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A chef's work is pure culinary art. It takes special skills to prepare and serve food that is as pleasing to the eye as to the taste buds. But unlike a painter in a studio, a chef has to work quickly. The clock starts ticking with every restaurant patron's order -- and those patrons want their meals in minutes rather than hours. Culinary skills require manual dexterity and creativity in addition to a strong knowledge of food types, flavors, styles and dangers. Preparing and serving food safely is as important as handling knives quickly and precisely.
Knives are important tools of the trade. A chef knows his knives and is as picky about selecting just the right one for each use as a golfer is about clubs or a painter about brushes. Some rough chop vegetables while others finely chop herbs. Still others are called into play to carve flowers out of radishes or tomatoes. Chefs must use knives quickly and expertly to get the job done without delay. The high-speed slicing seen on TV takes a lot of practice to master without damaging either the food being sliced or any stray fingers that could get in the way.
Menu planning also takes a great deal of skill. Chefs might plan out entire menus every day or simplify things by offering some meals regularly and others as daily specials. Skills used to effectively plan out a menu, however simple or complex, include an awareness of what's in season and freshly available, what foods a restaurant's particular patrons prefer and what meats, vegetables, spices and herbs work well together. A chef creates, tests and adjusts recipes until finding the desired balance of flavors in appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. Chefs also set the prices for menu items -- so they must have enough business sense to accurately account for costs and profit margins.
Chefs must have strong knowledge of food safety requirements. It's important to know how different types of food spoil and how to detect spoilage if it occurs. It's also important to recognize the dangers of food-borne illnesses. A chef must follow strict protocols in handling, preparing and serving foods. The chef is responsible for making sure foods like pork and chicken are cooked to the proper temperatures, and for implementing effective cleaning procedures. Everything used in the kitchen, from cutting boards to cooking utensils, must frequently and constantly undergo thorough cleaning.
The chef's crowning glory occurs when it's time to serve a meal. The plate is a chef's artistic canvas. Chefs refine their presentation skills through hours of practice -- and probably a fair amount of trial and error. A chef's visual masterpiece is created when it's time to "plate" the food. Chefs are trained to work with texture, color and form as well as taste. They arrange meats, vegetables and garnishes in a way that is visually appealing, and sauces are sometimes drizzled with the flair of painter. No less attention is given to appetizers or desserts. Every course represents another work of art.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.