If you enjoy cooking, or even eating, you have probably tuned in to the BravoTV show Top Chef. It’s fun to watch the chefs battle it out for the #1 dish and stand before the judges table, waiting to hear “please pack up your knives and go” when they are eliminated. If you are passionate about food, you might have even dreamed of becoming a Top Chef-All Star one day. But, do you have what it takes to become an executive chef or even own your own restaurant? Are you willing to do the work in order to receive the accolades?

A snapshot of the remaining contestants

These talented chefs have paid their dues in the culinary world. By looking at the remaining Top Chef-All Stars‘ paths to success, it might help you decide if this is the career path that interests you:

  • Tiffany Derry, the self-proclaimed Beaumont Texan started off working in an IHOP kitchen at the age of 15, working her way up into management by the age of 17. She competed in cooking competitions to help pay for culinary school where she finished in the top of her class. While still in school, she worked in restaurants where she received specialized training in seafood; gaining a position as a Sous Chef, returning to teach in culinary school, and finally becoming an Executive Chef at a popular restaurant in Dallas.
  • Richard Blais, the champion of molecular gastronomy and food deconstruction, began his culinary career the way a lot of teenagers do, at McDonald’s. It was at the fast food joint where he first toyed with the idea of deconstruction in cuisine: serving the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches with no top bun. Blais attended The Culinary Institute of America, where he nurtured a growing passion for French technique. While in school, he interned under several culinary giants in the field, and took a fellowship in a fish kitchen upon graduation. He cooked in several different kitchens, honing his skills, until opening his own restaurant, BLAIS, in 2004.
  • Michael Isabella, Top Chef’s own Jersey boy, grew up in a small Italian family cooking with his grandmother who loved to experiment with foods from around the world. When he decided to follow a career in cooking, he took his associate’s degree in culinary arts from the New York Restaurant School (now the Art Institute of New York City) and gathered experience in ethnic foods by cooking at restaurants all along the east coast and learning from the masters while experimenting with unique cuisine. He is slated to open his own restaurant in Washington, D.C. this year.
  • Carla Hall, the colorful chef known for her “hootie hoos” during the episodes, started off as an accountant after graduating from business school. She then spent several years as a runway model in Europe, where she fell in love with Parisian cuisine. Upon returning to the United States, Carla moved to Washington, where she started a lunch delivery service called the Lunch Bunch. Desiring some professional training, she enrolled and graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She then interned and eventually was promoted to Sous Chef, and finally Executive Chef. After working several years in various hotel restaurants, she started her own company, Alchemy Caterers.
  • Antonia Lofaso, representing single moms and home cooks, comes from an Italian background where she cooked with her mother and worked in her father’s restaurant. Recognizing the need for more formal training, she attended the French Culinary Institute and graduated with a command of technique that landed her positions with catering companies and fine dining restaurants. She has worked as an Executive Chef and is now writing a cookbook geared toward busy mothers.

Getting the education

As you can see, each of these chefs recognized that in order to be the best at their craft, they needed a culinary education. Many amateur cooks naively believe that there is a correlation between preparing homemade meals and the professional kitchen. Not to mention, many have dreams of becoming the next Emeril or Wolfgang Puck. Even though there is nothing wrong with dreaming, there is an incredible amount of difficulty that lies ahead to achieve such aspirations. Even people with no goals of stardom, who just wish to cook professionally, often lack an appreciation for the disproportion between a home kitchen and the real world. Education is one way you can bridge that gap and learn the skills that will move you ahead in your culinary career.

Getting the experience

The Top Chef finalists definitely paid their dues in the kitchen. Some began at early ages working as line cooks in fast food restaurants, just to learn the skills needed to work in the restaurant industry. They all interned under Executive Chefs while they were in culinary school. Becoming a chef is hard work, and it’s not for those who lack focus, according to a recent article at TheReluctantGourmet.com:

You will do more than your share of “scut work” first. Forget your homemade meatloaf and potatoes. Think standing on your feet for hours on end filling raviolis, cleaning artichokes, peeling boxes of asparagus, gutting 50 lobsters, etc., and being expected to perform these monotonous, mechanistic chores with assembly line speed and accuracy.

Next you’ll probably move up to the garde manger, i.e., composing appetizers, soups, salads, shrimp cocktails and other cold preparations. How long you remain here depends on the restaurant and your skills. Eventually, if all goes well, you will be groomed for working the line, i.e., cooking the main items.

Some restaurants divvy up the line positions by the type of cooking, (the sauté cook, the grill cook, etc.), or by the type of food, (the meat cook, the fish cook, etc.) Even though being a line cook is more prestigious, the hours remain grueling and you are under even more pressure to get the food out. Line cooks can work non-stop for hours during the height of service with no chance for even a bathroom break.

If you’re good you’ll eventually become a Sous Chef. This is the second in command, right under the Executive Chef. The hours are still long, you’ll still sweat your you-know-what off working the line, and now you have the added responsibility of policing everyone else in the kitchen. Of course this position brings more prestige and money.

A Sous Chef’s ultimate goal is to become an Executive Chef. Hard work, better than average ability, and sometimes a little bit of luck are all needed to reach that plateau.

Sometimes the executive chef is also the owner, the ultimate goal in Chefdom: owning your own restaurant. But always remember, no matter where you are on the totem pole in the restaurant business, it is never a nine to five proposition. It is your life.

If you are passionate about food and even more passionate about becoming a culinary expert and landing a spot on Top Chef, it’s going to take some hard work. Education coupled with training and long hours of prep, sweat, and being ordered around in a kitchen. The rewards can be great, but this type of career requires more than just the desire to cook: you MUST be passionate about your craft and willing to put your passion where your mouth is.

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a Top Chef? Leave us a comment and tell us about your dreams!

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