Scott Giambastiani has quite a life - working 16-hour days in the kitchen at Viognier in San Mateo, even on holidays. But Giambastiani wouldn't trade what he does for anything. Such is the dedication of a successful executive chef.
His career path began in junior college. "I searched inside myself for what I really wanted to do," Giambastiani recalls. "I didn't like academia and I didn't want to work in an office." Because he had always loved to cook, he decided to enroll at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
He was the Sous (French for under) Chef for the award-winning Viognier restaurant when it opened six years ago. Before that, he was a chef at the acclaimed Ritz Carlton in San Francisco and the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur. But to get to his position, he had to work his way up through the ranks, starting with summer jobs as a busboy.
Now that he is an executive chef, what he likes about the work is the creativity. "I get to work with really great people who have a passion for food," Giambastiani explains. "You can't compare it with a desk job."
The career does have its drawbacks. Because it can consume most of your waking hours, it can be very tough on relationships. "You have to sacrifice your personal life, but it's not a sacrifice if you love what you do," Giambastiani contends.
Recipe for Success
Christopher Floyd of Left Bank restaurant, in Menlo Park, always knew he was going to be a chef. He attended the prestigious Culinary School of America, in Hyde Park, New York.
He is currently the Chef de Cusine, which means "Chef of the Kitchen." He is in charge of the restaurant though the chain of eateries has one chef who oversees them all.
Although Floyd received excellent training, complete with internships, he doesn't believe that attending a great culinary school, or any cooking school for that matter, is critical to success.
"Culinary school gives you a nice broad base of information, but it is what you do with yourself after that that counts," Floyd says. After graduating, Floyd wanted to return to the Bay Area, so he sent resumes to 15 restaurants in San Francisco. "Only two bothered to respond and they were in the negative," he remembers.
He finally did land a job at a San Francisco restaurant, starting at the bottom. He worked there for two years. "It's a tough career path," Floyd says. "I caution people about jumping into it because they think it's glamorous."
Unlike some of his peers, he now works only five days a week, but has to come in more often during certain peak times of the year. He usually works about 12 hours a day, coming in before lunch.
The Sous Chef does most of the morning preparations and Floyd lends a hand at the stove only as needed. His primary role now is more administrative. "Now that I am in charge of the whole restaurant I have to answer to people about profits, losses, food and labor costs," Floyd notes. "I do a lot more managing now than when I was a Sous Chef at another restaurant."
The Younger, the Better
To be a really great chef, you have to start when you're young, according to Jo Lynne Lockley, owner of Chefs' Professional Agency, in San Francisco.
Lockley is a staffing consultant for better restaurants and hotels in Northern California. She believes you need to start young because being a chef is a physically demanding, stressful job. "The tools you need disappear," Lockley explains. "Your senses of taste and smell go down."
It takes at least six to eight years after graduating from an accredited cooking school to get established, and if you're aiming for the top, that time increases to an average of 10 years.
Unlike Floyd, she believes that getting some formal training is important, even at a junior college, because it can provide a foundation. When it comes to choosing schools, Lockley advises doing your homework. "There are an awful lot of fly-by-night culinary schools and a lot of restaurant management diploma mills," she warns. "You have to be careful which school you choose. This is a very punishing business."
Start Out Starving
Once you graduate, be prepared to work long, hard hours for very little money. In fact, the less money you make at first, the better. This is because you will get the best training at the better restaurants. So many people want such jobs, the owners can offer a paltry salary.
"What you get at the better restaurants is not rent and groceries, but career development," Lockley believes. For this reason, she advises not starting out at a mom-and-pop or chain establishment.
The on-the-job training and moving up through the ranks is critical to future success. "Until you've spent years practicing you haven't got the muscle memory," Lockley believes. "When it's showtime in a kitchen, you can't stop and think about what to do next. You have to understand why things are done the way they are. It's about knowing the tricks."
It's also about coordinating the efforts of sometimes dozens of people. "It is a high-energy job, one that is very militaristic," Giambastiani adds. "There is one captain orchestrating the whole line and you have to get that beat going, that rush. You have to carry that rush for four or five hours at lunch and the same at dinner. The only way to do that is to have one leader."
How's the Cabbage?
Immediately after graduation, you will be doing well to make $25,000 a year. After ten years, an experienced executive chef can make between $36,000 and $78,000, says Lockley, depending on the size and quality of the restaurant.
The executive chef in a quality hotel can command over $100,000 annually. According to Lockley, only a couple of chefs in San Francisco are making as much as $300,000. "But your chances of getting to that position if you didn't start out at age 16 are about half that of being elected president."
However, talented chefs who open their own restaurants can make well over six figures. Still, Lockley cautions against becoming a chef for the money. The odds against reaching the big bucks are super-sized.
Giambastiani agrees. "If you don't want to be in it 100 percent don't do it. If you don't entertain people at home on your days off, if you're not a good people person, if food isn't in your blood, don't waste your time."
Visit these websites for more information on culinary careers:
- BayChef.com - California Culinary Academy's website;
- Education-Resource.com/culinary.html - College search site with information on career opportunities, professional training, business school or distance learning programs, and answers to career-related questions.
- Escoffier.com - Website for chefs with news, articles, links, resources, education and scholarship information, and a career center that offers searches, resume posting and links to other culinary career sites.
- FoodService.com - Website for the industry includes news, resources, links, equipment and a complete career center.
- FoodWork.com - Find jobs within your specified geographical area and specialty. Browse restaurant bios and position descriptions and apply online. FoodWork faxes applications directly to the restaurants.
- hjo.net - Hospitality Jobs Online website for hotels, food & beverage establishments, travel groups, casinos, cruise lines, country clubs, convention centers, entertainment groups, recruiters and other companies requiring professional services or needing to fill jobs common to the hospitality industry.
- HospitalityOnline.com - Job listings for hotels, restaurants, casinos, etc.
- RestaurantJobs.com - Post a resume using a resume builder, search jobs, use a job search-agent that sends positions (matching your criteria) to an in-box under your login ID at the site, (877) 625-6545.
- RestaurantJobs.org - Thousands of restaurant manager jobs, chef jobs, catering jobs and hospitality employment listings.
- RestaurantRecruit.com - Job listings for restaurants.