What is being a baker or sous-chef like?
May 28, 2008 4:17 PM   Subscribe

What has been your experience working as a baker, sous-chef, pastry chef, or on prep staff in a bakery or restaurant? What was the job like? The hours? What skills did you need to know before being hired, and what was OK for you to learn on the job? Did you have any significant professional training before beginning, or was it all self-taught? I have discovered a love of baking and cooking, and am considering going into the field for a couple of years. Is this feasible to do so without culinary school?

I've been a life-long baker, though nothing more complicated than basic cakes and cookies. About six months ago, I began working in a cafe where in addition to line preparation (i.e. making sandwiches) I've been doing basic food and baking prep work as well. Nothing fancy, mostly baking cookies and making soup, but I've learned a lot about food and baking in general and it's awoken a passion within me that's lasted quite a bit longer than any of my other interests.

I'm not yet ready to give up my current career path and go to culinary school. I'd like to be able to dabble part-time or full-time in a bakery or restaurant while pursuing my current educational goals. But I don't know if this is even feasible, as I'm not sure of what qualifications I'll need to join a "real" bakery or restaurant in any position above dishwasher, nor what kind of hours, pay, or workload to expect. Can you help?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total)
I worked as a bread-baker starting when I was in high school. It was an artisinal bakery (before there were such things, really, or at least before they were called that) in the Boston area; I knew the owner because she catered a party at my mom's office and I found hanging out with the catering staff much more entertaining than hanging out with the office people.

I had no skills, really. I knew how to cook, a little bit, but I was...15? 16? She trained me, and within a few weeks I was working the afternoon/evening shift by myself (it wasn't a retail operation at the time, so no customers). I prepped things for the next day and made several breads that kinda needed to sit overnight.

I did that for a couple of years, then segued into a sous chef/prep cook job at a fancy prepared foods/deli kind of place. Worked as a sandwichmaker/prep cook/short order cook all through college. In the summers, I worked as a baker in a pizza place; I had to start the dough at 3 am, and I was usually done by 10 am.

This was back in the 80s, before everyone and their uncle wanted to open their own restaurant, before food porn was all over TV. Almost no one I worked with had been to culinary school - it was all learn-as-you-go, and get jobs by knowing people and/or being willing to work free or cheap for a chance to learn something new. There is much, much more competition now, I would imagine, from all the folks coming out of culinary schools.

Baking was hard, hot work. Very physical (I've never made pastries for work, so I'm talking only bread here). The hours can be very weird, depending on the needs of the bakery. The summer I spent going to bed at 8 pm (still light out!) so I could get up and be at work by 3 am was kind of...unpleasant.

You lift heavy stuff a lot - 100 lb bags of flour, giant mixing bowls full of dough, etc. - and you're on your feet...all the time. Good shoes and good mats make a difference, but still. I was 15-22 when I was doing this, and I'd come home from a shift completely wiped out, especially in the summer when it was - did I mention it was hot in the bakery?

Still. That first baking job remains one of my all-time favorite jobs I've ever had (and I love what I do now, which is completely different). If you really think you have that passion, check out bakeries in your city - small, independent, owner-operated places. Ask about an apprenticeship. If you approach people who love what they do with an indication that you think you might love it too, you might end up with a job, even with no or little experience.
posted by rtha at 4:38 PM on May 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

After college, I worked as a line cook in a nice restaurant with very limited experience - and I was working next to people that had graduated from culinary academies.

I'd advise you try to get a job in a bakery or a kitchen and see if it suits you - especially before you start spending time and money on culinary school.

If you work in a restaurant, you will probably work afternoons and evening, including the weekends. You will get paid an hourly wage that's probably less than $15/hour.
posted by gnutron at 4:58 PM on May 28, 2008

You should read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain for an inside look at professional kitchens.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:19 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mr. saffry here:

I've been involved in professional cooking for about 13 years, a Chef for the last 7. I spent 3 years in the middle doing an American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship. I would either recommend this route, or simple passion, persistence and lots of OTJ experience over the Culinary school route. Either way, it will require sacrifices. Working in the hospitality business is fun, exciting and challenging but it doesn't always pay well, and it nearly always means long hours away from the rest of your life when all your family/friends are off. You'll work nights, weekends, holidays. There is heavy-lifting, sharp/hot things to deal with, constant time-pressure and pressure to excel. Despite all this, and I'm just trying to be honest and realistic, I love being a Chef. I like the kind of people who gravitate to kitchen. I enjoy the challenge of creating new menus, the precision of maintaining a consistent high quality product. I even like the heat of being flat out busy during service with no time to think. If this sounds good to you, go for it!

