Across industries, history shows that people who do not improve their knowledge and skills will be outpaced by someone who is faster, smarter, and more up-to-date. People who do not progress will be at a disadvantage in the employment market and unable to advance their careers. For busy foodservice people, the challenge is finding the time and then documenting that growth. And, because the industry is so broad, individual growth plans look very different. Growth for a fine-dining chef will likely be dissimilar from that of a research or noncommercial chef. But there are common ways foodservice professionals can advance and document their skills.
One way is through certification, which is a way of documenting your ongoing professional development. Professional certification is validated by an external organization, is recognizable within that industry, and stays with you as you move through your career. Once a professional certification has been obtained, the process typically requires a person stay current through continuing education, seminars, and conferences in order to maintain the certification.
Another way to demonstrate professional growth is to participate in competitions. Though they are not for everyone, competitions stretch participants in new ways—regardless of whether or not the person wins a medal. When you test your skills against other professionals, you will probably learn as much about yourself as you will from others. In fact, I believe it is impossible to not learn from competing. Competition forces us to confront the limits of our knowledge and skills through a type of peer review. I know many chefs who find inspiration, friendship, and validation from competing with other highly skilled professionals. You can also measure and document your growth with medals and prizes won, and by challenging yourself to move from local to regional to national and even international competitions. The path to the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung Culinary Exhibition or the Bocuse d’Or starts humbly, but leads to mastery.
As professionals, we need to stay up-to-date on industry trends and news by reading trade journals, participating in trade associations, and attending conferences in our field. All of these ensure we are aware of the latest techniques, ingredients, equipment, and—perhaps most important—what the thought leaders in our business are saying.
Young cooks can also stage in kitchens they might not otherwise have access to in order to gain experience. Even if you decide not to work at that property, you can learn valuable skills and increase your professional network. Everyone knows who the hottest cook in any kitchen is: Watch that person, figure out what makes him or her special, and use it to improve your own performance.
Perhaps most importantly, chefs can engage in personal reflection in order to assess their own skills and limitations. Sometimes growth can be as simple as determining what you do well and what you can improve on so that you can make plans for your future and find new ways to stretch yourself. However, change takes time, it requires us to overcome setbacks, and it is ongoing.
By making growth a priority, you can ensure that your skills stay relevant and you can improve your career prospects. No matter what method works best for you, one of the keys to success in the culinary world is committing yourself to developing skills.