I am myself a cook, and spend a great deal of my own time on various
forms of professional development. I will be answering this question
partly from my own personal knowledge, and partly from a variety of
on- and off-line resources.
A career in the kitchen takes a long time to develop, usually. We
begin as apprentices or culinary arts students (or, sometimes,
dishwashers!), and over time grow into highly skilled artisans. Those
who excel in the business are sponges, absorbing information and
influences from all around. The "good ones" will then transmute these
raw ingredients, in a sort of mental alchemy, into a personal and
For the purposes of discussion, I'm going to divide a chef's career
into two stages: getting there; and staying there. Each portion of a
career has its own priorities, and learning takes place in different
ways. Most of the resources I'll mention have applicability to both
phases of a chef's career, but I'll arrange them in a roughly
chronological (or at least logical) order. I'm guessing that your
question is aimed primarily at established chefs looking to keep up to
date, but I will begin at the beginning in the interest of
So, from the top...
1) Basic training
It's hard to say when the urge to work with food strikes. For some,
it takes place in childhood under the eye of a family member. For
others, a minimum-wage job taken on during the teen years may spark a
previously unsuspected talent. Still others may decide to attend
cooking school because they want to be like those celebrity chefs on
TV (a sure path to heartbreak). At any rate, if we wish to continue
in the kitchen, there comes a time we need to get a sound grounding in
How can you appreciate innovation, after all, if you don't understand the context?
A standard education in cooking will include the fundamentals of meat,
poultry, fish, vegetable, and starch preparations. It will include
the making of stocks and sauces, the very fundamentals of cuisine, and
any number of soups and cold dishes. All of the standard preparations
which form the backbone of professional cookery were developed
painstakingly by our predecessors, by dint of dogged perseverance and
the occasional flash of brilliance. While many diners and critics
like to think that today's chef operates in a state of improvisational
grace, we in the trade know that we build our flashy edifices of
cuisine on the hard work of our forebears.
So...whether we go to cooking school, apprentice in a number of
professional kitchens, or simply work with one chef for an extended
period, the net result is that the chef-to-be gains a grounding in the
basic rules and routines of the culinary world. From there, we can
begin to build.
Mentoring, essentially, is simply the future chef becoming gaining the
support and benevolent intervention of a more experienced cook.
Mentoring may begin at any time. Michelin-starred chef Georges Blanc
has literally been in the business all his life, given that his mother
and grandmother before him were successful and celebrated cooks.
Likewise Jacques Pepin, who first cut his teeth in his mother's
restaurant. For others, the significant relationship may come later;
chef Gary Danko of the eponymous California restaurant had already
graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in the
field for few years before his career-making encounter with educator
Most successful chefs have had a significant mentor in their past.
Paul Bocuse, for example, worked for the legendary Fernand Point at La
Pyramide before going out on his own. Bocuse, and his contemporaries
who helped found the "Nouvelle Cuisine" movement, imbibed their
passion for simplification from Point. Raji Jallepelli made her name
by applying French technique the Indian food she grew up with, but she
learned that French technique by spending time in the kitchen of
Great mentors like these (and hundreds of others, famous or not, who
are influential in today's cuisine) serve an important role in the
life of a young chef-to-be. They provide a bridge between the
culinary past and future. At their best, they provide the young cook
with a glimpse at what it is possible to aspire to.
2) Dining out
Eating in the best available restaurants is always a key method for
chefs and budding chefs to "see what's out there." Andrew Dornenburg
(himself a cook) and Karen Page, in their book Chef's Night Out (John
Wiley & Sons, NY, NY, 2001), state flatly that "...the most important
aspect of a professional chef's development is eating out." They go
on to buttress that statement with quotes from a number of leading
Learning about food in "the front of the house" is entirely different
from the way we learn it in "the back of the house" (ie, the kitchen).
In the kitchen, the emphasis is on the process; in the dining room
it's on the end result. By eating in the best places we can find or
afford, we are given a glimpse into the next level of proficiency.
Occasionally, we may see or smell or eat or experience something that
changes our perspective forever. In another of Dornenburg and Page's
books, Becoming a Chef, one celebrated chef recalls a meal at Fredy
Girardet's restaurant in Switzerland. At that moment, he resolved to
sell his flourishing print shop business and take to the kitchen.
This is an extreme example, of course!
For young chefs in the making, tasting the work of their peers and
superiors is absolutely fundamental; every bit as much as it is for a
young athlete to seek out the best available competition. Even
established chefs need to continually seek out opportunities to be
stretched and challenged by the work of the best of their peers.
3) Print media
There are many ways in which print media help shape the flow of
information from chef to chef. Books and magazines provide a rich
vein of ore for established veteran and ambitious newcomer alike.
