and over and over and over and one day he/she will be like f it.. heres how you cut an onion.. slice a mushroom... there are couple bags and boxes over there.. have at it... do it like they want it done....quick....... and go ask for more....

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Joined Sep 21, 2001
I don't work hard. I work as hard as I have to to get done what I need done, in the time and way I need it done. I'm not going to tell you how hard I work, or how many pounds a case of beef weighs, or any of that. Its what we just sometimes have to do. About holidays and weekends? That is between myself and what my employer needs me to do. I either show up and do it and am okay with it? Or I find work that has a schedule I want. Cooking is really no different than any other work. It just depends on how you want to spend your days. And as far as being any good? I dunno if I'm any good or not. I just seem to sell all my food.

I'm not bullshitting you.

Welcome to the world of culinarians.

Love and blown out clogs,

Joined Dec 23, 2004
BTW, when it comes to the hours you work it can be flexible. To be honest it took me at least two decades of doing this before I learned to be an advocate for myself. If you're a drone /worker bee by nature people will exploit that.
Joined Jun 8, 2017
I'm by no means an experienced chef. Just a beginning line cook (6 months in). I work 35-42 hours a week, and get tips. I only get paid a little bit above min wage due to my lack of experience. The lead line cook works 40-55 hours per week. Cooking is just one aspect of it. You also need emotional intelligence and some type of people skills. You need to be able to multi-task and know the times of your food. Be focused and somewhat mentally sharp. Cleaning, sanitizing and how kitchen equipment works. I've come to find that chefs don't really want to teach. They want their cooks already seasoned and ready to go. I got lucky, I feel. The worn out chef I work for taught me a tiny bit, but I had to learn a lot on my own. How to julienne veggies, know what the different types of knives were used for, how to perfectly season; just beginner things. I don't feel as if an accomplished chef would exaggerate about a 70-80 work week. It is hard work, especially if you're a closer. Lots of physical and emotional wear downs. If you're willing to start from the bottom again, and have little time for yourself then follow your passion. The only part of my job that feels like work is the cleaning, lol. Other than that, I love what I do. Good luck in whatever you choose!
Joined Oct 31, 2012
     I'd like to hear a more exact description of what you want, or where you want this to go.  To learn to cook well or to simply be working with food every day. There are many variations on either of those. 

Here's an option. Get a part time job in the best restaurant or country club or hotel you can find near you. Start as dishwasher or prep cook, preferably prep cook if you can talk your way in to that.

From there you can observe how kitchens work while you learn proper knife skills and get your feet wet, literally and figuratively, in the basics of food preparation.  The particular restaurant you are in may be run well or run poorly but you'll get some idea of what a sit down dinner restaurant operates like.

If you like what you see, you can learn how to be a line cook and move up.

      As an hourly employee, you will not be working more than 40 hours, but then you won't be getting much per hour. Once you move in to a salaried position, you may be earning more money per week/year but your hours will increase dramatically. You can confirm this with your chef and coworkers while working as a prep cook in that sit down restaurant or upscale country club.

      On the other hand, there are more options than ever to work with food. All have pluses and minuses. Prepared foods of all kinds are now offered in supermarkets and other places and someone has to prepare them. 

As someone mentioned, catering, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, prisons and various other institutional settings offer many various opportunities, typically with better hours, pay and benefits than you will find in a typical restaurant. 

     In thinking about this, it's important to try and become aware of what it is you wish to learn about cooking and keep that separate from what you wish to learn about working in foodservice. Every place is different from every other place. No two michelin places, neighborhood restaurants, fast food  or  institutional jobs are the same. They may all serve food but they are managed differently and staffed with humans, who can bring both bad and good to the work place, which may be tolerated in one place but not the other. One place may have higher standards. The other run rather slipshod. 

      Then there is the process of learning how to cook. Much of this can be done without actually entering in to the business of feeding great numbers of people. This website enjoys the contributions of a number of excellent home cooks who care deeply about the process of cooking and discovering all they can about the preparation of a meal. They read books, watch videos, buy lots of fresh ingredients and experiment with how to do it better than before. At home you can learn knife skills, baking, candy making, stocks, sauces, roasting, broiling, grilling, pastry, any number of cuisines as well as fermenting, canning and other preservation methods. Many of those processes you may never encounter in a restaurant. There you will be limited to what is on the menu, which is based on what sells. At home, you are limited only by your wallet and your imagination.

     What you should learn in a restaurant, and may already practice at home, is to work in a professional manner. Which is to say working clean and neat, keeping your work area clean and neat as you work, not letting trash and debris sit around, being very organized, wiping down dirty surfaces right away, using your knives and other tools with respect, paying attention to the details of what you are doing, caring and showing you care by your actions, making sure food is properly prepared, stored and served. 

     Is it hard work or harder work than other occupations? After working in several other occupations, I'll say that restaurants are not so hard in individual ways but rather unique in being hard in multiple ways all at the same time. For example, roofing and the building trades are certainly physically hard. Being a surgeon is very demanding on the nerves. Being an educator is hard on your brain. Being a customer service rep is hard on your patience.  

     In a busy kitchen, the work can be very physical, the environment is often unpleasantly hot, the stress of putting out good quality food in a hurry can be nerve wracking and having to re do your work on the spur of the moment during a busy service because of a customers' special request or complaint can try your patience. All of this while you are surrounded by other stressed out, over heated individuals you desperately need to get along with who all have sharp knives, sometimes (often) short tempers and all of you working closely together in confined spaces next to hot oil, hot surfaces and open flames. You and/or your coworkers may or may not be well rested, hungover, cut, burned or beset by personal problems. You will also be very aware that no one in the dining room, who you are enduring all of this for, gives a damn about any of it. 

