Portrait of a Chef – What You Need to Know About Becoming One

February 16, 2010

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Lots of readers in Japan, for some odd reason, asked Hair to Toes how they can become chefs…the “real French kind”. Here’s our exclusive article on making culinary delights your career.

Training for the world of cuisine starts early in France; by the age of 16, chef wanna-be’s are applying for the CAP or the certificat d’aptitude professionnelle, or the BEP; the brevet d’etudes professionnelles. Both the CAP and the BEP teach the fundamentals pretty rigorously, but the brevet is more technically oriented.

It’s pretty hard to bribe your way into schools, but don’t get all depressed yet. There are staterun scools, the private technical schools and apprentice training centers so there’s lots of opportunities around to try for.

By far the most interesting aspect of these schools are the ‘training restaurants’ or the restaurant d’application. These are the places where the dress rehearsals for future foodies take place, and you get to eat your own food. If you’re backpacking around France, and you need a cheap place to eat, call ahead and save some cash on this little known secret; the edible and pretty cheap world of chef training. You have to make reservations for these places because you’re taking part in the food hospitality and service training. If you take a look around these ‘restaurants’ you’ll notice a professor or two patrolling the room-it really unnerves the students and you can hear how nervous they are.

The apprenticeships or stagesof these hands-on professional programs are really different from those you get elsewhere in the world. There’s literally a medieval bent to the whole rigamarole, with indentures that legally enforce contracts and the minimum wage, along with tons of daily mind-numbing tasks of endless peeling, rinsing, picking over crabmeat, and did I mention peeling?

But if these tasks turn you off, just remember that the appreticeship is your chance to have your talent singled out. A favorable glance from a great chef, or a comment that he finds a sauce “acceptable” can greatly ease a student’s future. Sometimes, a full-time job awaits students upon graduation which means a mentor is ready-made for you.

Days for chefs-in-training are long, exhausting and gruelling, with great accuracy as to what your days working in kitchens will be like. This shows that CAP and BEP are just the beginning. Some students go on for an additional year to get a specialist’s qualification degree, on dessert-making, or entree-assembly or soup-making.

The most gifted students get the chance to earn a brevet professionnel certificate, a full professional diploma or the superior technical certificate, the Technical Diploma (Baccalaureat technologique)

Paris is home to two of France’s most-respected cooking schools; the Mederic and the Ferrandi. Mederic’s official muckety-muck name is the Ecole Hoteliere de Paris Jean Drouant-a real mouthful, so it’s better known by the street it’s on. The school was established in 1936, but don’t judge a cooking school by its building. Millions have been spent on the ultra-modern teaching and cooking facilities inside, over fourteen thousand square feet of it!

Ferrandi, not too far away from Mederic, is part of the vocational school known as Groupe Gregoire-Ferrandi. Founded in 1932 by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris, Ferrandi trains professionals in all aspects of food handling, from bread baking, to finshmongery, catering and restaurant service.

Leading chefs serve as associate professors, and there’s a graduate program for restaurateurs and caterers at Ferrandi. There are weekly demonstrations from the chefs and students; a real treat for visitors.

It used to be a France-only establishment, but classes are now provided in English. The bad news is that Ferrandi accepts just 20, that’s right, 20, foreign students every year for a CAP course lasting 9 months. There are alternative schools, such as Le Cordon Bleu, for foreigners. The classes at Ferrandi may be held in English, but many exams still have to written in French!

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