Being a sous chef is kind of like being the oldest sibling in a family. You answer to your parents (the Executive Chefs) but you still have a certain amount of control over your younger brothers and sisters (the line or station chefs). And just like being the oldest sibling, the most is expected of you and yet you are also held responsible for the mistakes of your brothers and sisters. But Sous Chef is one of the most desired positions in the culinary world, especially for ambitious chefs who consider it an invaluable stepping stone towards opening their own restaurants. Below you will find everything it takes to become, and remain, a successful sous chef. If you can’t wait to get started, this course will bring you up to speed on the fundamentals of healthy cooking.
A Day In The Life
While certain variations exist among restaurants, from celebrity-run kitchens in New York City to your local options for fine dining, the general expectations of sous chefs are fairly consistent. In the case of the celebrity kitchens, the executive chef often does not even cook; but in the majority of fine, local restaurants, you will find the executive chef cooking elbow-to-elbow with the rest of the staff.
- Commander in Chef
In either case, the sous chef oversees the execution of the kitchen and is usually charged with personally preparing the most difficult, time consuming and advanced parts of the menu. In large restaurants, it is not uncommon for there to be multiple sous chefs; the head pastry chef, for example, is technically a second sous chef. While in direct communication with the executive chef, the sous chef is like a squadron leader carrying out the general’s orders. They must hire, train, direct and, if need be, fire the other members of the team.
The truly imperative part of this is cultivating talent; a family atmosphere exists among chefs, which can be both brutal and rewarding. Station chefs want to learn (indeed, they want to be sous chef), so a sous chef should be generous with his or her wisdom. It is the circle of kitchen life and the key to building the best and most efficient restaurants.
- Facilities Management
They commonly monitor inventory, as well, as they see the kitchen as a whole and not as a single station. This might sound relatively simple, but balancing quality and budget can make all the difference when it comes to financial success. And again, this is easier said than done: if budget or quality is suffering, the sous chef must find new vendors that can satisfy the kitchen’s needs. In New York, the options will be numerous but the competition will be steep; in smaller towns, the sous chef will have the opposite problem (finding quality products at reasonable prices, especially if they’re rare, can be borderline impossible).
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- Just Another Guy (or Gal)
Of course, a sous chef shares in all of the thankless duties of a kitchen, right along with the line cooks. At the end of the day, this means cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and determining the state of each station for the following shift. In some instances, the sous chefs will also be responsible for designing the daily specials (at once, a taste of being the executive chef, but then again, just another duty to perform).
Job Duties And General Description
I outlined a day-in-the-life above, but these are streamlined, detailed duties and requirements:
- Prior experience is the most important requirement. I give this full attention in the following section.
- Leadership: The sous chefs manage the entire kitchen, which is an extremely intense, fast-paced environment, full of people on edge. Leadership skills are an absolute essential. You have to assign tasks, manage crises, motivate the staff and set the highest example. Set yourself apart with this course that will help you develop your own leadership style.
- Time Management: The reasons for this are somewhat obvious, but time is of the essence for sous chefs, both in and out of the kitchen. Being able to track inventory and place orders appropriately is Sous Chef 101. But running the kitchen in a timely manner and preparing first-class meals on time and preparing all the orders from the same table simultaneously is imperative. Improve your skills with this time management class for entrepreneurs.
- Food Preparation/Creative Problem Solver: The sous chef oversees all planning and execution of food preparation. Any problems that arise from supplies or errors must be fixed quickly and professionally. Ultimately, the final product that arrives at a customer’s table is the liability of the sous chef.
- Scheduling: Vacation time is virtually non-existant for sous chefs and station chefs at fine restaurants in big cities. But creating schedules that most benefit the kitchen and that make everyone happy (or as happy as possible) is not easy. The sous chef is responsible for making sure the kitchen is never understaffed.
- Expediting: Expediting is a common term in cooking. It means arranging tickets and managing food preparation so that orders (from the first course to the fifth) are sent out appropriately. The sous chef is the expeditor. He or she instructs the other chefs on when to prepare and finish each tables’ dishes.
How To Get There
Becoming a sous chef is similar to becoming a manager in other aspects of business. It requires education (in one form or another) and experience. In the culinary world, these take on unique forms.
If an executive chef had to choose between education and experience, experience would win every time. Being educated at a formal institution is a great way to land internships and get your foot in the door, but you will ultimately start at the same place as you would if you just joined a kitchen as a washer and worked your way up. Pick up some free advice with this blog post on how to become a self-taught chef.
Typically, most chefs do not attend culinary school. The fastest and best way to learn is by getting in the kitchen, and this is also the route that commands the most respect. A talented chef can rise quickly through the ranks of a top restaurant, and youth is not an issue when it comes to entrusting the kitchen. If you have the experience and ambition, being 23 years old isn’t going to slow you down.
Many chefs start at smaller restaurants, rise to the top, then start over at a world-class restaurant. This process can take anywhere from two to ten years, depending on skill and circumstance.
Don’t get your hopes up. The only chefs that can rake in a large pay day are those that either own the restaurant or are the executive chef at a truly five-star establishment. While most sous chefs earn between $30,000 and $40,000, even a sous chef with a decade of experience working at one of the best restaurants in New York City is likely to take home only $50,000. But most aren’t in it for the money. Most sous chefs ultimately desire to open their own restaurants, and this is one of the last hurdles of that process.
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