There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a career in the culinary industry. Unlike some careers, the path to becoming an Executive Chef isn’t so well-defined. The title of ‘chef’ is not earned immediately upon graduating culinary school like that of a doctor or lawyer. There’s no final exam, no set number of work hours, and no one-size-fits-all education that all chefs must have. Some cooks earn the title ‘chef’ very quickly, and for others, it takes more time.
A cook must continue to learn and work their way through the ranks of a kitchen before they can be called a chef. While education can be essential to following a culinary career, there are no shortcuts. Even chefs who graduate from the best culinary schools in the world can expect to work their way up following graduation. All new cooks have to learn the ropes of a professional kitchen. Most executive chefs have worked their way through the ranks, possibly even taking 10 to 20 years.
There is no standard path through the ranks of a kitchen. One line cook may make lateral moves from one kitchen to another before advancing, while another may climb quickly from line cook to lead to sous chef, all with the same employer. After several years of experience in the kitchen as a cook, skilled cooks with the necessary talent and management skills are usually promoted to sous chef, often then followed by chef de cuisine or executive sous chef—and then finally, Executive Chef.
While it’s not a requirement, many believe the best place to start a culinary career is with a degree or diploma from an accredited culinary school. Becoming an Executive Chef requires a combination of hands-on training, education and several years of work experience. An Executive Chef must have excellent culinary skills, but there are many non-culinary skills required to be a successful chef. Executive club chefs must deal with kitchen administration, management, budgeting, labor and food cost control, hiring, expediting and checking in on members. Chefs must have the ability to lead, motivate and inspire their team to perform at a high level. Communication skills must be strong, both in the kitchen and with members. An Executive Chef must have good judgment, critical-thinking skills, and a problem-solving skill set that enables a successful chef to quickly put out fires around the kitchen and club. These are all skills that take years of working in a kitchen to master.
With so many variables at play, it’s impossible to say how long it will take any one person to earn the title of Executive Chef. While the path may seem winding, there are some common skills and experiences that many executive chefs share. A cook can set themselves up for success by honing these traits and keeping these accomplishments in mind as progressing through a culinary career.