Karen V. Davison Shares the Challenges of Being a Head Chef

Whether one is cooking professionally at a fast-food restaurant or a prime steakhouse, the job of a professional chef is one of the most challenging vocations of all. When you’re first starting out, being a head chef can be quite difficult.

Chef Karen V. Davison

Karen Davison of Plano, Texas, spent years in preparation for her role as head chef. Like many aspiring professional chefs, she graduated from an elite culinary school and grabbed whatever cooking jobs she could find before landing the bigger jobs. She details the challenges of being a head chef.

Long Hours and Low Pay (at first)

Being a professional chef is no joke. One starts as an apprentice and must climb the ranks as peers fall away from the hard life. Most chef jobs don’t pay well until one has become a tenured or head chef.

By the time one becomes a head chef, they’ve lived years of their life working 15-hour shifts and missing most holidays. It’s very difficult to maintain outside relationships or build a family as a professional chef and that’s why a lot of head chefs are single and too tired to hang out after work.

An unfortunate industry flaw is that many hospitality employers don’t abide by employment laws in the United States. As a result, many chefs go all day on their feet, grabbing their meals on the fly, and getting their first break once they leave work in the late evening. And because the chef life is highly competitive and rewarding, most aspiring chefs focus on delivering their best without complaints, notes Karen V. Davison.

High Compliance Standards and Low Margin for Error

A bad health inspection can close down a restaurant and ruin a business. Inspectors may arrive at any time and they frequently show up unannounced during busy parts of the day.

Chefs and kitchen staff must work hard to find a balance between practicality and compliance, says Karen V. Davison. When the demands of meal prep, cooking, and custom orders force the staff to use tools and space with as much efficiency as possible, it is not always feasible to treat every day as though a health inspector may come by.

Late orders result in cold food and a poor reputation. Open containers of ingredients lose their freshness and result in similarly negative consequences for the head chef and restaurateur. That’s why professional chefs become intimately familiar with their workspace and develop an intricate system of short movements and optimal technique.

If one staff member makes a mistake, it usually takes multiple staff members to rectify it. In many cases, accomplished chefs plan mentally and emotionally to compensate for late or incompetent staff members in order to bring their best to work.

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High Pressure and Little Downtime

Unlike most jobs that have busy and calm periods, operating a kitchen is a constant high-pressure environment. When one is not fulfilling orders, they are doing inventory, cleaning, shopping for supplies, and prepping ingredients.

It is very difficult to find downtime in a kitchen, says Karen Davison. Chefs and assistants often remain on their feet for most or all of their work day. In elite restaurants and hotels, poor chefs don’t last long, either because they cannot physically handle the lifestyle or because the head chef fires them.

Similar to show business, few who enter achieve fame and fortune. Contrary to what the Food Channel portrays, most chefs will never end up on TV or with a world famous cookbook. But popular television cooking shows are accurate from the perspective of high stakes and stress.

Professional chefs must have thick skin. Everyone in the kitchen is operating on adrenaline rushes throughout the day and it is not uncommon for colleagues to unintentionally verbally abuse or snap at one another. Those determined to succeed accept the criticism, disregard the extreme emotions, and grow into their role.

It’s More Than Cooking

Becoming a professional chef means knowing how to do more than cook, notes Karen Davison. Knowing how to cook is critical, but before one can cook, they have to have all the necessary ingredients and organizational skills to produce a consistently high-quality entree.

Many consider the chef life to be a form of artistry, similar to music, drama, or painting. Chefs are wildly creative in their ability to combine flavors and present a dish in a way that looks appealing to diners.

It’s usually impossible to use fresh ingredients for every dish. As such, experienced chefs have to learn which ingredients are best served fresh and which are best served premade. Of those premade ingredients, not just any brand or quality will do.

Head chefs frequent tried-and-true vendors, butchers, farmers markets, and any producer relevant to their menu. They must also learn how to use various cooking tools to produce the best version of those menu items. When it comes to purchasing, head chefs are responsible for the state of all ingredients, tools, and equipment, says Karen V. Davison.

Lastly, kitchen staff must work as a team. In high pressure situations, chefs must be able to communicate clearly and concisely when there is little time to get a complex point across. In high-functioning kitchens, staff members learn to read each other’s motions and nonverbal cues in order to contribute to the team’s success.

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Why Professional Chefs Love What They Do

For those chefs that have remained in the industry, they wouldn’t have it any other way. As difficult as the chef life can be, it is also deeply rewarding. These professionals get to be creative for a living, oftentimes crafting their own menu items.

And even though some staff members get irritated during the busier parts of the work day, team camaraderie is high. A chef’s best friends are often their co-workers. As such, working all day and holidays becomes appealing, because they get to be with their favorite people.

“Making it” in the hospitality industry is prestigious, and professional chefs get to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from excellence. They also enjoy delighting their customers in expected ways and achieving that high-profile positive review.