Cookbooks are an obvious starting point. Many chefs have collections
ranging into the tens of thousands; almost all have a few trusted
volumes over their desk at work. Tellingly, the most common books are
the stalwarts of classical cuisine; Escoffier, the Larousse
Gastronomique, and Saulnier's Repertoire de la Cuisine. Mediocre
chefs complain of the oppressive weight of the past, but great chefs
are ongoingly inspired by it. Excuse me if I harp on this point, I
think it important.
With the advent of the celebrity chef (and a correspondingly large
number of earnest "foodies" looking for coffee table books), modern
cookbooks are an increasingly valuable source of tips, techniques, and
ideas. Almost every top chef you can think of has one or more
beautifully illustrated cookbooks offering versions of their signature
dishes; often these will include superbly detailed descriptions of the
techniques - and more importantly, the thought processes - used in
Another great printed resource is the magazine. These may range from
stodgy-but-valuable industry mags to targeted publications like Food
Arts, Art Culinaire, or Pasty Arts and Design. These feature recipes
and interviews built around the leading chefs of the day, as do
mass-market publications like Gourmet and Food & Wine. As a rule
trade magazines are focused on the business end of running a
restaurant, while the "glossies" are more likely to spotlight a
specific chef and his/her food. Because of their timeliness,
magazines can be a valuable resource for capturing the state of the
art at any given moment. This is especially so for chefs outside the
main capitols of haute cuisine, who have fewer opportunities to crib
from their peers at first hand.
Again, because all things food-related are culturally "hot" right now,
even publications which are not specifically food-oriented may provide
an inquisitive chef with useful information. Mass-market magazines,
regional publications, and even daily or weekly newspapers frequently
now feature articles and columns on food-related topics.
I am ambivalent about including television in this list, because in
the main I feel that cooking shows offer little to the professional.
Somehow, I can't imagine Thomas Keller sitting at home watching Rachel
However, like newspapers, television stations are looking to
capitalize on the current level of interest in food and cooking.
Information-driven programming will often have programs on new
ingredients and techniques, while celebrity chefs frequently provide
interviews and cooking demonstrations. In short, while this is not
going to be a primary source for any chef, television does offer some
grist for the mill.
The internet, on the other hand, is prime territory for professional
development. I could write an article-length piece on this alone.
For me personally, books and the internet are my primary sources of
new information (I have two kids and two student loans, so eating out
is seldom an option for me).
The 'net offers any number of opportunities for a savvy chef to stay
abreast of what's happening in the field. One of the most fundamental
is simply the ease of communication offered by e-mail. Now chefs can
brainstorm or ask for help without having to match time zones
(irritating) or schedules (really difficult). Factor in easy
communication with growers, suppliers, and current or potential
diners, and you'll readily understand that e-mail has created some
significant changes in how chefs work.
Weblogs ("blogs") are another excellent resource. Say, for example,
that I'd like to introduce some North African flavours into my
cooking. As it happens, French-trained Algerian chef Farid Zadi
publishes two blogs on this very subject. Do I want to get a
firsthand look at how legendary Catalan chef Ferran Adria runs his
kitchen? Blogger LKL Chu documented the six-month "stage" she spent
at El Bulli (see "Resources," below).
Restaurant websites, and chefs' personal websites, are also a resource
to draw upon. Sometimes they'll include detailed tutorials on
specific dishes or techniques (see Gary Danko's website, below). At
the very least, they'll usually give a chef the opportunity to look at
the menu, prices, and (often) decor of restaurants in locations far
removed from them.
Finally, there is the special-interest forum. These range from
old-school Usenet groups, to mailing lists like Chowhound, to
full-featured and streamlined modern websites like eGullet. These
vary widely in quality and content, but at their best they provide a
tremendous resource. By attracting a wide range of people with shared
interests - food lovers, chefs, critics, publishers, journalists,
suppliers, growers, and more - a good forum provides a unique
environment for the exchange of ideas.
This is just a few of the ways that the internet may serve to keep a
chef up to date. There are many others (as I've said, I could write
pages on this subject alone) but these would be the most
6) Suppliers and growers
Information about new products and techniques frequently comes
directly from suppliers themselves.
Sometimes this is sparked by a new technology, or an innovative use of
an old technology. In the 1980's, for example, French company Demarle
turned the culinary world on its ear when they introduced their line
of non-stick silicone mats (Silpat) and bakeware (Flexipan). Bakers,
pastrychefs, and chefs alike quickly developed new and innovative
techniques to take advantage of the unique qualities of these
products. Avant-garde chefs like Ferran Adria (Spain), Heston
Blumenthal (UK), and Grant Achatz (US) are especially noted for
co-opting non-kitchen technology to serve their creative muse.
Growers play a tremendous role in today's restaurant, as well. More
and more chefs are forming active partnerships with the farmers,
ranchers, and fishermen who provide them with their raw ingredients.
