How to Become a Chef in France
Becoming a chef in France requires a long commitment, both in terms of schooling and on-the-job training. The program is similar to that of a vocational school, but requires many years of on-the-job experience before one can be called “chef.”
A typical French kitchen brigade looks like the diagram below. To become a chef, you basically have to work your way up from the bottom. Each level in the hierarchy may take a few years to master. It all looks rather daunting, but the French start young, around the age of 14, with chefs following what is referred to as a vocational track rather than a general high school.
After Troisième or 8th/9th Grade
The CAP Cuisine program starts at around 14 years of age. Professional learning and on-the-job training with the aim of getting a job are emphasized, with less emphasis on French and math. It is usually completed in two or three years. With a CAP certificate, one can work as a commis de cuisine, or kitchen helper or assistant.
After Seconde or 10th Grade
The professional Bac is more or less equivalent to an American high school or vocational school diploma. One can specialize in Restauration with an option to further specialize in “organization and culinary production.” Graduates are ready to enter the job market as assistant commis or as line cooks.
The technological Bac in Hospitality is a more versatile and general diploma, centered on kitchen, restaurant and hotel hospitality. It does not prepare students to go directly into the job market, but instead for a BTS diploma, the French equivalent of a vocational training certificate.
Those holding a technological Bac in Hospitality can go on to get a BTS in Hospitality with an option for “arts de la table” and waiting tables. This study is more complete than the technological Bac; it is both technical and general, with the aim of preparing students for supervisory and management positions.
When does one become a real chef?
Completing some or all of these diplomas is the first step in becoming a chef, even a sous-chef, and one has to have mastered pretty much all the levels in the hierarchy above before earning the title, starting with commis de cuisine, and followed by chef de partie and second de cuisine before becoming chef de cuisine (see chart above).
As Raymond Oliver said:
The chef has been through the mill. He has been an apprentice, then a commis de cuisine, etc. As a cook, he would have been premier commis, chef de partie, chef saucier, second and finally gros bonnet (“big bonnet,” the accepted name of a chef de cuisine).
Real kitchen brigades are now few and far between but there still are some. In Paris, one of the largest is at the Plaza Athénée with forty cooks. In Tokyo at the Tokyo Kaikan there are several hundred white bonnets for several thousand daily customers.
Even after all this training, aspiring chefs must often take specialized training courses and pass competitive exams in order to be hired for public sector jobs. Chefs must be master cooks as well as managers and organizers.
As one moves up, one’s toque gets taller, showing one’s level in the hierarchy.
It takes at least ten years of kitchen experience to become a chef in France, all of which are a sort of paying “apprenticeship” leading to the “big toque.” It requires not only hard work, but dedication. Toques are light in weight, but they are earned through heavy labor and are therefore respected in French society. White bonnets and toques are serious matters in France.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.