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Tips on becoming a "self-trained" chef

Okay Im 26 years of age and my passion is cooking. Every since I was a child the kitchen has been my 1st home. But at this point n my life I have a lot of debt and can't afford school. So I want to teach myself. Is it possible?? I need help and a lot of advice. Please feel free to comment I accept all critism.

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  1. 1. Learn how to select the freshest ingredients.
    2. Read a lot of books.
    3. Watch other people cook dishes that you like.
    4. Experiment.
    5. Practice, practice, practice.

    1. I'm not sure where you're located but lots of chef friends of mine started out working working for free in restaurants. You can also go to free demos at markets and at places like Williams-Sonoma. They can be fun! Good luck.

      1. "Find out sooner rather than later. Work—for free, if necessary—in a busy kitchen. Any kitchen that will have you will do—in this case, a busy Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s or any old place will be fine. Anybody who agrees to let your completely inexperienced ass into their kitchen for a few months—and then helpfully kicks it repeatedly and without let-up—will suffice. After six months of dishwashing, prep, acting as the bottom-rung piss-boy for a busy kitchen crew—usually while treated as only slightly more interesting than a mouse turd—if you still like the restaurant business and think you could be happy among the ranks of the damned? Then, welcome." - Anthony Bourdain

        More here: http://ruhlman.com/2010/09/so-you-wan...

        Much more in his books, especially "Kitchen Confidential".

        And in the meantime, if you haven't yet, take a knife skills class, and practice, practice, practice!

        19 Replies
          1. re: c oliver

            I came upon the book years after it was written, and just devoured it! When I need reminding, I keep going back to the chapter "How to Cook like the Pros". I love these two parts in particular; he's not pulling any punches, either.

            “Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don't deserve to eat garlic.”

            "Stock is the backbone of good cooking. You need it - and you don't have it....Make stock already....Life without stock is barely worth living..."

            1. re: mcsheridan

              Listen to the audiobook if you haven't. He's the reader.

              1. re: c oliver

                I'll have to see if my local library has it for loan. Thanks.

          2. re: mcsheridan

            Such appetizing imagery. Such a classy gentleman, St. Anthony.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              Yep. That's what comes from an upper class, Ivy League background.

              1. re: c oliver

                There no longer is an upper class. Only crass, ultra-rich vulgarians, of which Bourdain is one. Yippee.

                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                  I was referring to his family and his education.

            2. re: mcsheridan

              I agree you need to work in a kitchen doing what ever it takes.
              I disagree with working for free. Never, ever work for free, cheap money, Ok, but free, never. Money should be paid regularly no matter how little.
              That has to be one of the weirdest things I have read numerous times about kitchens. Come work a shift (for free) and we will see what you have to offer. Besides being illegal in most instances, it should be an insult to your intelligence.

              1. re: genoO

                I guess you haven't heard that most (non-medical) internships these days are unpaid.

                1. re: genoO

                  working a stage shift is just like an audition. those are always free and plenty of folks don't make the cut.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Working an audition is nothing close to working a shift at a business, no matter what business.
                    Any person who is so insecure in their abilities as to work for no pay deserves what they ask for. Washing dishes for free to learn how to chop onions is wrong.
                    I always seen to read about kitchen help complaining about low pay and long hours. So a good start into this industry would be to give your time and effort away.
                    That's just my opinion. I have done many jobs through out my life in many different industries and no one has ever had the balls to ask me to work for free. It just is not they way business is done outside a kitchen.

                    1. re: genoO

                      What about unpaid internships? They used to get paid, not any more. If you want the experience and possibly the inside track, you do what you need to do.

                      1. re: genoO

                        nobody makes you wash dishes for free and you don't stage to wash dishes. you stage for a cook's position in a good restaurant. this isn't something done by a chain set-up, but primarily by places that are chef-owned and driven. they don't have you slaving away since you don't know the food anyway and it's one or two shifts. it's a few hours out of your life to take a shot at something you really want. you may or may not have what it takes to work for a particular chef and/or you may decide you don't want to work for the guy.

