How do you become a professional chef?

Updated: Jan 31

Something about cooking food inspired you to get into the culinary scene. From breakfast and brunch, to lunch and dinner, the type of food you want to cook doesn't matter to you because you love it. Eventually, you know it's time to turn that love and passion for food into something more: becoming a chef. Although knowing that you want to become a chef is just the starting point of your career journey.

While you might have some of the necessary cooking skills to become one, other factors come into play. Such as what school culinary do you think of enrolling in, being under the guidance of a mentor, getting a restaurant job, and more. One of the unique aspects of becoming a professional chef is that there is more than one way to become one. Below you will find some traditional and nontraditional methods of getting there.

Head chef in restaurant kitchen.

Table of contents:

The start and basics of becoming a chef:

If you have been cooking or just starting, you must have a substantial amount of cooking experience. Start by choosing simple recipes, you would find interesting to make. Once you nail each recipe, move on to new recipes that would require you to develop new skills. Don't forget to explore different cuisines either as other cultures use and prepare ingredients differently, which require diverse skills and help you develop an experienced pallet. While you are creating new dishes, you will start to improve your knife skills, mother sauces, kneading dough, etc.

As you consider applying these tips, we suggest picking up "The Flavor Bible.” A book helps define the aesthetic of flavor as a combination of taste, mouthfeel, aroma, and a mysterious factor perceived by other senses and by the diner’s emotions. The author then breaks down hundreds of tables on how ingredients' flavors relate to one another. For example, the apples' table notes their affinity for cinnamon, pork, rum, and nuts. They also list the most common ingredients specific cuisines on a global scale.

If you are just picking up a chef's knife and haven't had much experience, watch the video below on developing basic knife skills.

Create your style of cooking:

You’ve mastered the basic techniques and skills of cooking and because of it feel more confident in the kitchen than ever. Now is the time to start creating your recipes. A great way to start exploring is to change ingredients out of recipes to make them your own.

Choose ingredients you are most comfortable with. For example, if you are like Chad Robertson, perhaps bread might be your main ingredient and build your cuisine style around it. Also, who doesn't love bread?

Test your recipes:

Making food just for yourself is easy and will taste pretty good most of the time. If you want to grow as a chef, feedback will be your best friend. Whatever your cuisine choice will be, make sure people enjoy that type. If you are making French food, but your testers don't enjoy it, they will most likely give you useless feedback. So before making any cuisine double-check if everyone likes the type you think of making. If it checks out and your trial was successful, apply specific feedback that makes sense to you.

Enrich your industry and chef knowledge.

One of the most obvious ways to gain industry and culinary knowledge is to get an entry-level job with a restaurant. Starting in an entry-level position will help you learn the skills and knowledge you need to move up the ladder in your career. Beginning with a FOH (Front of House) position or BOH (Back of House) either way works because knowing both sides is extremely beneficial. If you want to start in the Back of House, look for Prep Cook or Line Cook positions.

Another way to stay up to date with everything is to follow restaurant and culinary magazine brands such as Food & Wine and James Beard Foundation. Both brands develop industry-specific content for chefs, restaurant owners, managers, bartenders, and anybody interested. Topics you can expect are recipes, travel, top chefs, industry news, and more.

Another way is to watch videos, documentaries and shows that are culinary-driven.

Shows such as “The Chef Show, Chef’s Table, Babish Culinary Universe.” All shows provide a different angle of the industry. The Chef Show takes a more casual approach and teaches you about each chef their approach to cooking in depth. Though Chef’s Table is more of a glamourous Hollywood style, it's inspiring and informative. Babish Culinary Universe has more of a home chef feel but does a great job of explaining how to make each recipe. Another youtube channel we highly recommend is Bon Appétit. The channel acts as a test kitchen and an education center on food and how to make recipes.

Train and learn to become a chef:

Culinary programs can be seen as a standard for people who want to become a chef, but they aren't necessarily required in the industry. Executive chefs care what your resume says about you, for example, you need to be able to make a medium-rare steak under pressure like it's nobody's business. Although culinary programs are a great way to develop vital skills and basic cooking knowledge, you can add to your toolbox. Most culinary programs offer a broad education on food preparation techniques, pastry making, nutrition, and more.

Where can you find culinary programs? Look for trade or vocational schools, colleges, and culinary institutes.

  • Associate’s degree in culinary arts from a community college, you can expect your program to take about two years.

  • A bachelor's degree in culinary arts from a college, university, or culinary institute will take 4-years.

  • If either of those two takes too long, you can obtain a certificate in culinary arts from a trade or vocational school in 6-9 months.

Top culinary schools you could consider are:

Still don't feel like spending money on a culinary degree? Perhaps Flynn McGarry can help inspire you to discover your own path of becoming a chef.

Build your resume:

How should you build a strong resume? Look and apply for internships. Start by reaching out to local restaurant owners, chefs, and if they would consider hiring you short-term as an intern. When you do land an internship, watch and learn from every team member. From prep cooks, line cooks, sous chefs, all team members can teach you new skills you can apply to your skillset. If you are having a tough time finding an internship, reach out to schools or culinary programs, some might have relationships with restaurants in the area. Lastly, this can act as a bonus, but you might want to obtain a certification in your particular expertise along the line. This will help you stand out even more from others.

Suppose you have the required education and experience. In that case, you can take a certification test through the Research Chefs Association, the American Culinary Federation, the Culinary Institute of America, and the United States Personal Chef Association.

How to work your way up to become a chef:

Unless you have worked in a restaurant kitchen before, you need to be willing to accept that you will start at an entry-level position in the beginning. As you continue, you can expect other positions to come your way. Look for jobs with your local restaurants or a city you want to move to. Then submit them your application, cover letter, video introduction, and resume. Don't just rely on one application. Send out your application to multiple restaurants, but make sure you tailor it to each of them. This way, hiring managers know you have a real interest in their establishment. By doing so, you are also increasing your chances of landing your new job.

Starting out, you might begin as a kitchen assistant or garden manager, which is the person who prepares dishes such as soups, cold dishes, and appetizers. Your next step up is line cook, then sous chef, which is the position directly under the head chef. Once you've mastered those, you have the potential to become the head chef of a restaurant.

People sitting on the patio at french cafe or restaurant.

Network in the restaurant industry with owners, chefs, and managers:

Like any other industry, networking can help you grow your career exponentially. While you shouldn't rely on people to help you grow your career, it can supplement the chances of landing new job opportunities. Additionally, you can build a name for yourself in the industry and know about positions that are soon to open at prestige restaurants.

This brings us to our next point. One of the most common ways to move up the ladder is to switch restaurants to continue to rise up the ladder. It would be best if you always look for new opportunities within and outside the restaurant to become a chef. However, don't expect to spend your entire career at the same restaurant as career growth could take a while.

As you have mastered the position as a Line Cook, you should explore opportunities to become a Sous Chef and expect to be 1-3 years in this position. While being under the head chef, you should try to learn everything you can from them. Once you feel the position doesn't challenge you anymore, either look for to be a sous chef at a new restaurant and learn a new type of cuisine. Or it has become time to move up the ladder as head chef.

Become the head chef of a restaurant:

After you feel your position as a sous chef doesn't challenge you anymore, it's time to look for head chef positions. You can reach out to your network and see if there are any positions about to open up in the market. Second, you may also browse job sites. Depending on the site, you can find some great opportunities locally or outside your area. Lastly, having an online brand can also be a great supplement to showcase some of your work to other restaurants. So don't be shy to document your work on social media. After all, everyone loves to view the culinary art the restaurant industry creates!