There is no doubt that one of the most demanding work environments is that of the professional kitchen. Apart from the physical conditions - immense heat and tight spaces- they are the domain of hard-working individuals dedicated to a culinary craft who have no time to spare, or indeed waste, on those who do not share the same commitment.
To understand whether the chef’s arena is the right fit, here are some important traits and skills a professional chef should possess to achieve success.
What Qualities Make a Professional Chef?
Professional chefs require a broad range of skills to be of utmost use in a professional kitchen. If they wish to progress to a higher position over time, they must also develop a further skill set, including a keen business acumen. The following is a list of skills and traits generally expected of a professional chef. They vary in scope from those just entering the kitchen to those holding positions of high esteem such as executive chef.
Skills and Attributes
- Excellent sense of smell and taste
Manual dexterity: Being able to work skillfully with one's hands and acquire the right knife skills
Decisive: Quick to make decisions in a fast-paced environment
Problem solver: Even the best kitchens in the world run into unexpected hazards and issues. A chef must be willing to solve these issues on their feet, alongside their normal duties
Multitasker: Can juggle a variety of tasks at once
Humility: Open to learn from others, understanding that in order to be at the top level, a chef never stops learning
Excellent time management: In the fast-paced kitchen environment, there's no time to be lost between managing meals, preparation, cleaning and other staff
Creative: From planning menus to experimenting with new techniques or methods of presentation, this is a vital trait
Cleanliness: An acute understanding about the importance of a sanitary space and how to adhere to practices that ensure this
Focus: Especially needed when perfecting cooking techniques such as flambéing or meticulous mise en place preparation
Accepting of criticism: And willing to learn from it
Physically Fit: A chef is expected to be on their feet long hours of the day, and staying fit helps ward off fatigue on long or busy shifts
Tenacity and strong work ethic: To endure long shifts on their feet
Self-sacrificing: To cope with long hours - often at night and during holiday periods - giving up time with friends and family
- Business sense: An understanding of how to be cost-effective at all times, manage a team etc
Apart from developing the right skills, an excellent chef understands the important role respect plays in developing their craft.
Respect comes in many forms in the culinary field. Here are just two ways a professional chef exhibits this virtue.
For the Profession
Most professional kitchens operate according to a clearly defined hierarchy modelled on the French ‘brigade’ system. There is a chief in command (head chef) with many cooks working under them. A true professional understands their role in this system and acquiesces to it without fuss. This shows true respect for the traditions behind the system. The same can be said for the processes they undertake in learning the cooking trade. All take time, focus and tenacity to develop but understanding there are no shortcuts in this process is one of the best ways to show respect for the hundreds of years of heritage behind them.
A well-honed kitchen runs very much like an engine. It needs all its parts to be well greased and to work together to function optimally. Every person within a kitchen plays an important role in the final result – the completed dish in front of the customer. Having respect for one’s peers and the part they play to achieve this is paramount. If one person in the kitchen fails to pull their weight, the side is let down and the customer suffers. Realizing and respecting this is key when working in a professional kitchen environment.
While taking responsibility for one’s attitude to work is extremely important, the same can be said for the equipment needed to perform the job.
Knives, Pots, Pans and Skillets
Ask any professional chef and they will likely tell you the most vital asset in their kitchen is their set of knives. Without them, they simply could not perform their job. Looking after a professional set of knives requires diligence in properly cleaning and sharpening them after every shift. While this may sound arduous after a long shift on one’s feet, it is a responsibility no professional chef should shirk.
Like many other professions, the chef’s uniform is an iconic representation of the hundreds of years of history and tradition behind it. As such, it is an outward reflection of the pride a chef holds for their craft. Showing a commitment to keeping a full professional chefs uniform well laundered and in good condition is one way to do this.
Understanding, Expertise and Knowledge
There are a number of areas in which a chef can demonstrate their culinary ability and elevate themselves into the professional sphere. Many of these are to do with their understanding of the following:
Understanding the Importance of Training
While many chefs learn on-the-job and work their way up the kitchen hierarchy, formal training in the culinary arts plays a significant part in a professional cooking career. Training is the backbone to developing the right skills needed to be an expert chef. In many instances, it is difficult to progress very far in a kitchen without at least some form of certification or degree-based training.
The Importance of the Professional Kitchen System
As mentioned previously, most professional kitchens operate on a military-style system with defined roles and a variety of different cooking stations. To be able to achieve the status of a fully-fledged professional chef, experience in each station is highly encouraged. It provides a well-rounded understanding of a full restaurant kitchen, which helps if one’s goal is to run their own in the future.
It is easy to see there are many qualities that make up a professional chef from their skills to their attitude and outlook on their profession. Combining them all produces a formidable force and one that is needed in a professional kitchen space to produce outstanding quality dishes to wow discerning diners.