In the area of produce, especially, new cultivars are arriving on the
market all the time. Sometimes these will be new hybrids with
long-desired characteristics; sometimes they will be "heirloom"
varieties with long-forgotten characteristics. Sometimes it will be a
herb which has previously been difficult to find, or relegated to
Suppliers and distributors are also a fertile source of new ideas for
the chef. This may come in many ways. Sometimes it's as simple as a
bit of gossip ("Hey, you know what the guys at 'Restaurant X' are
doing with these things?"); sometimes it will be in the form of
seminars with representatives of the manufacturer or distributor.
Which brings us to...
7)Master Classes, Workshops, Seminars
There is one thing that every chef knows in his/her heart of hearts:
no matter who you are, or how good you are, there are people out there
who have better skills than you. No chef worth his salt will
willingly miss the opportunity to learn from the best. In fact, a
really good chef is humble enough to know that he can learn useful
things even from non-professionals (or his own apprentices).
As with most professions, chefs have the opportunity to attend any
number of workshops, seminars, and masterclasses in the run of a given
year. Some are offered by schools, some by suppliers, some by
individual chefs. My pastry instructor at cooking school, for
example, spends a few weeks of each year learning advanced techniques
from the redoubtable Swiss pastrychef Ewald Notter. The glossy
revenue-generating machine that is the Culinary Institute of America
offers numerous workshops and seminars through the year, at its New
York and California campuses; and also from its Prochef website (I've
done a couple of the free ones online).
The higher class of workshops offer an opportunity to learn directly
from the best in the business, those at the absolute cutting edge of
8) Hanging out
Cooks and chefs naturally tend to gravitate together. We share the
same interests, the same trials, the same ghastly work schedules.
Therefore, when we need a sympathetic ear to rant or brag into, we
tend to turn to our colleagues. This "birds of a feather" scenario
can lead to some truly fruitful brainstorming, and is a great forum
for asking questions and sharing information. While the caricature of
the demanding, paranoid prima donna chef is not entirely without
foundation (and we're no less prone to personality conflicts than any
other group), most chefs are willing and happy to help each other out.
Although it would be impractical to give an exhaustive list of
resources for chefs, I will provide you here with a few typical
examples in several of the above categories.
Classic Haute Cuisine
Larousse Gastronomique, ed. Prosper Montagne
The encyclopedia of cooking. Although the Larousse is primarily built
around the classical repertoire, the current edition has extensive new
sections on current techniques and international cooking.
La Guide Culinaire, Auguste Escoffier (various English translations)
The most influential chef of recent centuries, Escoffier laid the
foundations of modern haute cuisine. This book is his personal
compendium of recipes from the late 19th century. At the Culinary
Institute of America, it is referred to simply as "the Bible."
Le Repertoire de la Cuisine, Louis Saulnier
The grand cuisine of Escoffier, reduced to a pocket-sized book of
Aquavit, Marcus Samuelsson
Charlie Trotter's, Charlie Trotter
The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller
A magazine consciously aimed at the state of the art in cooking.
Like the above, but in a larger format and with more colour
illustrations. Several chefs prepare several dishes each, in any
Pastry Art and Design
A similar publication, but aimed at pastrychefs.
Because there are literally thousands, I'll provide links just to the
three mentioned above:
Ya Rayi (North African cuisine, Farid Zadi)
Algerian Cuisine/Cuisine Algerienne (Farid Zadi)
Movable Feast (LKL Chu)
Restaurant Gary Danko
This site is flash-heavy, but still reasonably functional. It
demonstrates everything I'd mentioned above: great pictures of the
food, great pictures of the interior, and even tutorials on specific
dishes and techniques.
This site combines a number of functions, being both a showcase for
numerous chefs and writers; and also an industry portal. There are a
whole lot of recipes and tips to be found here, and it's also a good
place to find workshops and seminars.
America's greatest homegrown chef, or at least the chef who would get
the greatest degree of consensus if you ask around. This website
covers all of his restaurants.
There are any number of forums on food and food-related topics. These
are the two biggest:
Of all food-related forums on the internet, Chowhound still claims the
most members (though eGullet, below, generates a higher volume of
The eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters (aka eGullet)
My single greatest tool for professional development. Members range
from everyday food lovers to "grunt" cooks like me to journalists to
famous chefs. Recently transmuted from a straightforward forum to a
full-fledged nonprofit society.
The Culinary Institute of America's continuing education division,
offering a variety of workshops, seminars, and course materials for
the professional chef.
There are as many ways to keep up to date as there are chefs, so no
single treatise (especially one this short) can hope to be exhaustive.
However, this is a tolerably comprehensive summary of the major
avenues to professional development. I did very little actual online
searching to compile this answer; it is mostly derived from personal
knowledge and various online conversations I've had.
I have approached a number of people by e-mail for their input, though
of course I have no way of knowing at this point how many will
respond. In the event that anyone provides me with significant
additional information, I will of course provide you with this
Thank you for an interesting question!