YPNG Mentor, Christopher Bullis
Chris was recently appointed the Executive Chef at Exposerve, a large food and beverage services company that has contracts with major entertainment venues for sporting events, concerts and the arts. He learned to cook with his mother while he was growing up and decided to make the culinary arts his career early in high school. Chris took culinary classes at the local technical college his junior and senior years and during that time entered and won both state and national cooking competitions. Success at these competitions came with scholarships that allowed him to go to one of the best culinary universities in the country. Chris has a strong work ethic. He began working as a cook when he was just sixteen and worked full time as a chef in hotel restaurants while he went to college. Chris points out that everyone starts at the bottom in this industry and must prove themselves before they are given more responsibility in a kitchen even if they have a degree. He also talks about how kitchens have a formal hierarchy, the best ways to gain the experience you need and what levels of certification you must achieve to advance your career as a chef. Chris’s story is also one that will inspire people who are labeled learning disabled and have struggled with school. He has been able to reach the highest level of his profession despite having dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult for him to read.
Because I have dyslexia, I was labeled learning disabled and took LD classes in English and Math while I was in high school. The classes were smaller and the teachers really helped me learn these subjects. My math teacher in particular had a real interest in all her students and taught us basic skills like how to balance a checkbook and do our taxes. Because of the LD label, I was given the opportunity to enter a program at Tulsa Technology Center my sophomore year where you attend a series of classes that let you sample fifteen different trades. Growing up I had always cooked with my mother and knew that I liked to cook. My first class was in culinary arts and I told my teacher that this was what I wanted to do. So rather than take classes to sample the fourteen other trades, he put my in a culinary class so that I could get more exposure to commercial cooking and be sure this was what I wanted to do for a career. I began the culinary program my junior year taking classes at TTC in the afternoon while attending my academic classes in the morning. Each day we would be picked up at the high school and brought back in their school bus that we called the yellow limousine. Unfortunately my mother unexpectedly passed away at about the same time I started. It was difficult for me to deal with losing her and so I took a job at a health club that had a restaurant. I would start at four o’clock after school and work until nine. Keeping busy was good for me and this job also let me practice cooking, which tied into what I was learning at TTC. A few months after I started, a member at the health club asked me to interview at a restaurant where she worked as a wine steward (sommelier) called the Polo Grill, one of Tulsa’s best upscale restaurants. When I interviewed with the head chef, the only thing he wanted was to see was how well I could handle a knife and had me do a few different cuts. I was hired first as a prep cook making salads. But all the fish we bought was whole and I learned to break down Halibut and Salmon as well as cut steaks and pork, something that helped me when I got to college.
While I was taking culinary classes at TTC, I also entered several cooking contests. I took first place in a state contest sponsored by the Oklahoma Restaurant Association and sixteenth in their national competition held in Orlando. That contest was also recorded for television and gave me the opportunity to learn more about how television shows are produced and also gave me the chance to tour Universal Studios. For that particular contest, we had sixty minutes to produce three dishes: a salad, an entre and a dessert. I also entered contests sponsored by the Family Career and Community Leaders of America. This is a club where chefs exchange knowledge about cooking. Their format gives you twenty minutes to study the recipes then they take them away and you prepare three courses. The state contest was at Oklahoma State University where I came in first. That allowed me to go to the national contest in Chicago. I was part of one of thirty-six teams of three people and also competed individually. My team took first place and I also received first place in the individual competition. These national awards came with scholarships that I could use to go to a college of culinary arts. I knew that I wanted to go to Johnson and Wales University in Denver. It was one of the highest ranked culinary schools in the US and had a beautiful campus near some large downtown hotels where I could work while going to school. I went to school from 7 in the morning to 2:30 and then went to work at the nearby hotels from 3 to 11 or later.
JWU is a formal schools where each day your uniform, apron and towels were checked. Your uniform, which included and apron, kerchief and hat, had to be clean and pressed, your shoes shined and your nails clean. They were always taking people on tours of the school and everything had to be perfect all the time. The course work included not just cooking but also business and management skills, science and nutrition. Restaurants use the terms front of the house and back of the house to refer to the dining and bar area and the kitchen. Although culinary arts concentrated more on cooking, there were also some courses in how to also manage the front of the house.
While I went to JWU, I had several positions working as a Line Chef and Sous Chef in hotel kitchens and as the Chef for a fine dinning restaurant in the largest downtown hotel. In 2008, the Democrat convention where Barrack Obama was nominated was held in Denver and several events were at our hotel. At one banquet we served over 4,000 people. The Secret Service came in two weeks earlier and went through everything. When they brought dignitaries like Bill and Hilary Clinton into the dining room, they entered through our kitchen. We all had to stop what we were doing and move back against the walls. My usual job at that hotel was as a chef at their fine dining Italian restaurant. That hotel was close to the courthouse and we served all the judges and attorneys. One evening Barrack and Michelle Obama wanted to eat alone and came into the restaurant. We cooked in a performance kitchen where people could see us and the flames that shot up when we prepared some of the dishes. That night we had Secret Service agents between us watching what we were doing and they were constantly startled every time there were flames coming from our pans.
