How to Become a Chef

By Tess Campbell Modified on August 25, 2023
Tags : Academics | Business | Careers | Food & Drink

Think you've got what it takes to make it in the kitchen? Find out how you can fulfill your dream of becoming a chef in Canada.

 How to Become a Chef

Picture yourself in the kitchen of a popular, high-end restaurant. There’s steam and all sorts of delicious smells swirling together in the air. A perfectly plated fusilli pasta with roasted eggplant and goat cheese is brought in front of you, and with your nod of approval the plate is taken out of the kitchen and delivered to the awaiting guest.

Does this sound like the type of environment you’d like to work in? Are you someone who loves to experiment with flavours? If so, then you should consider a career as a chef! But what exactly would a career as a chef look like? Find out what you can expect in your role as a chef, and how you can make this career possible:

What is a chef?

A chef is a culinary professional who manages a kitchen. Chefs are trained to understand flavours and cooking techniques to create new recipes and oversee their team of cooks. Chefs will often work in restaurants, hotels, ships, caterers, hospitals, and private residences.

What do chefs do?

Chefs are involved in both the kitchen and with the administrative process. This means that chefs will experiment and use their creativity and training to create new recipes. Many chefs will plan the food and craft the menus. Chefs may also be responsible for hiring staff, keeping inventory of ingredients, and ordering supplies.

Based on a chef’s experience and training, they may have a specific role in the kitchen. There are a dozen different types of chefs, but here are some you may have heard of:

  • Executive chef: Executive chefs, aka chef de cuisine, are mainly responsible for the managerial aspect of the kitchen. They create new recipes and menus, taste and approve dishes that are sent out, and oversee daily operations.
  • Head chef: a head chef is like an executive chef. They’ll oversee other chefs’ work, communicate with customers, train new hires, and keep track of inventory.
  • Sous chef: Sous chefs, or second chefs, are the assistants to an executive chef and head chef. They communicate with other chefs to ensure orders are prepared on time and ingredients and tools are available.
  • Pastry chef: a pastry chef, also known as a pâtissier, specializes in creating delicious desserts, breads, pastries, doughs, and other baked goods.
  • Entry-level chef: entry-level chefs, also known as junior chefs or commis chef, are usually still in culinary school or just starting to earn some experience in the kitchen.
  • Chef de parties: a chef de partie runs a particular station in the kitchen, like sautéing or roasting.

How to become a chef in three steps:

Now that your interest has been piqued, check out how you can become a chef in three basic steps:

Step one: Education

Most employers expect their chefs to have their high school diploma, but due to the high standards of chefs, having professional training is a huge asset. Many chefs will go to culinary school to learn fundamental culinary skills like proper knife skills, the theories behind flavours, and specialized skills like chocolate tempering, filleting fish, etc.

When choosing a culinary degree, you have options between certificates, diplomas, bachelor’s, and graduate certificates, which can vary from one to four years depending on the program. You’ll also have the ability to choose whether you want a more general introduction to the culinary world or if you’d like to specialize with a program like baking and pastries.

But where should you begin if you have zero experience in a kitchen? While you’re in high school, why not get a part-time job in a sit-down or fast-food restaurant? This will help you get a better idea if the fast-paced kitchen environment is something you enjoy, while also developing your basic cooking skills. You can continue to apply these skills by cooking for yourself or your family once or twice a week sharpen your flavour palate. You could also find a local cooking class that has one or two sessions that you can join if you’re looking for something more introductory. This will get you into a more professional kitchen with the help of an instructor.

Step two: Work experience

The next step to becoming a chef, and one of the most important, is earning experience in the kitchen. A great way to start getting experience is by choosing a culinary degree that also offers placements and practical experience. Many schools, like George Brown College, will have their culinary students work at on-campus cafés and restaurants where they can practice their skills outside of the classroom. Other schools may have partnerships with restaurants in the city where you can complete a co-op or internship.

