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Becoming a Chef

A 20-something boy could have easily passed off as an engineering student, but was not. He was a cook in a hotel in Bangalore and the story of his life went like this. Back home in Kerala as a teenager, he got hooked on to cooking as he watched his mother at the grinding stone make exotic spices and flours. Since then he was fascinated with all things culinary, and with the sights and smells of the kitchen, so to say. Instead of being disparaging (many parents, especially in India, still feel that only a girl's place is in the kitchen), his mother was very encouraging of his interests. She would teach him the traditional recipes she knew and soon he was adding his own two-bit. After schooling the boy decided to quit studies and become a cook. He joined a restaurant - which had Malabar cuisine as its specialty - as a 'trainee'. Soon his talent was noticed and he overtook the rest of the staff to become the star chef.

Boys in the kitchen

Of course, he had no formal training and in small places it is possible to make the grade without graduating from a culinary school. But the story simply illustrates this that the line between gender stereotypes today is blurring fast; what a man can do a woman can too, and vice versa. If women can join the combat wing of the armed forces, men can specialize in cookery; that is the reality. So if your small boy were to discard the guns for the pans, do not feel uneasy or ridicule him. He just may have a bright future as the maitre d'chef of a swank restaurant.

In fact, in the hotel industry today or even in catering colleges boys form a majority. The reason could be that the job of a chef is one of the most demanding and backbreaking ones; something that needs tremendous physical fitness and toughness. That is not to say that girls or women cannot dream of becoming chefs, they certainly can.

An art and craft

Cooking is a specialized art. It is all about techniques, ingredients, nutrition, recipes and flavours, and not some mumbo jumbo. These days there are a good many culinary schools everywhere, but different countries have different systems. The courses may range anywhere from 2 to 3 years. While the course may acquaint you with the basic skills to become a chef, the training truly begins after schooling. Nothing really prepares you for the real thing as actually falling into the grind. Only hands-on experience over a period of time will teach you the tricks of the trade.

Too many hats

The job of a chef is not just cooking, as is commonly perceived. He has to learn all the aspects of food and beverage business. In the restaurant kitchen, apart from cooking high volume soups, salads and sauces, he also has to know the art of vegetable and fruit sculptures and presentations. He has to be up to date with the managerial and administrative aspects of running the kitchen - from shopping, menu preparation and planning to nutrition analysis and inventory management.

A graduate from a culinary school can start his apprenticeship in any restaurant or hotel where he can climb up a slow ladder to the position of sous chef, executive sous chef and executive chef, the latter being the number one position as titles (this come from French lingo) go. The journey upwards can be anywhere from 10 - 12 years. In this field, the career path is largely a function of the person's individual merit and progress. The remuneration in the initial years may not seem much, viewed particularly in the context of the efforts put in, but over a period of time this imbalance will ease out if you work well and chart your course judiciously. Salaries usually depend on your expertise, experience and the establishment you are working for.

Endless opportunities

The hospitality industry is booming today and opportunities are endless. Club houses to holiday resorts, airlines to cruise liners, all need good chefs to run their food and beverages department. With the world shrinking and becoming a global village, there is an increasing interest in international cuisines - French and Italian, and off-beat ones such as Eritrean or Mediterranean. Specialty cuisine restaurants are springing up daily in every nook and corner. In fact, good chefs establish their identities and become stars and celebrities in their own right. There are also lateral opportunities in hosting television shows and writing cookery books.

No place for boredom

The only flipside is that the profession demands a lot and you have to measure up to it. You will be keeping late hours regularly, and working on weekends and on holidays, too. But on the balance, it is an alluring and lucrative profession. Ask any chef what he likes about his job and he'll tell you that it is the opportunity to travel and meet all kinds of people. Everyday there is a new excitement on the job; no two days are the same. A chef may be busy but never bored. One day, he could be cooking for a marriage party, and on the other, planning a menu for the President!

It is a matter of conjecture, whether chefs are born or made, but you can make it as a chef, if you have it in you.


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