I graduated from JWU after two years with an Associates Degree in Culinary Science. I wanted to stay in Denver and work at one of the larger hotels. But I had just married my high school sweetheart who wanted to move back home to Tulsa. My first job in Tulsa was as the chef for the restaurant at a new golf course that lasted only five months. The club had financial problems and cut back on their food service. My next job lasted seven years. It was at the River Spirits Casino where I worked as a chef and also leaned and ran their beverage services operation for part of the casino. My last job there was as the chef for a the sports bar where I created a new menu and was just starting the new job when I was let go to make room for another chef. I was out of work for about thirty days when I attended a Chef’s Ball for Tornado Relief. At that meeting I was talking to an older Frenchman who was the head chef at a large food and beverage services company, Exposerve. What I didn’t know at the time was that what I though was just a casual conversation was actually a job interview. I was hired and started the next day. My first job was making food for 550 guys at an army camp. I had to make the food, load the food and my equipment on the truck by myself and sever the food usually using local high school students to help. One day the chef who served them dinner couldn’t be there and I was asked to do both services. What I found out was that this was a test by the chef to see if I would last and how well I could handle pressure. I was later given responsibility for the donor auction at the Philbrook Museum. This was their major fundraiser where they received donations from a group of 400 people for over $2.4 million. Usually the auction took place while diner was being served. The people managing the auction wanted to try something different and just serve the first course and then serve the entrees and deserts after the auction. I was not sure they could do the auction in a reasonable time. So I designed a menu that would be served at room temperature. The auction did run over and when they told me start serving all we had to do was take the tops off the plates. Because I was successful managing the events I was assigned, I developed a good working relationship with the head chef who hired me. When he retired he recommended me the company’s owner for his position.
Working as a Chef
Kitchens have a formal hierarchy for responsibility and pay. Many people getting out of culinary schools who have not worked in a commercial kitchen don’t understand that even if you have a degree in the culinary arts you start at the bottom and have to prove yourself and work your way up.
The American Culinary Federation has a number of certifications you can receive based on testing your skills in the kitchen and written tests. These certification levels will give you an idea of how kitchen jobs are structured. Here is a list from the lowest to the highest level of certification:
- Certified Culinarian: An entry level position within a commercial foodservice operation responsible for preparing and cooking sauces, cold food, fish, soups and stocks, meats, vegetables, eggs and other food items.
- Certified Sous Chef: A chef who supervises a shift or station(s) in a foodservice operation. Equivalent job titles are banquet chef, garde manger, first cook, a.m. sous chef and p.m. sous chef.
- Certified Chef de Cuisine: A chef who is the supervisor in charge of food production in a foodservice operation. This could be a single unit of a multi-unit operation or a freestanding operation. He or she is in essence the chef of the operation with the final decision-making power as it relates to culinary operations.
- Certified Executive Chef: A chef who is the department head usually responsible for all culinary units in a restaurant, hotel, club, hospital or foodservice establishment. In addition to culinary responsibilities, other duties include budget preparation, payroll, maintenance, controlling food costs and maintaining financial and inventory records.
- Certified Master Chef: This is the highest certification. A CMC® possesses the highest degree of professional culinary knowledge, skill and mastery of cooking techniques. Once you reach this designation you will be sought out for jobs.
It is a good idea that as a chef you join the The American Culinary Federation. They not only provide these certifications, but the local chapters meet every month where chefs share ideas and where you can learn from other chefs.
What It Takes To Be a Good Chef
- You must be able to handle pressure. When you have thirty orders hanging and are preparing those meals, things can get intense. You generally start out pretty friendly with you co-workers then as the pressure builds you generally don’t like anyone but afterwards you are all friends again.
- You have to be able to manage people and also deal with difficult people in the kitchen who may be your boss when you are starting. Some chefs can use pretty raw language and you have to be able to deal with it and sometimes work in that kind of atmosphere.
- A good sense of humor helps when you under pressure preparing meals and need a way for you and the people who work with you to deflect that pressure while you are working.
- You need to be a good mentor to less experienced people in your kitchen. A lot of my success was because the chefs I worked for were interested in helping me constantly improve my skills and in giving me more responsibility.
- You need endurance. Being a chef is physically demanding and the hours are long. You are going to be working every Friday and Saturday night until at least 11. Count on a sixty-hour workweek.
- You have to understand that this time commitment means that you will have to sacrifice some of your personal life compared to people who work regular day jobs just during the week. This can be a strain on a marriage. A higher than average divorce rate is associated with being a chef.
How to Prepare to Become a Chef
- You need to make sure that you get a good math foundation while you are in high school. Everything a chef does from developing recipes; menus and ordering food uses formulas and budget projections.
- English is also important. There is a lot of communication from customers and suppliers by written e-mail. Knowing how to write well is important.
- You can get a leg up by beginning your training while you are in high school like I did if you have access to a technical college that will give you high school credits for taking culinary classes.
- After high school you have a number of options to advance your education. Technical schools offer advanced classes and two year associates degrees. You can also attend a culinary college and get either a two year associates degree there like I did or a full four year degree. The higher ranked schools not only give you the best education but also give you the opportunity to develop a network of contacts who will help you get jobs. Plus the degree itself from one of these better schools opens doors. Here is a link to the top twenty culinary schools in the US:
But these schools can be expensive. The school I attended was $38 thousand per year. There are less expensive options at some public colleges that you can also consider that will still give you good training.
I have always loved to cook beginning as a child cooking with my mother. Being a commercial chef is challenging and I learn something new every day. There is also a camaraderie among chefs where we all share ideas and learn from each other. It is a demanding job that requires you to work under pressure and also work longer hours than people in many other careers. But for me the rewards from having a career where I do something I really enjoy and have the opportunity to be creative is worth the extra time and effort.
US Department of Labor Statistics for Chefs
In May 2012, the median annual wages for chefs and head cooks in the top four industries employing these workers were as follows:
Recreation Industries $47,490
Special Food Service $42,960
The top 10% of all chefs earned over $73,720.
About 13 percent of chefs and head cooks were self-employed in 2012. Some self-employed chefs run their own restaurant or catering business.
The level of pay for chefs and head cooks varies greatly by region and employer. Pay is usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs work, as well as in major metropolitan and resort areas.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time and often work early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Many executive chefs and chefs who run their own business work 12-hour days, because they oversee the delivery of food products early in the day and use the afternoon to prepare special menu items.