After graduation, you can continue earning work experience through employment or apprenticeships. Many chefs will begin their career as a cook to gain experience and work their way up in the kitchen hierarchy. While being a cook may not be exactly what you trained for, the experience you gain will help you earn your way to the title of chef, which typically requires a couple years of experience. More on the difference between chefs and cooks below.

Step three: Certifications

While you don’t need certifications to be a chef, they can help you gain specific skills, rise in the chef hierarchy, and give you an advantage over other applicants. The Canadian Culinary Institute, of the Canadian Culinary Federation, offers three certifications:

  • Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC): this certificate proves your exceptional abilities as a chef in Canada. You’ll need to pass a comprehensive theory exam and two practical exams
  • Certified Master Chef (CMC): this certificate covers courses such as garde manager theory, baking and pastry theory, purchasing procedures, and more. This program certificate can take two to four years to complete
  • Red Seal: if you’ve completed an apprenticeship program as a cook, and have the 6,000 hour experience requirement, you can take the Red Seal exam which acknowledges your skills and education across Canada

You may be wondering, “if I don’t need certifications to be a chef in Canada, why should I get my Red Seal or any other certification?” Here are six reasons why getting a Red Seal is a good idea as a chef:

  • Opens doors for management and leadership positions
  • Provides proof of excellence across Canada and internationally
  • Become a better candidate for high-profile restaurants
  • If you want to obtain higher certifications, such as the CCC or CMC, you’ll need a Red Seal to apply
  • Be eligible for high-profile culinary competitions
  • If you want to teach, many culinary schools require instructors to have their Red Seal

What’s the difference between a cook and a chef?

Did you know chefs and cooks aren’t interchangeable? Although they both work in a kitchen, they’re not exactly the same career. Find out how these two careers differ:

Cook Chef
Training Cooks are usually self-trained or trained by restaurants to follow specific standards, requirements, and recipes. Typically, chefs require more professional training and education. It takes many years of practical experience for chefs to hone their skills. They may start off as cooks, but will seek out training opportunities, like apprenticeships, to rise in the industry.
Job responsibilities Cooks perform more basic duties in the kitchen. They’ll follow recipes and plans created by a chef or supervisor, cut and prepare food, clean the kitchen, and maintain health and food standards. Chefs have more creative freedom in the kitchen. Using their knowledge, chefs can create recipes, plan menus, manage dish standards for taste and presentation, and oversee kitchen staff.
Career advancement

For cooks, there are fewer specialties available than chefs as they can typically make anything from a recipe. However, with more experience, you can earn different titles.

Short-order cooks have simple food preparation skills and are often seen in diner-style restaurants. Prep cooks perform pre-cooking duties, such as preparing produce and ingredients. Line cooks work in one station of a kitchen, like using a griddle.

As a chef, you have multiple different specialties you can pursue within your career. There’s a chef hierarchy, and at the bottom is entry-level chefs, or commis chefs, who are still learning culinary techniques.

Then you can advance to a chef de partie who controls one section of the kitchen.

From there, you can specialize in a culinary skill, like pastries, sauces, and cold dishes.

Above these chefs are sous chefs who are assistants to the head and executive chefs and supervise other chefs.

At the top are the head and executive chefs who are the main supervisors of a kitchen and create recipes and plan menus.

Career prospects

There is plenty of room for advancement with a career as a chef. You could start at the bottom as a commis/junior chef (an entry level chef or intern) and work all the way up to a head chef or executive chef. As you continue to gain experience, you can specialize in sauces, pastries, butchering, and more. Eventually, as you make your way to executive chef, you could own your own restaurant, or even help a restaurant earn Michelin Stars!

So, if you want to start your career as a chef, explore the Canadian Government’s Job Bank for openings for chefs. Want to get an idea of how much you can make as a chef? Check out the low, average, and high salary expectations of a chef. Your salary increases the more qualified you become! As an executive chef, the average salary in Canada is over $73,000.

Sounds like a lot of fun — right? So, if you have a love for food, experimenting with flavours, and live in a kitchen, then a career as a chef could be perfect for you!

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