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Becoming a world-class chef with restaurants opening worldwide, top-rated television shows and best-selling cookbooks seems to be the allure of many people looking to get into the kitchen game. The reality is that many of today’s top chefs have spent years, if not decades, sweating it out in the kitchen, taking the heat from the higher-ranked chefs above them. Paying your dues is a necessary part of this profession.
Get a job in a kitchen. Before you drop thousands of dollars at a culinary academy, find a restaurant job to understand the basic dynamics of serving food to the public in a hot, fast-paced environment. “Wash dishes and work your way up to prep cook,” says chef de cuisine Esteban Jiminez. “If you still have the desire, get on the saute line. If you’re working that line and can’t picture yourself doing anything else, that’s when it lies true.”
Study the masters. When you’re not working, study the cookbooks and recipes of award-winning chefs such as Jacques Pepin, James Beard, Alice Waters, Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller. Learn what has distinguished these chefs in the art of cooking to understand what makes a world-class chef.
Refine your palette. A top chef creates masterful dishes by discerning what food combinations work best together. To do this, a good chef must understand the nuances of textures and flavors from an array of spices, meats, fish and produce. To start, concentrate on a cuisine you want to specialize in such as French, Indian or Asian and study the range of tastes that makes up these dishes until you can distinguish them easily.
Eat out. You don’t have to dine in 5-star restaurants nightly, but be prepared to spend some time—and money--exploring what top chefs in your area are creating. Read restaurant reviews and get a sense of what new trends are emerging. Studying your competition may also inspire you to continue working on your own style and techniques.
Look for staging opportunities in progressively better kitchens. Cooks that take their profession seriously often work under well-known chefs or in award-winning restaurants for a year or more in an apprenticeship, and continue staging for many years before going off on their own. Getting in these doors requires perseverance and an unyielding work ethic, but it can pay off in the experience gained.
Open your own restaurant when you feel you have the requisite experience and sufficient signature style to stand out among the other chefs in your area. Offering your dishes for critical and public scrutiny is a necessary transition to becoming a known chef.
Enroll in a culinary academy after you've spent time in restaurants and are ready for classical training. Choose acclaimed programs such as ones found at Le Cordon Bleu, The Culinary Institute of America or The French Culinary Institute.
Nikki Jardin began freelance writing in 2009 and focuses on food and travel articles. She has been a professional cook and caterer for more than 20 years. She holds a degree in environmental science from Humboldt State University.