A career as a professional cook or chef means the chance to create delicious meals; it can also involve long hours, a stressful work environment and a lot of hard work. There are two ways to get into a career as a cook or chef; starting at the bottom and working your way up or attending a culinary school and then training under a professional chef. Regardless of how you choose to do it, you need a lot of experience and education before you enter the world of professional cooking.
Decide between attending a culinary institute or starting your career as a bottom-rang kitchen worker (usually as a dishwasher). Although culinary school is expensive, you will get the experience and training you need to succeed as a professional cook. It will take longer to work your way up, and you may not learn all of the skills you need, but you will be making money from your first day on the job, instead of paying to learn. The choice depends on your personal preferences and financial position.
Apply to cooking school, or find a high-quality restaurant. If you are applying to cooking school, remember that the school you attend can help to open doors in the culinary world, especially if you go to one of the top schools, such as the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu. If you are trying to find a restaurant position, apply to several fine dining restaurants in your area. If you are having difficulty finding a position, try some of the more basic diners and family restaurants until you have enough experience to apply to, and get hired at, the better places.
Learn as much as you possibly can in culinary school. Take every opportunity that is presented to you; culinary schools often offer externship programs with some of the top restaurants in the area. Take extra seminars and courses if you can; the more well-rounded your culinary education is, the better your chances are of working in a better restaurant. If you are working your way up through a restaurant, you should also be taking advantage of every opportunity you're granted. If you get the chance to help the prep cook, for example, you should take it. The sooner you learn new skills, the sooner you can move up in the order of cooks.
Find employment as a cook. After graduating culinary school, you may have offers from top chefs to work for them in their restaurants. From there, you will be able to move through the higher cooking positions, gaining valuable real-world experience. For cooks who chose experience over a formal education, once you have moved up to a cook in you first restaurant, you may be able to hire into another restaurant for the same, or a similar, position. From there, you can continue learning and eventually get promoted to a better cooking position.
Work you way up the ladder. After enough years of cooking experience, depending on whether or not you went to culinary school and how well you used opportunities to your advantage, you might get the chance to be a head chef. An owner looking for a new head chef (the cook in charge of the entire restaurant) may hire you. Alternatively, you could open and become head chef at your own restaurant.