This is my A-Z of becoming a chef. Just to warn you, it gets a bit ropey towards the end (you’ll know what I mean when you get to Q, X and Z!) but here are some fundamental things that a chef needs to be, and some things I love about being a chef.
A – Appetite
A is for appetite. Since a chef’s life revolves around food, it’s probably good to have a decent appetite – because you have to taste EVERYTHING.
B – Belief
B is for belief. Becoming a chef, especially while you’re a trainee, means you’re under the microscope a lot. You have to believe in yourself otherwise it’s like falling at the first hurdle. Your food is picked apart every day, looking at tiny details and people judging and critiquing your abilities. You must be able to assess your own strengths and weaknesses before anyone else does.
C – Calm
C is for calm. As a chef, your everyday environment is manic and pressured. Finding a way, whatever that may be, of calming yourself is the best way to get through it. Whether it’s breathing exercises or a sense of humour, you will always need a coping method for the madness.
D – Determination
D is for determination. There is a weird paradox within the cheffing industry in that there are a surplus of jobs, and high demand for all kinds of chefs, but making it to the top is still notoriously hard. If what you’re striving for is to be in those Michelin-starred kitchens, 5-star hotels and making big money, that’s incredible – but you will need huge amounts of determination to succeed.
E – Energy
E is for Energy. I don’t know about anyone else but keeping up the Duracell bunny energy levels is quite taxing. As a chef many things take up your energy, the focus needed during prep time, the rush of service, the long commute times and sometimes the long hours. Getting to bed at midnight after a college service, then being up at 6am for work in the morning for work is draining, but for me, it’s about looking at the bigger picture of where I want to be.
F – Fashion
F is for fashion. For me, food is art on a plate, and shouldn’t be anything less when we’re talking about fine dining. A sense of fashion, artistry and style is key – being able to look at a white plate and being able to dress it like you do yourself in the morning is what the fine dining was built on. A plate is like a canvas to a chef.
G – Grandeur
G stands for Grandeur. Even though as chefs we’re down in the kitchen, there is something grand about this profession. As a girl with a flair for the dramatic somehow cooking enables me to release that without too many casualties. Maybe it’s the fast pace, the tall chef’s hats, the fire on a flambé or the grand structures that come out of pastry, somehow it all feels special. The most special thing of all, though, is when you create something that stands tall and looks so sculptural and elegant you forget it’s completely edible.
H – History
H is for History. For me, this is one of the most important points I can make. The history behind cheffing is incomprehensible, the incredible chefs that have gone before us to make the culinary world what it is, is something to think about. Yes, sometimes it’s hard and sometimes we’re tired but thinking about what we’re becoming a part of when becoming a chef is mind blowing. Food history shows us that Paul Bocuse, Massimo Bottura, Julia Child, Raymond Blanc, Auguste Escoffier, Marie-Antoine Carême, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz and thousands more, both in present day and past have paved a way and created, pioneered and served the food, techniques and knowledge we use today!
I – Imagination
I is for Imagination. Imagination is what takes a good chef to a great one. Look at Heston Blumenthal as an example, he’s a man who doesn’t believe in the impossible. He can create and perfect whatever he dreams up. As an incredible scientist and chef altogether his talent is awe-inspiring. Pioneer chefs aren’t created just by learning; they are created by learning then adding to that bank of knowledge.
J is for Joy, Joy should radiate from a chef in the kitchen. Sometimes there’s a time for stress and focus, but why are you in the kitchen if you don’t love it? For me personally I know my mood affects my performance and the taste of my food. So if I’m in a bad mood you can taste it in my work, that’s why I’m normally annoyingly happy in the kitchen because for me I know my mood has a massive impact on my work.
K – Kitchens
K is for Kitchens. My mum always told me that the room in the house I’ve always been the most comfortable is the kitchen. On the whole, it’s where I’m most at home, especially cooking in my own kitchen. The main thing to remember is cooking in your own kitchen is very different to industry kitchens. So if you’re nervous or feel out of place in yours, then maybe cheffing isn’t the job for you, because as a chef your kitchen becomes your home.
L – Learn
L is for learn. If you’ve read any of my other posts you will have realised I’m a massive geek. That’s part of the reason I love this profession so much, because it’s a constant learning curve, even if you’ve studied cooking your entire life you are never going to know everything there is to know. The subject is just too big, too personal and ever moving forward.
M – Maths
M is for maths. As a chef, especially if you want to become a sous or head chef, costings are paramount. Whether you’re doubling recipes, calculating wastage or maximising profit margins, maths is central to what you do. So having a strong grasp on the numbers is a massive asset.