                        if it's a kitchen in which you really want to work and learn, refusing to do it out of principle simply means you won't ever get the job.

                        it is what it is.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          Yup, plus a restaurant is one place where no matter what your resume says and how well you say you can cook, talk mean nothing and what makes it onto the plate is everything. It's not about confidence, it's about the end result.

                        2. re: genoO

                          Doing a Stage is as much for the person trying to get into the Kitchen as it is for the Restaurant.
                          I have done a Stage and been offered the Job but turned it down because I did not like the Culture in the Kitchen.

                      2. re: genoO

                        I bet there are plenty of aspiring chefs who would pay to work for great chefs like Boulud, Bouley, Keller, Ripert, et al.

                        1. re: zackly

                          i worked for 3 different james beard award winners in boston. everyday we got calls, resumes and walk-ins from people willing to work for free to learn.

                          1. re: zackly

                            There are established chefs who would work for free, just for the sake of continuing education. I would. Too bad Francisco Migoya just closed his chocolate shop, I would have loved to stage with him.

                      3. I went to cooking school for 2 yrs only to find it back-breaking, dirty work that was too much for this five-foot-two gal. Don't even consider it unless you're in top physical form. There is no self-teaching for what happens in a restaurant kitchen.

                        1. 1. Pay off your debt.
                          2. Master knife skills
                          3. Pay off your debt.
                          4. Build your stamina
                          5. Pay off your debt
                          6. Improve your skills of observing by eye and listening by ear
                          7. Pay off your debt

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Karl S

                            Knife skills are something that is very important I agree with Karl.

                            Know the difference between the different cuts, dices, etc.

                            buy good quality chef knives and take care of them.

                          2. Do you mean that you want to teach yourself how to cook, or that you want to work your way up to chef de cuisine at a restaurant?

                            If the first, books, practice, practice, practice.

                            If the second, books, work, work, work, practice, practice, practice, learn, learn, learn. Pay your dues, start at the bottom, work your way up.

                            1. A chef is a cook with executive responsibility over a professional kitchen. To get there, you have to train under other professionals, academically or through apprenticeship and on-the-job learning.

                              Julia Child was not a chef and she knew it, despite the name given to her TV show. It is irksome to many real chefs when dilettantes call themselves "home chefs". A parent who removes his child's splinter does not call himself a "home physician".

                              You can certainly gain knowledge from books. cooking shows, and cooking videos but all that does is qualify you to get a low-level job in a professional kitchen. You can't jump the line.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: greygarious

                                "A chef is a cook with executive responsibility over a professional kitchen. "

                                I think that's an "executive chef" and that there are other levels of "chef."

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  You are right there. Almost everyone in the Kitchen has Chef as the part of their position title ie: Chef de Partie(line cook) Demi Chef (apprentice)

                                    1. re: chefj

                                      My understanding of chef as involving management in addition to cooking seems to be borne out by the former and current professionals who participated in this prior thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7315...

                                2. You can teach yourself to cook, but you can't teach yourself to be a chef.
                                  I love to cook at home, but I think I'd crumble in a professional kitchen.
                                  It think it's trial by fire, or nothing at all.

                                  1. As Greyerious has said. Get a Job and get one in a good Restaurant. Do not waste your time and slaving at a Appleby's That kind of experience does not really help you get into the kind of Cooking that most People aspire to.
                                    You will have to start down pretty low in the Kitchen with no experience but you should still be able to get paid(not much though). Hopefully a position in the Pantry or as Commis .
                                    When you are interviewing make sure that express what your Goals are to the Chef I have had a few novices in my Kitchens over the years, some have done very well some realized it was not for them.
                                    Understand that it is physically and mentally a hard Job, but if you love it, it can be very rewarding(not usually monetarily though).
                                    It will also take you many Years to move into a Sous Chef or a Chef de Cuisine position. There is a lot to learn in a professional Kitchen and you really need master your your Skills on the way up and that takes Time and Practice

