Culinary Career Choices: Restaurants


The starting place for most future chefs is the line of some restaurant, not last because restaurants outnumber all other areas of the food service industry. Often it is a chain position which inspires a cook to get more knowledge, or it can be a top location. For the most part restaurant positions are food first. Technique, speed, focus, attitude and palate are the desired characteristics for restaurant kitchen staff. The restaurant kitchen environment exposes cooks and subordinate management to a wide range of tasks and offer opportunities to develop individual creativity and problem solving earlier than many other venues. That may mean, however, that there is less structured training.

Allowing more flexibility in many kitchens means demanding more. Restaurants can be hectic and stressful. Without the outside departments and administration staff of hotels or clubs, restaurant chefs often have to be everything and do all, leaving their subordinates a wider range of responsibilities. Without the safety net of rooms or member dues, restaurants staffing budgets are determined with food income, which can mean that compensation for culinary and front management is lower than is other environments.

A restaurant is not a restaurant is not a restaurant.

Saying your career goal is working in a restaurant is like telling a pet shop that the pet you want should be an animal.

Different kinds of restaurants are structured differently, owned differently, run differently. Working in the specific restaurant genres not only determines your current earnings and job satisfaction, it determines your future. Where do you go from here. The defining points of restaurants allow you not only to apply your skills and knowledge to a greater or lesser degree. They provide you with new tools in your box (we mean skills, not utensils, please) and credibility for future situations. Resume equity.

A few of the leading differences between restaurant properties are:

1)      Ownership Structure, owner involvement: Single owner,  partnership, chef owner, corporate restaurant group with independent concepts, corporate group with standardized properties and menus, chain.

We will examine the differences later on, but for now just note that working in a Cheesecake Factory or a Morton’s is a different job than working with Rob’s Steak House downtown for many reasons.

2)      Size and function: Sixty seats with three in the kitchen or 200 seats with 40 BoH employees, and everything in between.

3)      The management autonomy scale: How predetermined is the menu. What is the balance between creativity and entrepreneurial decision requirements vs policy.

4)      Prestige level, pricing, visibility, popularity, ratings, celebrity. Clientele demographics.

5)      Level of formality.

6)      Nature of cuisine and target audience: Ethnic driven, seasonal, sustainable, complex, prix fixe, trend driven, broadly accessible.

7)      Owner or management knowledge and level of professionalism.

8)      Location: Central, neighborhood or suburban, rural or remote location, non-urban, mall.

9)      Destination, traffic driven or supplemental? The realities of working in a restaurant attached to a night club or tennis club are different than those of working in a freestanding property.

10)   Union / Not organized.

These are just some of the factors which will determine how well you are suited for a position and what the position will do for you not only now and financially but for your future career and how you progress.

If you have found your niche you know by now that the compensation of a job is not just money and benefits and that some of the most valuable early positions are those which pay less money but offer exposure to technique and systems, good training, resume credibility, prestige and connections for your future. The mentor and peer factor of a job determines everything that follows.

The value of these things to you is determined by whether you simply want a job or a career. More on that in the future as well.

Why would you want to work in a restaurant kitchen: For many good reasons early on. This is where your theory and dreams meet reality. This is where your training meets your trenches and you put substance on your desires to cook. Your early environments determine your future situations.

Restaurant kitchens tend to be, for want of a better term, more fun than other locations. The adrenalin rush of the kitchen slam is heady and satisfying.  They are by far the best path  to eventual chef ownership. You learn in other people’s properties what you will practice in your own.

Restaurant generally allow the chef to be involved and have some control over the entire process from menu idea to truck to plate. More than any other venue, restaurant kitchens permit their chefs to own their product.

Restaurants provide visibility. Do not mistake them for your personal stage where you can enhance your profile at the cost of some poor owner, but people know who cooks where (it’s practically a fetish among some these days). You get this kind of exposure in no other area of the industry. (Food TV is not an area of the Food and Beverage Industry, but is media pure and simple.)

What are the challenges: Many. Restaurant kitchens are hard task masters. The hours are generally long, the work hard and often hot. The physical challenges make restaurant positions even harder on people who have reached the age of bad backs, flat feet and varicose veins. Like all areas of the industry, restaurant work rewards attitude and persistence and focus. The ideal candidate for most businesses at the early time is the “heads down guy”, who does what he is told without much talk. Obviously not everyone fits. The attitude in many locations is direct and harsh with scant appreciation for your special needs or aptitudes. If you need strokes to flourish, don’t think restaurant.

The hours are not conducive to family or social life. Restaurants expect you to be there when they need you there.

Although this seems to have lessened over the past two decades, restaurant kitchen culture still promotes the fast lane – substance, late night drinking, other habits which are not really healthy. Some of the best regarded chefs have gone through this and come out victorious, but if you tend to this and can’t avoid the peer pressure which demands it, you need to hear and believe that a lot more promising and talented people end up on the cutting room floor.

Where do you go from there: Up to a point anywhere you want to. Choosing, getting into and creating a stable track record in properties recognized for professional kitchens and quality cuisines is the path to advancement in just about any career direction, whether restaurants, clubs, hotels, food service or food sales. Almost all chefs who succeed in their own properties learned their craft in restaurant kitchens. Up until and often past the position of sous chef you can switch to other areas of the industry. Once, however, you have established your career in restaurant, you will find it more difficult to step into other channels of the industry.

How do you get into restaurant jobs: This is a fairly stupid question, but as we have asked them about other locations, it’s appropriate. The rough answer is by working in them. You start at the bottom, either beginning,  usually relatively young, to work in lower level jobs such as dish washer or pantry, or you enter a restaurant kitchen during or after a culinary education. If you are at a better culinary school, they may be able to help you find an entry level job in the better kitchens. You don’t get to be a chef by graduating from culinary school or by working for a year or two working as a cook. Not even if you are very, very smart.

Your comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

  3 Responses to “Culinary Career Choices: Restaurants”

Comments (3)
  1. I learned invaluable lessons in each of my restaurant positions. That knowledge translated into opening up my own business and knowing what to do and what not to do!

  2. I am delighted. Thanks. Jo Lynne

  3. Great stuff as always. Just so you know, I’m printing out every page of this site and putting it in a binder to use if I go back to teaching.