Authored by Ruth Dsouza Prabhu in Food and Cooking
Published on 11-25-2009
The job of a Sous Chef is perhaps the only one where people work hard to become second-in-command. With the universal acceptance of the supremacy of French cuisine, several culinary terms have originated from this language. So too, the word ‘sous’, which means ‘under’.
The Sous Chef is the Executive Chef’s right hand and assumes command whenever he or she is not around. Besides assisting the Executive Chef in all his responsibilities, it is the Sous Chef who ensures that the kitchen is running smoothly, the line cooks are working in tandem and the food that is leaving the kitchen is based on approved recipes from the Executive Chef. In star establishments the Sous Chef often supervises the soups and sauces, as well as the gravies and stews. The Sous Chef does have a certain level of power, but one would have to argue its extent when compared to the Executive Chef. He however, does command the same respect as his superior and will not be disputed when he is in charge of the kitchen.
The role of a Sous Chef does not come pre-defined. He is the one person who has to be a master of all that takes place in the kitchen. This would mean that he be adept at handling any task thrown at him, from working hands-on in the prep room, to taking the place of sick colleague as a line cook, to approving food that leaves the kitchen as well as ensuring that the pantry and stocks are in order and sufficient. He is also looked at to assist the pastry chef with his prep work. Most Sous Chefs are expected to line cook at least one meal a day.
There may be a few times when the Sous Chef may actually have more experience than the Executive Chef. But it is expected that this be relegated to the shadows when the work day begins. He is expected to support every decision made by the Executive Chef when in front of the team but, can of course, voice his concerns in private. A Sous Chef is expected to be exemplary in every task he does and his work is expected to support the fact that he has been elevated to the position of Sous Chef. There is no room for shoddiness or mistakes.
In terms of character, a good Sous Chef is expected to don many hats a day in the kitchen. His job is often thankless and he is expected to carry on his duties irrespective of his feelings towards it. A Sous Chef needs to be resilient, patient and extremely good at multi-tasking. Having to shift mindsets while simultaneously handling the prep work, giving instructions over the day’s menu, and ensuring that all the line cooks are working in harmony, requires a special type of mental dexterity. A Sous Chef is expected to have great people skills. This is specially required since he will be one among the many cooks who has risen from the ranks. He will have to use his congenial working relations with the rest of the staff to ensure that all goes well. He has to be able to draw the fine line between camaraderie and authority.
Being organized, passionate and well prepared is the hallmark of a good Sous Chef. There is no place for ego or for emotions of any sort. If you are aspiring to be Sous Chef, work at being the best in every job. Don’t allow your ambition to ruin your working relations with your colleagues. Work diligently at ways to constantly improve and display your mettle. Discreetly take charge of stressful situations. Understand the mentality of your Executive Chef. Become an expert on his style. Research the working styles of his mentors and apply them to your work. Do not however let this overshadow your own unique style.
The more experience you gather in the kitchen, the better your skills. No task is considered too menial for a good Sous Chef, be it washing dishes or bussing tables. Get a degree from a reputed culinary school. You may not be taken in as a Sous Chef as soon as you step into the culinary world, but you can definitely work your way up.