N – Nerves
N is for Nerves. Nerves for me can be a huge obstacle. Nerves have different impacts depending on individuals, for me nerves make me second guess myself, make silly little mistakes and give me the shakes. So for example, if a chef is intensely watching me plate a dish, I find it hard to control my hands from shaking. That being said with practice and putting myself in a sort of bubble of focus I’m progressively getting better at it. Nerves are hard to conquer and affect people to varying degrees so it’s about finding a coping mechanism for you.
O – Organisation
O is for Organisation. For me, being a chef satisfies a slightly obsessive need within me to have everything running perfectly. Mise en place lists are my best friends and being able to set up a section fully gives me a sense of peace. My life has to be 95% organised otherwise panic does start to set in and although being a chef is erratic, I feel being organised has been a real strength of mine during my journey.
P – Produce
P is for product. Product is everything! The best chefs do the least to the best ingredients. Sourcing the best and highest quality ingredients should be a priority for every kitchen. Over the last nearly 2 years of being a chef this is something that I’ve become dramatically more aware of. Whether it be seasonality, provenance, sustainability or freshness the best food is made with the best produce.
Q – Quintessential
Q is for Quintessential. In chef’s terms I say quintessential to mean regional delicacies or staple dishes and ingredients. So for example quintessential Italian food is Margarita pizza, focaccia, carbonara and bruschetta. Learning quintessential cuisine from different cultures can be a major asset. It means understanding and appreciating cultures as well as good food. It’s about taking and learning the best of the best of a nation’s food.
R – Respect
R is for respect. Kitchens have a clear hierarchy ranging from the executive/head chef down to a commis or a porter. There is a definitive process in a kitchen. My view of respect is that every individual in that process is shown respect, the head chef should respect the porter as he does his peers and the commis shows respect to the chef de partie as he does the sous chef. In a professional sense, the head chef should be shown the upmost respect as the team leader and head chefs have to work hard to acquire their position.
S – Skills
S is for skills. Being a chef is all about skills. Skills are gained by practice, focus and listening. For me, I’m astounded at the amount my skills have changed in the relatively short amount of time I’ve been in college. On my induction day, I was nervous frying a piece of bread crumbed chicken and now I’ll happily run a section by myself. It’s insane with practice and guidance what you can add to your skill set.
T – Teamwork
Teamwork is a huge part of being a chef. Even if you think you’re the best chef in the world there is no merit if the person you’re working with isn’t capable. Working as a team is the most important element in a kitchen as things start to go wrong even if the foods good if when it comes to service there’s no communication. Working as a team is hard, with personalities, strengths, weaknesses and working habits there is a lot to contend with. However, this can be overcome with calm communication and efficient management.
U – Underestimating
U is for underestimating. Underestimating means having eyes in the back of your head. If you’re a Level 2 chef, you’ve probably got a list in your head on who the best chefs in your group are already but trust me, in a different environment, with a year more experience, that can flip over in an instant. People who you didn’t rate in the first week could be the people who are smashing it now. A lot can change in a year at UCB. People have endless capacities to grow as chefs and exceed expectations. Watch those underdogs.
V – Variety
V is for Variety. Becoming a chef opens up a wide variety of options. As a career there are lots of different sub-branches you can follow into a career you’re passionate about. A professionally trained chef can go into hotels, pubs, restaurants, bistros, cruises, nutrition, product development, food writing, sustainability, food standards, environmental health and many more lines of work.
W – Worldwide
W is for Worldwide. This is one of the things that really interested me in becoming a chef. Whether it’s through private cheffing, cruises or taking jobs abroad, becoming a chef can take you worldwide. I’ve got an upcoming blog post on all the places I want to see, and becoming a chef can hopefully take me to a fair few of them.
X – (Exciting) – Ok I cheated but just spell it phonetically
X is for exciting. Ok, yes, I cheated on this one but X is a hard letter. This industry is exciting, and as chefs we should be excited by it. There are always events, developments and new things going on with food. Chefs all have interesting stories to tell and as young trainees the possibilities open to us should be exciting.
Y – Yummy
Y is for Yummy. As a chef I know I’m constantly excited about food. When I try new food, a new restaurant or when I make something new most of the time I can’t stop talking about it. Food for me hasn’t lost its charms.
Z – Zeal
Z is for Zeal. As a chef, the industry is supposed to be exciting and we have to make the food exciting, showing zeal in everything we produce.