How To Become a Sous Chef
Updated June 30, 2023
If you enjoy spending your time cooking and inventing new and exciting dishes, you may enjoy a career as a sous chef. However, the job of a sous chef entails much more than preparing dishes: these professionals also manage and train other chefs and cooks and take care of administrative tasks.
In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about how to become a sous chef.
A sous chef works with an executive chef to prepare menus, supervise food preparation, minimize food waste and help hire, train and manage the kitchen staff.
Formal education isn't always a requirement to be a sous chef, but having experience in a kitchen, like as a dishwasher, and obtaining a degree, diploma or certificate, like an Associate in Applied Science in culinary arts, is beneficial.
Aspiring sous chefs pursue apprenticeships, usually through The American Culinary Federation (AFS), after they complete their schooling to gain practical experience in the kitchen and apply the skills and knowledge they learned in culinary art school.
What does a sous chef do?
A sous chef—sous meaning "under" in French—is second-in-command in a kitchen and reports to the executive or head chef. The duties of the sous chef are varied and include training and overseeing other cooks and chefs, assisting the head chef in overseeing food preparation and cooking, managing the inventory and ensuring that all food products are fresh.
The exact duties of a sous chef, however, will depend on those of the head chef, as a sous chef's main role is to assist their boss. For instance, if a head chef tends to be outside of the kitchen often, a sous chef will be more involved with overseeing kitchen operations and deciding on menu items. However, if a head chef is in the kitchen a lot, the executive will be less involved with operations and will focus on things like inventory and may also be working the line.
Depending on where the focus of the head chef lies, the sous chef may also need to be involved in business and administrative tasks. In short, the sous chef will stand in wherever there's a need, whether this means taking over the head chef's duties in their absence or covering for a cook that called in sick. And like the head chef, the sous chef is often on the premises from opening until closing time every day.
The day-to-day duties of these multi-skilled professionals may include:
Training and coordinating kitchen staff
Assisting the head chef with menu creation
Overseeing food preparation and heading the kitchen in the head chef's absence
Ensuring that all cooking stations are clean and stocked
Managing food ordering, ensuring that all products are fresh and within the expiry-date range and that minimum wastage occurs.
Assisting the head chef with the hiring of new kitchen staff
Overseeing the maintenance of equipment
Average salary and working conditions
Sous chefs typically work long hours in overheated and sometimes crowded kitchens. The long hours and the pressure to always deliver great food can make sous chef work challenging. Sous chefs can work in a variety of places, including restaurants, cruise ships, resorts, hotels, private companies and schools.
The salaries of these professionals vary greatly, depending on where they work, their level of experience and their location, and can range from around $17,000 to $95,000 per year. However, the average national salary for sous chefs is $48,587 per year.
How to become a sous chef
There is no fixed route to becoming a sous chef. Some sous chefs have no formal education and advance in their careers through many years of dedicated hard work. Others start their careers by attending culinary art schools where they may earn associate or bachelor's degrees, diplomas or certificates.
However, candidates who received formal training still need to acquire a few years of on-the-job experience before they can assume the role of a sous chef. Although you can decide on the path that works best for you, here are a few steps you can consider taking if you want to become a sous chef:
Finish high school.
Receive formal culinary training.
Complete an apprenticeship.
1. Finish high school
The first step you should take is to obtain your high-school diploma. It is advisable to complete coursework in subjects that may assist you in your consequent training and also the practical duties of a sous chef, such as cooking, nutrition, health, biology and business. While you are at school, you could also gain some on-the-job experience by, for instance, shadowing cooks or chefs or working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant over weekends.
2. Receive formal culinary training
Attending a program at a culinary, community or vocational school will provide you a solid foundation in the culinary arts. Certificate or diploma programs typically last between one to two years and offer a mix of hands-on classes and academic coursework.
The most popular qualification among aspiring sous chefs is an Associate Degree in Applied Science in Culinary Arts. This qualification offers a two-year curriculum that consists of coursework in general subjects like mathematics and English, as well as coursework in culinary skills, like menu planning, nutrition, food storage, wine studies, gastronomic pairing and safety procedures. Students also spend many hours gaining practical experience in culinary and baking techniques.
Candidates can also opt for a bachelor's degree, which includes coursework in accounting and business subjects that will assist a sous chef in executing administrative duties, such as budget and cost analysis. This program also focuses on management and provides information on how to deal with personnel issues and motivate staff.
Read more: What Are the Different Types of Chefs?
3. Complete an apprenticeship
Many training programs offer students the chance to gain on-the-job experience through an apprenticeship. If you want to become a sous chef, gaining practical experience is important as you need to have an understanding of all aspects of the trade to execute your duties well.
Even if you do not undergo formal training, you should apply for an apprenticeship. Instead of opting for a degree, you could consider applying for an apprenticeship program through The American Culinary Federation (AFS), which offers a combination of classroom training and practical experience. The great thing about these two-to-three-year programs is that you earn a wage for your practical work, while also gaining experience and learning the tricks of the trade.
4. Start working
Once you have completed your training, you should gain as much on-the-job experience in as many aspects of the kitchen as you can. A sous chef has to be able to take over the duties of the chefs or cooks at any station in the line, as well as those of the head chef. Working your way up the ranks to sous chef requires a real interest in the culinary arts, dedication and hard work.
If you want the executive chef to notice your potential as a sous chef, you should work clean and fast and always be cognizant of safety procedures in the kitchen. Here are a few other tips to consider as you work your way up the ranks:
Offer to do the work that other chefs and cooks do not want to do, such as doing the inventory or taking care of restocking. If the executive chef needs somebody to stand in for a sick colleague, offer your services.
Keep learning and stay up-to-date with the latest cooking techniques by reading and observing others, such as the executive chef.
Executive chefs look for loyalty in their sous chefs, so prove yourself as a loyal coworker by always behaving in an ethical and considerate manner. This means that you should be open, honest and polite in your dealings with the other members in the kitchen.
Related: How To Become A Chef
Here is a list of a few frequently asked questions and answers for your perusal:
What skills should a sous chef have?
A sous chef needs a wide range of skills to complete the many different tasks that come with the job. As the kitchen is a fast-paced and deadline-driven environment, these professionals must have the capacity to remain calm and focused in stressful situations. As they are also managers, sous chefs must be able to delegate and communicate effectively and must have the ability to handle conflict situations and lead a kitchen.
These professionals also have to create signature dishes and design exciting menus, which requires creativity. In addition, they need good time management skills to cope with the multiple tasks of the job and the demands of the kitchen.
What are the job prospects of a sous chef?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for chefs, sous chefs and head chefs are showing a growth rate of 11%, which is much faster than the average growth rate of other occupations.
Related: How Much Money Do Chefs Make?
Which states in the U.S. employ the most sous chefs?
Your best chance of finding employment as a sous chef is in the following states: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts.
What is the difference between a sous chef and an executive chef?
The head chef manages all the operations in the kitchen. They oversee the food preparation and ensure that all dishes that leave the kitchen are of standard. They normally create the menus and take care of the administrative side of the business.
A sous chef supports a head chef and takes over any duties that the latter cannot accommodate. Whereas the head chef oversees the whole operation, the executive tends to train individual chefs and cooks and manage the inventory and food costs and ensure hygienic practices in the kitchen.
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