                                    1. Hi, and welcome to Chowhound.
                                      I suggest that you find a chain restaurant with a robust training program. Plan for a few years with the organization. Work your way through the various stations and positions.
                                      Read about food, food science, food politics and food security.
                                      Taste, both new things and the same thing, as often as you can.
                                      Spend time eating other people's food.
                                      Spend time and energy to cook and eat your own food.
                                      Grow something to eat.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: KarenDW

                                        If you're not in excellent physical shape forget it.
                                        Even if you are forget it.
                                        Find some one who will let you just stand back out of the way and watch what does on in a busy commercial kitchen.
                                        Do that for a week.
                                        You will never think about food the same way as before.

                                        1. re: KarenDW

                                          The chain restaurant is a good point. In his memoir, The Apprentice, which I highly recommend to the OP, Jacques Pepin discusses his decision to work for Howard Johnson rather than as the White House chef.
                                          He says the HoJo experience taught him about scaling recipes for large amounts, budgeting, and administration, all invaluable training that he would not have gotten in Washington DC.

                                        2. As others have suggested - find a local restaurant that will take you on either as an employee (no doubt initially doing the most menial tasks) or working for no wages (no doubt doing the most menial tasks). Explain to them why. When you have some confidence, ask the chef if you can demonstrate some of the skills you've acquired since a child. Ask her/him if you can prepare some food for a real service. Be prepared to work long hard hours for little reward.

                                          When you've gained some experience and acquired industry skills, you may well be in a position to be promoted either at that place or somewhere else. At that point, you'll be earning a wage and be a chef, albeit one still at the bottom of the chefs' pecking order. Most chefs work long hard hours for comparitively little pay, throughout their career.

                                          Where I am in the world, most chefs start training at either college or as a fulltime apprentice in a kitchen. It would be hard, but not impossible, for someone "self trained" to break into the business.

                                          1. Liking to cook at home is a lot different than cooking in a restaurant.The first thing you must do is get a job working in a good restaurant's kitchen alongside a chef who likes to share their knowledge (most do) even if you have to do it for free but remember a restaurant kitchen is not a classroom and the first priority is serving good food, not teaching you. I graduated from the CIA in 1976 and THEN learned how to cook alongside European chefs in restaurant kitchens. Early in his career I worked with David Bouley in Greenwich, CT. This guy had no formal training but his motivation was unmatched. He'd work 6 days, at least 70 hours then on his one day off schlep into NYC @ 4:00 AM to work for free @ with a French baker/patisserie. He networked himself into gigs with some of the top chefs in the world at that time both here and in Europe. He had "The Eye of The Tiger" Conversely,if I had my life to do over I surely wouldn't have chosen to go to chef's school. It's a tough life with lots of long hours, low pay in the beginning and stress. You need to find out if this is what you truly want by working in the field. Good luck!

                                            1. OP, I'm curious. Are you willing to start out washing dishes and other such menial tasks?

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. what is your goal? do you want a restaurant career or to be mack-daddy in the kitchen at home?

                                                1. if it's your passion, you already know what to do.

                                                  seek out the person that loves cooking more than anyone you know. who loves to cook that is close to you? anyone? family member, friend, friends' mom, the cook at your local eatery?
                                                  hang out with them if you can-watch them if you can-help while they cook if they'll let you-get your hands in there.
                                                  what's your favorite thing to eat? steak, chicken fricassee, tuna melt, omelets, eggs Benedict? perfect > that dish.
                                                  read a lot.
                                                  try to gain access to working in a kitchen of a local eatery.
                                                  can I help in any way? chop, portion, peel? that stifles many as it's a lot of work.
                                                  have easy non committal dinner parties with friends.
                                                  ask them each to drop off 1 thing early party day then you make up dinner:
                                                  see how you do and what you create with:
                                                  fruit/salad ingreds

                                                  you'll get better plus you'll see if you really do have a passion for cooking.