All this being said, all I really want to do is build my own wood-fired oven and bake bread. That will come in a few years and represents its own exciting intellectual and physical challenges too.
posted by saffry at 5:39 PM on May 28, 2008

I can't stress getting an education, and also planning to aim high, and be strategic about your goals, enough.

I cooked through university at high volume restaurants. At one kitchen I was working at, I saw a long-time employee working who worked as the de facto restaurant manager cry like a baby (he was pretty drunk) the day he turned 30 - he was still working in a kitchen. He is now part-owner of that same restaurant, but another waiter there, who had vowed to own his own restaurant some day, still works as a waiter at another (albeit trendy) restaurant in town.

There is a labour shortage these days, so it will probably be easy to get your foot in the door, starting as a prep cook cutting vegetables and making soups, etc. On your resume, you will have to stress:

- attention to detail (the difference between rare and medium rare, and overcooked)

- strong organization skills (with orders on the same bill, you have to gauge and plan the order to cook things so that they are all ready at the same time for the server)

- motivation and the ability to be a self-starter (it's no good if you run out of product during the middle of a rush; you also have to clean as you go or risk spending an extra hour or two cleaning up at the end of your shift)

- teamwork and a positive attitude (working in a kitchen is not always fun, but you have to make the best of it)

A love of food is a given, but a very basic prerequisite.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:07 PM on May 28, 2008

Coming back in to say: A few years ago, between jobs in my field, I worked for a while at the Whole Foods in my city. There's a culinary school here, and a number of my co-workers were CCA students or recent alums.

Their skills were really good, and so was their knowledge (we worked in the specialty department, which required a fairly high level of knowledge about cheese and wine, and how to cook that pasta, the best olives to serve, how to make toast (no, I'm not kidding) blahblahblah). Their debt load was huge, and they were making $12 an hour.

Don't ignore your education, but I'd say get at least a year under belt of working before you decide about a full culinary school. Take classes ad hoc, by all means - learn some cake decorating, sushi, French, definitely some business courses, etc. But you're going to be making poverty-level wages with or without a degree, and you might as well make really sure you want it before you go (too much) into debt for it.
posted by rtha at 6:29 PM on May 28, 2008

Culinary school incurs a massive debt that is simply not worth it. I'm going to be paying it off for 20 years. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have gone, but then I didn't know any better. You've got some experience, so call around to various restaurants or bakeries and ask to come in and stage for a night or two. Once you find one you like, see if you can get a job there.

Culinary school might be a good idea for someone fresh out of high school, but it sounds like you're well past that. You don't need it. Save yourself the money. Culinary school isn't as glamorous or as thrilling as it might seem to be. And it doesn't hold all that much value in the industry. All that matters to chefs is passion and work ethic.
posted by BradNelson at 7:51 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Large bagel shop that served the state... Smoke a bowl before starting at like 4am. Heavy lifting, 50 pound bags, dragging around a couple of tons. Start early and make mixes for the day. Start production a couple of hours later. Lift hundreds of pounds of dough out of the mixer and slice it up and feed the machine. Scrub pans. Make boxes. Take a break and get stoned, have your boss come out and join you. Go back in and toss the next batch in. Make the next, check the proofing oven, spend a few hours grabbing bagels off the machine. Tweak the machine with your leatherman. Don't mix the yeast with the salt. Take home all the bagels you want. Time to coat those bagels with the seeds. Gah! lunch time, eat a bagel and smoke a bowl. Go help out in the kosher kitchen where knives and such are labeled. Grab some bread and go home. Happy roommates that you brought back the good stuff, every day.

