January 05, 2016 by
The VRG Blog Editor
When I first declared myself vegan eleven years ago, the world was a different place. Going out to eat meant subjecting yourself to a dry salad with no croutons, and asking to hold the cheese. As of 2015, we have created a community that does not only accept veganism, but has entire restaurants dedicated to delivering the best products, freshest ingredients, and devotion towards dietary friendly meals. Being able to go out with your family and friends and order a three course meal with dessert is a dream that has become a reality.
For myself, I always wanted to be the one behind the kitchen walls creating decadent courses without having to ever learn how to cook a steak or crack an egg. Working in a strictly vegan restaurant can be very difficult, but also one of the most satisfying careers you can choose. I myself, have worked in multiple vegan establishments as a line cook, head chef, baker, pastry chef, barista, and bartender. Throughout my career, I have gathered questions from those interested in the field as well as filled with concern on how to make a living flipping veggie burgers and saying, are you ready for the check? I want to use my experience, both positive and negative, to influence others into following their dreams to becoming a vegan chef.
What is a chef?
People often use the term cook and chef interchangeably to describe someone in the back of the house. Chef is a title that you can achieve by obtaining a two to four year degree, where a cook is someone who prepares food in a kitchen without having any formal training. Becoming a chef is a bit more complicated than throwing on non slip shoes and showing up on time. The job is tiresome, with a minimum of eight hours on your feet, five to seven days a week. The job is tedious, with a revolving door staff, constant shift changes and training. Becoming a chef, a line cook, pastry chef, prep or even assembler can consume your life. With the negative side out of the way, there is something new to look forward to almost every single day in the kitchen. Experimenting with recipes, ordering new ingredients and products world-wide, becoming friends with your co-workers, and learning the vast knowledge they have to offer as well as a chance to prove yourself on every dinner plate. Those eight hours a day begin to fly by with wanting to stay late in order to help with the brunch rush or come in early to see this season’s beet shipment. Covering shifts, starts to mean more to you than money in your pocket, but joy that you will have more time in your home away from home. When the back of the house becomes tiresome, or if it is not your cup of tea from day one, there are ways to expand to the front of the house.
The food industry is forever changing, always at full speed and offering new positions every day. The work environment does not have to be in a restaurant; it can be in a bakery, a coffeehouse, a hotel, a bed and breakfast, and extend to wherever food is being sold. Being a chef, a professional cook, has endless possibilities that are worth ditching your personal life and free time for.
How is being a vegan chef different?
Although, for most vegans or vegetarians this question may seem unnecessary, it is something to consider before committing to your new career. As a vegan chef, your choices of restaurants to be employed at are cut in half and more. Refusing to work with meat, eggs, and dairy might not work unless you are applying for a position at a strictly vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Luckily, the world is changing. Today, more US residents are living the vegan lifestyle and new upcoming establishments are popping up left and right. When I was fourteen years old, living in New Hampshire, there was one vegetarian restaurant in the entire state, about an hour and a half away from my house. Without means of transportation, and a family who didn’t enjoy traveling; I was out of luck. Once you find your dream work destination, the fun really begins.
Working as a vegan baker, chef, or in the front of house, you are committing to more than just a new job but to supporting a very important cause. By working among other vegans, you are opening your eyes to the opportunity of growth. In your career you will learn how to take your skills to the next level by not only caring for the products you are producing but the lives you are saving by nourishing others and allowing them to learn how delicious vegan treats are. Working together we can make a difference, one plate at a time. You gain the knowledge to be able to substitute for dietary restrictions. Your knowledge of nutrition will help you understand when to consult customers who have allergies with certain foods, questions that you need to triple check the answer on and providing others with smiles after eating a delicious meal. The job will be difficult on you mentally and physically but there are some things you can do in preparation.
I work in a kitchen; Now what?
The hours are long, your back is killing you, the shoes are two sizes too small, and worst of all it’s over 100 degrees in the summer and you are dressed head to toe in chef whites. It takes time to truly get in your field and embark on your new journey. Before you throw in the apron and quit after a hard first week, there are some things you can do in preparation.
