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Behind the Dish: Work Life on a Chef’s Salary


By Brian Steel,

The last time you sat down for a delicious meal in a fancy
restaurant, did you wonder about the chefs who prepared it?  Here at PayScale,
we always want to know more about the people who work in one of the 13,000 job
titles on which we gather data. This week, in addition to providing chef salary information, we will also explore a day in the
life of a chef.
Join us as we go behind the dish. 

Meet Jeff Kouba, a former Chef Tournant at Cafe Boulud in New York
City. Cafe Boulud, a high society, three-star French restaurant on the Upper East
Side, is a frequent landing spot for elite businessman, politicians, sports
figures and celebrities. However, life in the kitchen at this glamorous
restaurant is much less elegant.

Sweat, Tears, and Foie Gras         

Do You Know What You're Worth?

When you walk into the kitchen at Cafe Boulud, the tension
is thick enough to be cut with a chef’s knife. If you dream of being a chef
here, you must master each of six stations, including Garde Manger I and II,
Entremetier (entree preparer), Hot Appetizers, Poissonnier (fish cook),  and Saucier (sauce maker/meat cook). Jeff
describes the intense ladder to promotion. It is typical to serve six to eight
months at each position, says Kouba. In this kitchen, the most pivotal role is the
Garde Manger (or, the keeper of the food), an entry-level role. The Garde
Manger is responsible for cold preparation of hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, pates,
salads, oysters, and more. According to Kouba, if you cannot adequately perform
the role of Garde Manger, you will never wear the white hat or make a chef's salary.           

There are two shifts at this restaurant; morning and
afternoon/evening. Both highly intense shifts run 12 to 14 hours, six days a week.

The morning shift starts promptly at six a.m. in high-energy
fashion with rock music blaring. Kouba describes the anxiety felt as the
kitchen staff scrambles to find their stash of knives and kitchen towels. The
morning staff is responsible for completing the prep work for both lunch and
dinner, as well as cooking and serving lunch. “It’s a struggle to keep up with
your responsibilities and you are never ahead,” explains Kouba. On a good day,
you will be lucky to head home by six in the evening.

The afternoon/evening shift begins at 11 a.m. with its own
set of challenges. You see, at Cafe Boulud, there are no recipes for the daily
specials. Each day, chefs prepare something new, forcing him or her to learn a
new dish on the fly. The evening staff relies on the prep work of the morning
shift, which can make or break a dinner service. Employees are lucky to leave
the kitchen by midnight.

Long Days, Longer

While not all restaurant kitchens are run this way, notes
Kouba, they also don’t all have three stars. Cafe Boulud is unique in their
mission to train technically proficient chefs. 

Still, this demanding job takes a significant toll on
workers and it's tough to live on chef's salary in New York City. Jeff Kouba chose to leave the restaurant industry because working long
hours in a kitchen made his life feel one-dimensional. He had lived in New York
City for over four years, yet hardly experienced the Big Apple. Life began to feel
cyclical, says Kouba. He began having anxiety dreams about work. “If you want
succeed as a chef, you will never get away from long hours and hard work. It
was one of the best times of my life and I have no regrets,” states Kouba.

Tell Us What You

We want to hear from you! Could you handle the long hours on
a chef’s salary? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts. If you are
curious about the career paths available in the restaurant industry, head over
to our GigZig
tool and start exploring. Bon Appetit!

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(Photo credit: Ricardo Liberato/Flickr)







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