Author: Chef Perry Perkins
The difference between an adequate chef and a great chef is a lot like comparing a recreational skier to an Olympic medalist. Both participate in the same sport, but the investment in learning and training, and the dedication to perfecting their chef skills, are vastly different.
Great chefs are often described as having a "magic touch", or a "sixth-sense" when it comes to food, which elevates them, and their dishes, above the rest of the crowd.
Are these cooks born with special talents and gifts, or are they simply reflective of better training and dedicated practice of the craft?
I believe it's a little of both.
Those who are recognised as having "the right stuff" in the kitchen often have natural abilities (speed, stamina, manual dexterity, focus, patience, etc.) which, when combined with passion, dedication, and education, give them a head start on those who don't.
If your goal is to be a "great" chef, there are a lot of characteristics and key chef skills to be mastered to reach that pinnacle of the culinary arts.
Here are a few of them:
While great chefs are always open to innovation and new techniques, they balance it with a conscious and consistent effort to improve fundamental skills. They understand that, just like that Olympic skier, the "race" is merely the final link in a long chain of training, learning, and practice. Years of arduous work and commitment go into those final few moments.
Likewise, the best chefs not only have strong skills in all areas of food preparation, presentation, and supervision, they are also making a constant effort to hone those basic skills and better themselves.
If you spend your time away from the kitchen, buried in cooking books and magazines, watching food television, and talking for hours about food with anyone who will listen...that's a good sign.
Watch some of the greatest culinarians at work and you'll quickly notice that they love what they do. Their work is simply that of a machine; slicing, dicing, searing, and sautéing.
They play with the food, touching and fondling it, smelling it, tasting everything at every step of the process. They are visibly excited at the sight of good ingredients and possess a child-like fascination with the alchemy that transforms those ingredients into great food.
Cooking, as we all know, is a fusion of both art and science, and those who do it the best are constantly asking themselves, "What if...?"
The best chefs aren't satisfied to simply follow the same handful of recipes over and over again. Instead they are driven by an innate desire to improve and leave their mark on every dish; testing, perfecting, and making it their own.
It's this creativity in preparation and presentation, this constant testing of the boundaries, that births new dishes, flavours, and techniques, and keeps us and our customers excited and coming back for more. Being a great chef is not just an accomplishment, it's a never-ending daily challenge, and the best of the best meet that challenge head on with creativity and innovation.
And, they inspire their crew to have that same sense of invention.
A career line-cook can get away with simply preparing acceptable food, presenting it pleasingly, and staying on top of his tickets, it takes more than flipping steaks to make a great chef.
Most executive chefs will readily agree that the cooking and presentation are the easy part of the job. The chef is the supervisor, manager, planner, teacher, accountant, scheduler, bodyguard, therapist, hall-monitor, referee, and parole officer of the kitchen.
In addition to the culinary requirements, executive chef skills include strategic planning, spending, and cost-reduction to grow a successful business. Without this "head for business" the chef cannot garner the resume and accomplishments which pave the path to success.
Equally important, they have a super-human ability to maintain focus and keep a cool head while constantly switching between hats, no matter how deep in the weeds that the kitchen might be.
Another important quality of a great chef is the understanding that their success is predicated by the success of everyone and everything involved in the kitchen process.
They can switch from critiquing the perfect brulee crust, to grabbing a pipe wrench when a sink starts leaking and do so without batting an eye.
The idea that I'm "too good" to do menial but critical work, is the harbinger of a chef who values their own sense of importance more highly than the success of the kitchen...not the makings of a great chef.
Our job is to facilitate the kitchen, not to dominate it.
Speaking of ego, another mark of a genuinely great chef is how well they learn from constructive criticism. (It's hard, I know...) This ability to learn and adapt graciously points to a mature chef who places the good of the restaurant and its guests above his own vanity.
A great chef pays close attention to minute details, whether it's preparing an exceptional demi-glace or regularly checking date labels in the walk-in. In fact, words like obsessive, driven, and compulsive are frequently used in conjunction with the upper echelons of the culinary world (you know who you are!)
They understand that every snowflake is a potential avalanche and maintain rigid standards of foresight to avoid any disruption to the smooth flow of their kitchen.
The best chefs can glance at a half-dozen plates in the pass-through and immediately identify the tiniest of mistakes, from a missing garnish to a drop of sauce on the rim of a bowl. It's instinct, born from years of focus and discipline.
Constant attention to these characteristics and technical skills is a sure path to becoming a great chef. Work hard and stay dedicated to being better every day, every shift, and that gold medal is within your reach!
We have you covered from that first shift right through to reaching Exec Chef status. Check out our jackets for the job here.
About the author: Chef Perry P. Perkins, is a third-generation professional chef, instructor, and cookbook author.
At Chef Works, we are driven by those who are inspired by all things culinary. Fueled by the belief that every culinary professional deserves the right apparel and tools to enhance the work they do. We understand that the recipe for excellence goes far beyond simple ingredients.
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