1. Become confident. Practice at home, take a night class, and study from magazines and cookbooks. I understand you just spent a lot of money on college, or that you just received a job that is working you to the bone but practice does make perfect.
2. Love what you eat; love what you make. If you are a healthy eater, do not work with cheesy pizza (even if vegan) and greasy fries. Make what you enjoy, so you are able to put your whole heart into what you love. As a pastry chef, I am not a huge fan of decorating cakes, and one of my first jobs was a cake decorator. I found myself clocking in and out as the shift was scheduled and running out the door and dreading the next day. Once I left that job and found a kitchen that challenged me, and produced more than just cakes, my attitude lifted and I was able to love my work. I brought work home with me, in a positive way. I went to work smiling, and arrived early and volunteered to stay late. Work where you love.
3. Have a passion for working in the kitchen. If you switch from job to job, and you are not getting a great sense of willingness, it’s time to quit. Not everyone can be a chef. It takes dedication, and obsession with new flavors, trends and becoming a foodie. If you are finding yourself not interested in the culinary arts, it is ok! You can still find another career. Try working in the front of the house, with the accounting or in management. You have your entire life to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. If your degree says one thing, but your heart says another, follow your heart till you are able to find happiness and a steady income.
4. Understand going from start to bottom. There is no shame in graduating with a degree and walking into a kitchen as less than the head chef. The kitchen you walk into is going to have employees who have been working there way up to head chef or executive manager. People who work hard are promoted, but they started from making appetizers, soups, and cold dishes. When you have worked your way up to line cook and sous chef, you are working for your manager. All the work you do is directly being watched by the owner or the manager of the restaurant. When the manager witnesses your hard work, they are going to be the ones directly complimenting your work and promoting you. The harder you work, the most likely you are to understand, and love your position at work.
5. Stay on top of your field. Always search the internet for what’s hot, what’s not and what’s trending. Read cookbooks, watch cooking shows, and visit restaurants near and far. The best thing you can do to feel comfortable in your field, is to be on top of your game. While visiting a new eatery, order small plates and lots of them in order to fully grasp a feel on their style and product. Once you feel comfortable in your field, it will show in your work.
6. The last bit of advice is networking. Become involved in the culinary field and in as many organizations as your can. Become Servsafe certified, Allergen Certified, American Culinary Federation, Personal Chefs Association of America, Women in FoodService, etc. These will look great on your resume as well as give you a safe, professional place, to go when you have questions. Show up at local food competitions, vegetarian food festivals, follow local chefs on social media, local markets, farmers markets, co-ops, community kitchens, gardens, and stores that cater to the vegetarian lifestyle. Having friends and role models within your city can help you find a job or keep you invited to local events. Networking is very important.
How to really survive the life as a chef
Take a deep breath; the hard work is almost over. You have your job, you have the skills, you are practicing, studying and networking before, during and after work, and most of all, you are happy. There are a few final things to consider during your career as an industry vegan chef. One of the largest questions I receive is how do I make an honest living wage. Starting from the bottom and working your way up, means starting with a small pay check and working your way up in salary. Most vegan establishments are currently privately owned, and pay a living wage but not enough to pay off your culinary school loans on top of your rent. While this is the case, pick up as many hours as possible or a second job. This is not ideal, but it will keep you driven and on top of your payments. Consider paying your loans through a system that measures your paycheck and takes a percentage. As your pay goes up, the loan company will take more from your check until you are at a stable salary where you can pay the monthly minimum while still putting food on the table. The industry is always growing and rapidly changing.
Never be afraid to change jobs due to a better offer, or an opportunity to perfect your skills. With having your mind at ease when it comes to money and where you need to work, the last bit of advice I have is work as hard as you can for as long as you can. When I started in the industry, I worked seven days a week with no social life to be where I am today. In my current management position I have a steady five day a week work life where I am able to take days off, and pay my loans monthly. I have time for friends and family, even if at one time I did not. I am 24 years old, and a proud vegan chef who gets to go to work everyday with ingredients I care about while saving hundreds of animals’ lives. I am excited for my growth in the industry and understand I have a long way to go, and I am more than happy to go along for the ride. I encourage everyone to work in the industry as a vegan chef to inspire vegans everywhere to eat fresh and eat plenty!
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