You may explore your interest in cooking right at home. Prepare meals for your family, offer to make a special dessert for a friend's birthday, or create your own recipes. Any such hands-on experiences will build your skills and help you determine what type of cooking you enjoy the most.
Volunteer opportunities may be available at local kitchens that serve the homeless or others in need. You can also get a paying part-time or summer job at a fast-food or other restaurant. Large and institutional kitchens, such as those in nursing homes, may offer positions such as sandwich or salad maker, soda-fountain attendant, or kitchen helper; while doing one of these jobs, you can observe the work of chefs and cooks.
Cooks and chefs are primarily responsible for the preparation and cooking of foods. Chefs usually supervise the work of cooks; however, the skills required and the job duties performed by each may vary depending upon the size and type of establishment.
Cooks and chefs begin by planning menus in advance. They estimate the amount of food that will be required for a specified period of time, order it from suppliers, and check it for quantity and quality when it arrives. Following recipes or their own instincts, they measure and mix ingredients for soups, salads, gravies, sauces, casseroles, and desserts. They prepare meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other foods for baking, roasting, broiling, and steaming. They use blenders, mixers, grinders, slicers, or tenderizers to prepare the food, and ovens, broilers, grills, roasters, or steam kettles to cook it. During the mixing and cooking, cooks and chefs rely on their judgment and experience to add seasonings; they constantly taste and smell food being cooked and must know when it is cooked properly. To fill orders, they carve meat, arrange food portions on serving plates, and add appropriate gravies, sauces, or garnishes.
Some larger establishments employ specialized cooks, such as banquet cooks, pastry cooks, and broiler cooks. The garde-manger (French for "keeper of the food") designs and prepares buffets, and pantry cooks prepare cold dishes for lunch and dinner. Other specialists are raw shellfish preparers and carvers.
In smaller establishments without specialized cooks, kitchen helpers, or prep cooks, the general cooks may have to do some of the preliminary work themselves, such as washing, peeling, cutting, and shredding vegetables and fruits; cutting, trimming, and boning meat; cleaning and preparing poultry, fish, and shellfish; and baking bread, rolls, cakes, and pastries.
Commercial cookery is usually done in large quantities, and many cooks, including school cafeteria cooks and mess cooks, are trained in "quantity cookery" methods. Numerous establishments today are noted for their specialties in foods, and some cooks work exclusively in the preparation and cooking of exotic dishes, very elaborate meals, or some particular creation of their own for which they have become famous. Restaurants that feature national cuisines may employ international and regional cuisine specialty cooks.
In the larger commercial kitchens, chefs may be responsible for the work of a number of cooks, each preparing and cooking food in specialized areas. They may, for example, employ expert cooks who specialize in frying, baking, roasting, broiling, or sauce cookery. Cooks are often titled by the kinds of specialized cooking they do, such as fry, vegetable, or pastry. Chefs have the major responsibility for supervising the overall preparation and cooking of the food.
Other duties of chefs may include training cooks on the job, planning menus, pricing food for menus, and purchasing food. Chefs may be responsible for determining the weights of portions to be prepared and served. Among their other duties may be the supervision of the work of all members of the kitchen staff. The kitchen staff assists by washing, cleaning, and preparing foods for cooking; cleaning utensils, dishes, and silverware; and assisting in many ways with the overall order and cleanliness of the kitchen. Most chefs spend part of their time striving to create new recipes that will win the praise of customers and build their reputations as experts. Many chefs focus their attention on particular kinds of food, such as pastry.
Expert chefs who have a number of years of experience behind them may be employed as executive chefs. These chefs do little cooking or food preparation—their main responsibilities are management and supervision. Executive chefs interview, hire, and dismiss kitchen personnel, and they are sometimes responsible for the dining room waiters and other employees. These chefs consult with the restaurant manager regarding the profits and losses of the food service and ways to increase business and cut costs. A part of their time is spent inspecting equipment. Executive chefs are in charge of all food services for special functions such as banquets and parties, and they spend many hours in coordinating the work for these activities. They may supervise the special chefs and assist them in planning elaborate arrangements and creations in food preparation. Executive chefs may be assisted by workers called sous chefs.
Smaller restaurants may employ only one or two cooks and workers to assist them. Cooks and assistants work together to prepare all the food for cooking and to keep the kitchen clean. Because smaller restaurants and public eating places usually offer standard menus with little variation, the cook's job becomes standardized. Such establishments may employ specialty cooks, barbecue cooks, pizza bakers, food order expediters, kitchen food assemblers, or counter supply workers. In some restaurants food is cooked as it is ordered; cooks preparing food in this manner are known as short-order cooks.
Regardless of the duties performed, cooks and chefs are largely responsible for the reputation and monetary profit or loss of the eating establishment in which they are employed.