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How to Become a Sous Chefs

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.

Culinary Arts

Sous chef job description

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. Here are some of the job responsibilities of the sous chef:

  • The general role is to orchestrate the smooth-running of a restaurant.
  • They are responsible for maintaining an organized cooking environment with a well-trained and disciplined staff.
  • They may be involved in the hiring and firing of staff.
  • They may take care of the buying of produce needed to execute the menu of the restaurant.
  • 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.

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
  • The pastry sous chef is strictly responsible for desserts and pastries as well as the pastry staff.

Being a sous chef thus requires a great sense of responsibility and demands that one be organized, informed, and knowledgeable about the hospitality industry. 

Sous chef training and educational requirements

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.

Several sous chef training programs and degree programs are available at culinary schools and community colleges throughout the U.S. offering specific culinary management programs. Many 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.

Sous chef salary and job outlook

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 average for chefs through 2024. 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 add 1.3 million jobs by 2020.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May of 2014 the median annual wage of the approximately 118,130 chefs and head cooks was $45,880. The top 10 percent of earners made more than $73,720. Sous chefs working in hotel restaurants or banquets reported higher earnings than those in standalone restaurants.

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.

Sources:

  1. Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
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