How to Become a Cook: 15 Essential Qualities

Chef Paul Sorgule over on the Harvest America Ventures blog has put together a definitive list of what he believes are the 15 qualities every cook should possess in order to be successful in the kitchen. Indeed, he suggests this should form a kind of checklist for anyone entering the profession.

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1. Stamina

Long days, never being off your feet, gruelling temperatures, and relentless stress – the restaurant business requires a level of stamina that few others can match.

2. Physical strength

Cooks are constantly lifting, bending, reaching, and grappling with heavy pots full of stock, strap pans … lifting sauté pans in and out of finishing ovens, and grabbing the French knife at the bolster as it glides through relentless piles of vegetable mise en place. At the end of a shift, every muscle in a cook’s body, aches as if he or she just spent 60 minutes on the football field getting pounded by an aggressive defensive back.

3. Agility

The cook performs a choreographed dance every night on the line as he or she gingerly moves a sauté pan avoiding a slip into pan frying, balances plates during set-up and with blistered, burned, and cut fingers that are oversized from physical pounding – sets a perfect garnish of micro greens with a pair of tweezers, and sauce reductions through a squeeze bottle.

4. Mental acuity

Sometimes, above all else, the cook has to be mentally sharp. He or she must remember not only the steps in preparation of multiple menu items, but also the exact flavour profile of each dish. The cook must be able to adjust to reach that flavour goal consistently. He or she must be able to mentally sort and catalogue multiple preparations simultaneously as the tickets are called off in rapid succession by the expeditor and never fail to remember where each dish is in the process of cooking. Timing is all about mental acuity.

5. Willingness to listen

A person who is destined to be a cook must be able to concentrate on what is being said, delineate what is important from what is trivial, truly listen to details and not simply hear what is being said, and know that during the heat of service there is no time to repeat.

6. Ability to follow a lead

There are many things that happen in a kitchen that do not involve verbal communication. Sometimes they occur because everyone understands the sequence, sometimes it is because another cook, the chef, or the expeditor looks their way or gives a nod.

7. Commitment to organisation

What defines a cook in a professional kitchen can be summarised with the term: mise en place. Cooks are organised to a fault. Cooks cannot tolerate an unorganised station, a cluttered work area; a poorly cut vegetable or portioned steak. A cook lives and breathes organisation. Good cooks must have everything in place down to the way that side towels are folded.

8. Great taste buds

Some are born with it, some have the foundations that can be trained, but those who do not have the capacity will always struggle to be good at the craft of cooking. Great cooks have great taste buds. They are able to distinguish nuances in flavour, identify individual ingredients, know what is lacking, and remember how to replicate a certain flavour profile from memory.

9. Ability to focus

Watching a great cook is enlightening. When cooks are in the zone their entire being is in tune with the process, the order, the team communication, and the pursuit of consistent excellence in cooking. This is absolutely critical.

10. Composure to accept critique

Cooks learn through critique, not criticism. Even though the definition varies, in both cases the cook must be able to listen to evaluation of his or her work, listen to what is lacking and what needs to be done differently, learn to not take it personally, but use the critique as a learning tool and grow from it. Cooks who are crippled by the emotion of another persons critique will have a tough time getting through a shift.

11. The strength to be self-critical

The best cooks know what they need to do to improve. He or she understands that the standards that they hold high must be equal to or more stringent than those of the chef. A good cook is his or her own worst critic, thus they are always looking to improve.

12. Passion for food

Conversations with cooks may drift to the mundane and the trivial at times, but for the most part, serious cooks are fascinated by food. They want to learn as much as they can, taste whatever is new, and become articulate communicators of ingredient nuances.

13. Desire to work as a member of a team

There is little room in a kitchen for individuals who want the limelight. The successful kitchen is a place of team, a mecca for people who believe that the sum of the parts is better than the quality of any individual component. Great kitchens are a result of great teams.

14. Desire

How badly do you want to pursue a career in food? Is this your calling, the one thing that will define you, the role in life that will help you to make a difference and satisfy your desire to be expressive? Do you have the desire to be a cook?

15. The sense to be proud, but humble at the same time

Cooks take great pride in their work, in a perfectly cooked dish, in a beautiful food presentation, in that rare compliment from a server or the chef, and in a busy night with no cook overs or re-fires. At the same time, cooks realise that their individual success on any given night is due to the work of others and they are not inclined to revel in what some might consider their good work.

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