What to look for in a Chef Training Programme

Jackie Cameron’s thoughts on training schools and what parents must look out for, written and put out to the public before it was even publicised that she herself will be opening her own chef school… interesting read.
— Chef Magazine
Jackie Cameron

Jackie Cameron

Television programmes on food have created an increased interest in cooking here in South Africa and abroad. This is fantastic but one must understand that being a chef is not a quick walk to stardom. Many hard and long hours are needed before the craft is understood or even remotely perfected. In this industry the more you learn - and you never stop - the more you realise how little you know.

Here I am putting myself into a parent’s shoes - a parent with a child who has aspiration of becoming a chef; of entering the world of hospitality. For the most part I address the culinary aspect but the same philosophies apply to hospitality as a whole.

I suggest looking for a course that teaches students how to make puff pastry and brioche as well as the basics of food and cooking. Some children have had the opportunity to cook at home on a daily basis while others have not had this privilege. I, therefore, believe that to have the opportunity to blossom they must all start on the same page - that is at the beginning. All learners have to be taken to the same level of understanding before moving on to more complicated combinations. I have had many trainees who have no idea when it comes to making a basic béchamel sauce, but they know exactly how to make a veloute. It's a crazy situation and creates huge amounts of embarrassment for the trainees when they are placed in a 'real-world' situation. I believe this should be addressed at a training-school level.

This, in my opinion, is of utmost importance and it is one of the reasons courses differ in price. If, as a parent you can you can afford it, I suggest a well-recognised programme - this will more than likely be the most expensive too because ingredients are extremely costly. There is little chance of a learner getting a hollandaise sauce right the first time - or the second or third time. And one almost wants the student to fail in order to learn from mistakes... You want your child to work long hours trying and re-trying until he/she knows how to complete a task with accuracy.  The basic philosophy of cooking is that you want learners to be hands on - it’s of no benefit having a lecturer standing in front guiding them every step of the way.

I also believe most dishes learners cook should go into something to be sold to a guest. This gives them reason to make an added effort to ensure quality of final product. At the same time I disagree with only a practical/work environment; a learner must be given time to perfect techniques in a lecture-kitchen situation before heading into the work place. It is imperative that learners taste all the time - I differ from the 'no eating in a kitchen' rule. Learners need to develop a food-palate memory - they are studying to be chefs and that means cooking every day of their lives so, when in training, tasting is imperative.

The environment must be safe for the leaner to succeed - safe on a physical and emotional level so that he/she can reach great heights by asking as many questions to which an enquiring mind needs answers. This is dictated by the atmosphere experienced when walking into a place - the institution either has it or does not. What appeals to you and your child? What will he/she respond to best?

Do the lecturers have kitchen experience? Don't only ask where the head mistress or head lecture has worked, you must have a run down of every chef lecturer, so you have an understanding of what is going to be taught and the standard of the education. There is no point in it coming straight from a text book - a real-life experience is more interesting, understandable and memorable. At the end of the day the aim is to find a job in the industry so I suggest chatting to chefs on an ongoing basis. This will prepare the learner mentally and physically for what is to come.

The ratio of student to lecturer is another consideration. This is a very hands-on profession - show and tell and re-show is imperative. Look around the premises, understand the school's philosophy, and notice whether there is room for growth and development. For a long time I thought I should go to the elderly doctor or dentist for their many years of experience but more recently I have realised that the younger, more hip professional solves the problem much quicker, with more creative and innovative ways. In my opinion, this theory applies to education as well. What equipment is the school using? This is a training school, you want to see professional equipment and not utensils you'd find in your own kitchen at home. I consider this the first sign of the quality of the course. Becoming a chef and never having used a thermomix just seems like madness to me.

Food covers so many aspects - one must look for a course that reflects the diversity of catering, photography, writing, icing, wine, restaurant management, flower arranging, conferencing, fine dining. Who knows which path your child would want to venture down presently or later in life?

How important is hygiene to the school? This, and costing incorrectly, can cause a restaurant to go under very quickly.

Understanding and having an appreciation of wine is imperative. It goes hand in hand with food and takes dishes to another level. The learner needs to know the basics and also needs to have the opportunity to meet winemakers as well as taste and sample grapes on the vines.

Course material must change with the times. For example craft beer is hip-hop and happening and students must know about this new trend. How many chef courses are taking students out to meet suppliers? Learning about herbs is one thing but actually growing your own is what food is about today. Students should be well informed about on top local and international chefs - but, more so, about our proudly South African culinary gurus.

A course must allow a learner to be creative, must give that person time to read and time to develop his/her own personality regarding food. A learner will work with many chefs over the years but creative enthusiasm and confidence is the key to a chef doing well - to standing out from all the cooks. A cook cooks - a chef, questions things, seeks answers and continually strives to do better.

Another area I consider important is getting time to spend with a guest. This exposure is crucial to a better understanding of what the public expects from a chef so you need to develop confidence (not arrogance) with your cooking ability and be able to present yourself well. It is very easy to get lost in a brigade of chefs - and you want to stand out from the rest.

How do other chefs in the industry rate certain courses? This is imperative when making your final decision. Will a top chef employ your child after he/she has completed the course?

And the final note of advice - parents you need to be understanding. Students are going to phone saying they are working long hours; that they are getting treated harshly - nremember this is a tough industry. Pushing them to strive for greatness is part of the deal. Those who stand tall and persevere win the respect of the chefs around them. And, to be realistic, respect from fellow chefs is greater than any award.