                                                  have a poker party where you see what you'd want to create as appetizers, then get reactions from your friends.

                                                  I have a feeling > you'll do well.

                                                  do keep us up on your progress.

                                                  15 Replies
                                                  1. re: iL Divo

                                                    You're making a grueling career choice sound like an episode of chopped. It's really not an accurate portrayal of the skills necessary in someone else's kitchen.

                                                    1. re: C70

                                                      enjoying to cook at home has zero in common with working in a professional kitchen, but the op never said he/she wants a career out of this?

                                                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                        Once you pointed that out, I realized that was a pretty important piece that is missing. Hopefully OP will return and let us know.

                                                        I've never worked in a professional kitchen but from what I've seen and read, yeah, it doesn't seem like entertaining one's friends is much of a training ground. When I screw up with them, I just pour another round of drinks :)

                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          It's also in order to pour another round when a friend says to you "This food is fantastic! You should open a restaurant."

                                                          1. re: mcsheridan

                                                            I'm way too smart and non-masochistic to ever entertain such a thought. All you have to do is watch a busy professional kitchen in action to know that it's not a game for lightweights. And those of who cook know just how much grunt work goes into that pretty plate sitting in front of you.

                                                          2. re: c oliver

                                                            i went to culinary school in the late 80s -- the era before foodnetwork tv was really a thing. i quickly found out i was ill-suited for boh, but finished anyway. it did help me immensely in my foh career, but throwing poker parties and pot-lucks has nothing to do with working the line in a hot, fast-paced, stressful environment. one in which you make the same few dishes over and over and over all night and each one needs to look exactly the same and your meat temps need to be spot on. (if you're the grill guy.)

                                                            if you are willing to work for free, you might convince some place to hire you to do some prep, but without knife skills (can you cut juliennes and brunois and batonnets ?) it won't be in a scratch kitchen. you *might* get hired to do dishes and they *might* let you do other small tasks in the down-time. eventually.

                                                            it's also a competitive environment and you will be mocked and pranked as the new guy. don't be surprised when somebody sends you to the walk-in for crab cheeks.

                                                            you will work long shifts, for criminally low pay, on your feet in a blazing hot kitchen. you will work nights, weekends and holidays. hours and hours when your family and friends are enjoying leisure time. you may work for chefs who swear, scream, call you names and throw stuff at you. (i did.)

                                                            if all you want is to be an accomplished home cook? than yeah, invite friends over as often as you can afford. watch youtube for techniques. learn to make dishes you really enjoy. practice, practice, practice and have fun.

                                                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                              What you've oh-so-eloquently described :) is just what I imagine. Factor in that I don't suffer fools gladly and would probably throw the stuff back at the SOB, you can see that I wasn't suited for it either :)

                                                          3. re: hotoynoodle

                                                            Well, it remains for the OP to clarify, but "...can't afford school...." would seem to imply a desire for a food career rather than dilettante interest.

                                                            1. re: mcsheridan

                                                              Well, the OP is a single post poster, so . . .

                                                                1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                  Yeah, it appears that either we scared her/him off completely, or that the responses are something s/he doesn't want to hear.

                                                                  1. re: greygarious

                                                                    Well, whether OP responds or not, I hope s/he got what he was looking for.

                                                              1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                i do know people who have taken culinary training to become better cooks at home.

                                                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                  They're out there, for sure, but they generally don't have money problems or go into debt for it.

                                                                  I'd go take courses at CIA or FCI tomorrow if I had the money, and I'm far too old and out of shape to work the line.

                                                                  1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                    I took an Asian dumpling class over a year ago and if there were a school nearby I might take one day courses every once in a while. But for my pleasure. Plus 1 as far as being too old.