     I hope this helps you in some way to think carefully about your goals. The best of luck in whatever you decide. 
Joined Oct 10, 2005
No b.s.?

Take a small town of say, 10,000 inhabitants. If you're lucky, there might be one machine shop in that town, but there will a couple of mom n'pop restaurants, the "usual suspects" of the fast food chains, an at least two bars with food. Competition for the dining dollar is fierce, and profit margins are razor slim to none. Unlike most trades in the U.S., there are no standards or qualifications for cooks, this means there is no standard for wages, no standard for what a cook should know or be capable of. I need this fact to be crystal clear to you. There are a xillion culinary schools, each with their own ideas of what a cook should know, and there is the ACF, but this is a private membership and not recognized by many schools or gov'ts

So how long do cooks work? Three catagories:

First is hourly wages. As few as possible. If you are good your job, maybe a max. Of 40 hrs/week.
Second is monthly wages. As many as possible. Typically 50-70 /week, assuming you are not short staffed or incredibly busy.
Third is ownership. Its a lifestyle. 80-100 in the kitchen, another 20 in the office, and another 20 farting around fixing equipment.
It goes without saying that these hours include evenings, weekends, and public holidays.

If you love cooking and like your current salary, working hours and benefits, then keep cooking as a hobby.

If you want to become a professional cook, then there's no substitute for exoerience. Get into a kitchen washing dishes and prepping veg. We all started that way.

No b.s. no hard feelings, right?
Joined Sep 21, 2001
No bullshit? I only did it because I found it easy.

I got into restaurant work when I was 18 and needed money. I went to work washing dishes. For some reason all the chaos in the kitchen just made sense to me. I found it fascinating! I also realized that most of the people who worked in kitchens were utterly stupid. And or unmotivated. So I thought I had a chance.

When I was around your age I'd been cooking for around 7 years. I'd pushed myself pretty hard. I usually had 2 sometimes 3 jobs. One job was for money...usually some dumbass line cooking job at a pancake house or something equally droll; and the others to get on as anything I could to get my foot in the door and learn. I didn't think my effort was any different than a college kid also having a full time job.

Then I got a break to go run the dinner service at a well regarded French-inspired place.

That was a huge step forward for me. It took me about 10 years of cooking experience to get there and really be on top of my job. But in a way I crammed 15 years of cooking into 10.

So when people say cooking is competitive? It isn't a bad thing.

It just gets down to who wants it more. And who is willing to do what it takes to get there.

Good luck!

Joined Jun 27, 2015
Scotchdew, cooking is a profoundly satisfying profession. 

I'd suggest before jumping ship from your day day job, maybe try and get some evening part time cooking work? That way you'll really get to see if you like it or not. 

I started at age 43 as a working partner/chef and very much still enjoying myself. So it's never too late. 

Another suggestion, if you have that cooking bug, why not just do elaborate dinner parties at home? 


Staff member
Joined Jun 11, 2001
One of the things you need, besides learning how to cook, is doing it efficiently.  Watch old Pepin videos and you will see what I mean.  The way he handles that knife so skillfully and without effort is beyond me.  I can maybe be half as good as him.

Same goes with Chinese chefs.  One cleaver, two woks, one fryer, one helper.  Dang!
Joined Jan 10, 2017
So here is my advice/opinion..
long hours, pain, stress, little pay = yes
self pride, humility, teamwork, excitement, fun = yes
I do it because I love it. I worked years in Hotels and restaurants to climb the ranks to where I am currently at; which gave me great pride and fired me up for more! See yourself in a place to live where you'd love your off days, then find a good place to work around that place so on your days off you enjoy life. I have a girl that came out of the restaurant industry, she is now in marketing but knows how my line of work is and she respects it. We do not have the same off days, I work on the weekends thus why she picked up a second cake job to support her income and to keep herself busy. She's happy to see me when she gets to, as well as I am. She knows I have goals and respects them, as I do with her wants and goals!
This industry is bigger than most people think. It is not all fine dine and expensive plates. Average people get sick, get married, stay in hotels, etc etc. So what I am trying to say is it does not have to be all late nights and tweezer work. For people such as yourself, getting a foot in through a hotel or a catering company where your hours are somewhat "normal" than the late night restaurant scene. Try them. Hospitals even pay more, the sick need good food too!!! think about that mate. it aint all TV and glory. EVeryone needs to be fed.
Joined Jul 24, 2017
Ok my .02, if you love to cook, why not just cook, and with your kids? Buy Julia Childs Mastering the Art of French cooking, you might even find this used- for classical French cooking old style- which mostly no one does anymore (time)- but she talks you through every little detail with nothing left out. You will have your hands full with that for awhile.
You tube is a good resource for techniques, equipment reviews-I really like Americastestkitchen channel and there's just a lot more out there. I watch Gordon Ramsey's vids for entertainment and learning little chef shortcuts. You can bring up your skills for a year without quitting a job that likely pays a lot better, have a great time cooking with your kids and not missing out.
Then if you want to enter a pro- kitchen you might not have to go in as a dishwasher.
Here's the thing about pro kitchens, most of the time it isn't all making great foods, you could be on a station that is constant repetition and not see anything else for months.
Can you touch a chicken breast and just by feel know its done? How about how to mix and match herbs to create world flavors, like what makes thai food thai and morrocan food moroccan? Knife skills? (which they hate teaching or waiting for, but some cooking classes teach this first)
I would think it's very hard to go in green these days with a family to support. :)
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