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Culinary Careers: Spotlight on Sous Chefs

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Most sous chefs have a combination of formal training and experience in the kitchen that prepares them for the demands of the job. Explore sous chef careers and find out how you can work your way up to this important role.

What Does a Sous Chef Do?

Originating from the French word for "under," sous chef means under the chef, making reference to the fact that the sous chef takes orders directly from the executive chef. The traditional organization of a professional kitchen was developed by French chef and restaurateur Georges Auguste Escoffier who used the concept of brigade de cuisine whereby every person in a kitchen was given a specific set of tasks and duties, as well as a formal position of authority, similar to the hierarchical system in the army.

In the hierarchical structure of a kitchen, the sous chef is the second most important person after the executive chef. Sous chefs jobs can slightly vary from venue to venue depending on the size of the venture and its degree of sophistication, but the general role is to orchestrate the smooth-running of a restaurant.

Sous chefs are responsible for maintaining an organized cooking environment with a well-trained and disciplined staff. In certain cases a sous chef's job also encompasses the hiring and firing of staff as well as taking care of the buying of produce needed to execute the menu of the restaurant. A sous chef should know what ingredients are needed on a daily basis to efficiently run a venture and should have become an expert in the purchasing of the best ingredients at the best prices.

During service time, a sous chef is responsible for making sure that the preparation, execution, and plating of all dishes runs smoothly. Additionally, a sous chef is the main intermediary between the staff (cooks and waiters) and the clients in the restaurant. She is the one to report to if a client is unsatisfied with a dining experience and the one to take care of any mishaps in the kitchen, from a large reservation cancellation to a change in daily menu specials. Being a sous chef thus requires a great sense of responsibility and demands that one be organized, informed, and knowledgeable about the hospitality industry.

In large kitchens, there usually is both a general sous chef and a pastry sous chef. The general sous chef is in charge of the amuse-bouche, appetizer and main dish stations and the pastry sous chef is strictly responsible for desserts and pastries as well as the pastry staff. Sous chefs are needed in different types of venues in the hospitality industry and are found in regular restaurants, hotel restaurants, catering businesses, banquet halls and private or country clubs.

How Will Formal Education Help You Become a Sous Chef?

Becoming a sous chef requires a great deal of prior experience in the kitchen. On average, sous chefs have 11 years of experience under their belt, giving them the necessary skills to properly run a kitchen. A culinary degree is often the start of this experience and gives students the basic kitchen skills and discipline to enter the restaurant world.

However, students then need to work as cooks to hone their skills and understand the functioning of a restaurant from a business perspective. Expertise in food preparation, quality delivery, efficiency, hygiene standards and venture profitability are needed to become a sous chef.

Several sous chef degree programs are available at culinary schools and community colleges throughout the U.S. offering specific culinary management programs. A myriad of schools offer restaurant and hospitality management courses which cover a variety of topics such as:

  • Sanitation
  • Cost control
  • Supervision
  • Human resources

A very small difference in salary was noted between those holding culinary degrees and those who didn't. According to an industry survey by StarChefs, degree holders earned about $300 more than non-degree holders. The same survey showed that additional experience like a stage (an apprenticeship which is generally unpaid) or experience working abroad was likely to result in a salary bump of closer to $2,000.

What Is the Job Outlook for Sous Chefs?

The hospitality industry has definitely been hit by the economic hardships of the past couple years. However, the industry has been slowly recovering and a certain degree of growth is now noticeable. According to the United States Department of Labor, job openings are expected to be good for chefs through 2018, driven by an increasing number of restaurants, a growing population, and the demand for convenience. However, openings at better paying, higher-end restaurants are likely to be more competitive.

A survey from the National Restaurant Association also predicts the restaurant industry should begin to see job growth again in 2010 after two years of downturn and should add 1.3 million jobs by 2020.

Average Sous Chef Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 the median annual wage of the approximately 94,300 chefs and head cooks was $40,090. The top 10 percent of earners made more than $69,560.The StarChefs annual salary reports sous chefs earned $42,266 in 209--a decrease of 4.4 percent from 2008 wages. Sous chefs working in hotel restaurants or banquets reported higher earnings than those in standalone restaurants. StarChefs also reports sous chefs worked an average of 57 hours a week.

Working as a sous chef is a challenging career. The hours can be unforgiving, the learning curve can be steep, and the stress tcan be intense. Nonetheless, it can be an extremely gratifying career choice. A sous chef has a great deal of independence and the flexibility to be able to work in a large variety of work environments. A career as a sous chef is also unique in that it offers exposure both to the creativity and bustle of running a restaurant kitchen as well as to the business management aspect of the restaurant world.

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