The dream many aspiring chefs share is to climb to the top of the culinary ladder and achieve executive chef status. The executive chef can set his or her own schedule, has the creative freedom to follow inspiration to new culinary adventures in menu planning, and receives public accolades. What a great job…if only that was where it truly began and finished. In reality, the job can be incredibly rewarding, but not without equally hard work. The professional who reaches executive or head chef status will encounter long hours, many spent outside of the kitchen, and six-day work weeks as par for the course. A typical day for a chef can be up to 14-hours long and may resemble something like this:
Anytime between 8:00 AM and 9:30 AM, the executive chef walks into the restaurant and confirms that all of the inventory orders were delivered and that every item is satisfactory. If items are missing or unsatisfactory, the executive chef will need to call vendors or visit markets to secure ingredients for service. Soon after the chef’s arrival, the daytime kitchen staff begins to arrive.
The chef is in charge of completing or assigning line tasks, such as firing up slow-warming or high-intensity appliances, preparing labor-intensive sauce or soup recipes, chopping vegetables and mixing seasonings. If there is a special of the day, the executive chef will review how to prepare and plate the dish to the kitchen staff and will prepare a sample for the front of the house staff to see and taste for table side descriptions.
A typical time for lunch service can start anytime between 11:00 AM and 12:00 PM. Guests will begin to arrive and the executive chef will remain near the pass through window to assure each dish is prepared and plated properly. If the chef is part or full owner of the restaurant, he or she may also handle any food complaints or concerns from guests. This requires maintaining a friendly and professional demeanor under stressful conditions.
Once the lunch rush has subsided, the chef has several tasks at hand. Before heading into the office to work on administrative duties, he or she must give direction to the kitchen staff for cleaning up after lunch and preparing for dinner service. The afternoon administrative duties can include addressing staffing issues or needs, ordering more inventory items, menu planning, analyzing food cost percentages or attending business meetings. This is also the time of day that a chef may get the one and only meal during working hours.
Before dinner service begins, the chef may have a quick meeting with all line cooks and sous chefs to go over expected cover counts and the evening’s specials. The chef may need to host a secondary meeting with the front of the house staff to assure everyone has all the correct information about any specials.
As dinner service picks up momentum, the executive chef will likely be standing near the pick up or pass through window to double check each dish as it goes out. If an employee on the line cannot make a scheduled shift, the head chef may be pulling double duty, cooking on the line and checking the final plate presentations. Once dinner service begins to slow down the head chef may go over closing duties with the sous chef. Smaller establishments may keep the salaried kitchen managers on working through close to cut down on hourly labor. The typical day for a restaurant chef in a lunch and dinner service establishment could easily end around 10:30 PM or 11:30 PM.
The chef will wear many hats throughout the day and may see very little time actually cooking in the kitchen on a day-to-day basis. However, many chefs who have been in the business for a long time thrive on the intensity of working in a kitchen. The job can also be very rewarding and allows creative culinary professionals to explore inventive creations. For aspiring chefs who are passionate about what they do, this job has the potential to bring a large sense of satisfaction worthy of the long hours of labor involved.