In the kitchens of finer restaurants there exists a hierarchy of cooking positions from cooks just starting out all the way to the top of the ladder to Chef. One of the most important people in the cooking hierarchy is the sous-chef. Like the Vice President of the United States, this person occupies a position of great responsibility and authority.
“A sous-chef is literally an under chef, and without the right person in this position you’ll have trouble keeping your head above water,” says Gary E. Miller, a chef-consultant with close to 30 years’ experience in kitchens of various sizes. “A sous-chef is a lot like a sergeant in the army. Sous-chefs need a unique set of skills: First and foremost, they need to be accomplished cooks who have earned their stripes. They also need to know how to motivate, teach and take charge of the kitchen in your absence. Most of all, they have to be in your corner and be there to lend support, be 100 percent reliable and loyal. Sometimes they’ll be a disciplinarian, an administrator, a workhorse and always your right hand. Having this person on your team can be the difference between success and disaster.”
As second in command, the sous-chef often runs the day-to-day operations of the kitchen. In addition to superior cooking skills, he or she has to master a variety of responsibilities, which include:
The sous-chef can often work a 12-hour shift, finishing as late as 2 a.m., and must balance creative cooking responsibilities with the kitchen’s management needs.
Like the Vice President, the sous-chef is often someone with an eye on the top job who’s gaining experience under the more senior chef before becoming the Number One.
Says Gary Miller, “The position is in itself a stepping-stone to becoming a chef, and sooner or later the opportunity will come along for the sous-chef to move up.”
Most chefs, in fact, were at one time sous-chefs. Forming a close relationship with a chef can help prepare the sous-chef to move on to the top job in another establishment.
“I was fortunate enough to have a sous-chef who moved with me through several kitchens, and we became a great team,” Miller says. “He had an analytical mind, and while he was not one to dispense discipline, he had many other attributes that complemented my management style. He’d lead by example and was able to do any job in the kitchen better than anyone else. I’d worked with him as a cook and could see he had the discipline and drive to excel. When I gave him the chance to be my right hand, he rose to the occasion.”
Successful sous-chefs often move on to become chefs, executive chefs or owners of their own establishments. In addition to restaurant jobs, sous-chefs are in demand at corporate catering operations and hotel kitchens.
Once you become Chef, you’ll be looking for the perfect sous-chef to complement your skills.
Today’s sous-chef needs a minimum of a secondary school diploma, but more common is a post-secondary degree from a hospitality school combined with on-the-job training.
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