My bakery experience... YMMV
posted by zengargoyle at 1:47 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

My wife was baking wedding cakes at 13. No formal training. Long story short, we opened a from-scratch neighborhood bakery. We sold it last year.

As far as your career, can you expand the baking duties at your current job or do you want to go somewhere else? If you apply somewhere else, stress the professionalism and desire to learn and you should be fine. So many people apply. So few can show up on a regular basis. If you have opposable thumbs and are reliable it'll take care of itself.

I will tell you this though -- it's very hard work and there's no money in it. Pastry chefs make okay money, but that's a whole other level of production. You have to do this because you love it.

One other thing to consider would be doing it out of your home and supplying coffee shops with things like cookies, cakes and muffins. You'd need to check with the health department about the feasibility of that, but that might be a way to stretch your skills and make some money. Feel free to mail me with questions.
posted by Atom12 at 3:25 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I started in a restaurant kitchen a month ago, having worked as a server for the last 5 years. My cooking experience was only in catering, which isn't really very similar to restaurant work. the hours are just different enough that it's been a pretty major adjustment, and we're not even in the high season yet: instead of working 3:30-11, 5 days a week, I decide when to come in based on what needs to be done. If I have to bake 2 cakes and a bunch of flan and make new vinaigrettes in addition to my regular prep list, I might be there 12-11. My feet and knees hurt. My hands have tiny little nicks and burns on them (no major injuries yet). I smell like kitchen (kind of like cooking oil) all the time. All the chef coats are gigantic and make me look like a little kid playing dress-up. I'm making about half of what I made as a server, but I get to eat whatever I want, on or off the menu. I have no foreseeable full days off, because if things need to be done, I have to do them; the other kitchen people have their own prep lists to take care of. Yesterday, I undercooked cornbread and felt like an idiot. A week ago, I fucked up a cake and felt like an idiot. Because I'm new, on nights without a dishwasher, I'm the last one in the kitchen, scrubbing pans, pulling handfuls of sloppy food out of the dish sinks, wiping and re-wiping stainless steel surfaces. The servers, whom I knew before I started, tell me I'm doing a good job. My fellow kitchen workers are good, friendly guys who answer questions when I have them, but refrain from commenting on the job I'm doing. Maybe my friends are just being nice. The restaurant world is strange and wonderful; I want one of my own someday. It's so nice to be learning something.
posted by pieliza at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You should check out Eggbeater - the blog by Shuna Lydon, a working pastry chef in San Francisco. She incredibly passionate about what she does and she has written some great posts about working in the kitchen and attending culinary school. The whole blog is a fantastic read.
posted by poissonrouge at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been working at a baker at a small restaurant for about 7-8 months. Right now I'm nursing a really painful burn on the inside of my upper arm.

It's currently 9:50 on Friday night and I have to call and see if they need me to come in and work in the morning. I go in sometime between 4 and 5 am. My hours are dependent on how busy they are.

Because there is a small kitchen I have been asked to work when there is few people there - very early or late at night.

I am responsible for supplying two kinds of bread, 3 kinds of pies, bread pudding, creme anglaise cakes, scones, and pounds of pie dough- plus any extra specials I want to do.

I don't have to make massive quantities so the work isn't killer physical but it has given me a little carpul tunnel (I hand knead 2-3 dozen loaves per shift). It is exacting and stressful when it comes to bread and baking to appropriate temps as well as making perfect pie crust and cooking anglaise quickly without it breaking. There are some skills that only experience can teach you.

It's fun to create delicious things for people to enjoy, but lonely as I work alone at night. I listen to a lot of books on CD. Some of it is stressful - if you measure wrong, mix up your flavors or mess up the bread you often don't know until hours later and you it's too late to toss it out and remake it the way you would with a stove top dish.

working from your home was a possibility I was thinking about but remember that making anything in quantity, which is the only way to really make money, requires resources that an average person doesn't have. A professional size hobart mixer, extra large convection ovens, 12-24 loaf pans, full sheet pans. 50lb bags of flour, sugar, butter, spices, milk. You would probably need a freezer for storage. It can be done but will require some invesment. Again this is if you want to really earn some scratch.

I do not get paid very well at all.
posted by Formiga at 7:05 PM on June 20, 2008

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