An Interview with a Head Chef
Chef Ilya Dyagilev
La Roma Restaurant Ottawa
The restaurant world can be a cruel place. When Chef Ilya Dyagilev graduated in 2007 from a Culinary Arts program, he jumped right into that world. He had to make some changes, some sacrifices, and some compromises but he made it through with dedication and hard work. In the end, his work ethic was well-noticed and he was hired by La Roma Ottawa where he now works as the head chef.
In this interview, we will give you a glimpse into what his job as a head chef is really like. If you are interested in a culinary career, this is a great resource to get an inside look at how one person is living that life. We also invite you to watch Ilya’s “Day in the Life” video for even more insight.
What is your job description?
My main tasks as the head chef are to oversee everyday operations, ensure the quality and consistency of the food, ensure compliance with safety and sanitation procedures, expedite “prime time” and special events, and of course creating delicious food and culinary experiences for guests.
What is the salary of a chef?
A chef’s salary ranges depending on the size of the restaurant and its sales. Usually, this falls into the $40,000 to $90,000 CAD per year range though some chef can earn around $100,000 CAD. I fall in the $60,000 to $70,000 range.
What education is needed to become a chef?
To get a good base to start your career as a chef, it is very helpful to go to a cooking/culinary school. George Brown College in Toronto is a good example. In my case, I went to Algonquin Colleg in Ottawa for Culinary Arts. However, I personally do not think that education is mandatory for chefs. While it is good to have that base knowledge, many of the talented chefs I know have no formal training.
Most new culinary school graduates will begin at entry-level positions because real-life work experience is needed to transition from cooking in a classroom to cooking in the kitchen. In a way, being a chef is like on-going education.
What experience and other requirements are needed?
Having experience in all areas of the kitchen is paramount to being a great chef. From food prep, to butchering, to using commercial equipment, and everything in between.
As a chef, I take pride in making everything from scratch and many of these skills I learned after I graduated from culinary school. Baking techniques, bread making, pasta making, I learn all of these through practice and trial-and-error.
As an experienced chef, I am also required to manage my team, delegate the workload, and jump into action when needed in the kitchen.
What skills are useful as a chef?
Cooking skills aside, a chef must develop skills that are crucial to the daily operations of the restaurant. A chef should understand and manage financial matters, manage inventory, deal with suppliers, and be a leader. For me, the most important skill is leading my team in a positive and motivational way and being able to communicate well with them.
What tools are used by chefs?
While new tools and equipment are introduced all the time, I’d say a good set of knives and some pots and pans are all that is required to execute a good dish.
What is it like?
What is your workplace like?
It is definitely organized chaos in a very hot environment! I think most commercial kitchens are like that. We also have a close-knit, family feel at work. We spend a lot of time together and even though some moments can be tense, we are a great team and work well together.
What are your hours like as a chef?
I work long days and there are times where I run non-stop for 12 to 14 hours. Oh, and forget about holidays! Then I am working double!
What is the workload like in the kitchen?
That really depends on the amount of traffic in the restaurant. For example, in December, you cannot get out of the kitchen. However, in January, you have some downtime to do extra office work, plan menus, and prepare for upcoming events.
Describe a typical workday if one exists.
In our industry, there is no such thing as a typical day. I can arrive to work with a plan of what I’ll going to do that day, only to find a full house or a broken down machine in need of repair. Just like that, my plans are out the window.
It all comes down to responsibility. As head chef, everything is on your shoulders at the end of the day, even when you are not there. The restaurant’s name is on the line. Your name is on the line.
What is your story?
I ‘m going to skip the beginning but in 2007, I graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Algonquin College. With next to zero experience, I went into the wilderness of the cruel restaurant world. I made some changes in my life, I made some sacrifices, and with dedication and hard work, it took no time for me to be noticed. In fact, I simply showed up at the door of La Roma and got the job!
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I always wanted to be a military chef. I still do.
What has been the biggest obstacle in your career?
Honestly, at this point, I don’t think I have hit my biggest obstacle. I have worked hard to get where I am and I have made compromises and sacrifices but I see all of it as a great learning experience. I am very fortunate.
What is your passion?
I love cooking. There is something very rewarding about it for me. I could wake up in the middle of the night thinking of blood oranges and cognac and what kind of chocolate I can add to it.
What is your favourite task as a chef?
I have two. First is working on a new dish or menu by myself in the kitchen when no one is around. Second is working with my full crew on a busy night.
What do you love most about your career?
My work/life balance. Most chefs do not get to see their family much.
What are useful traits for future chefs?
Mental and physical stamina, the ability to deal with stress, and attention to detail.
What are useful abilities for people considering a culinary career?
Ability to work with others in heated/stressful environment. Ability work long hours especially at the beginning of your career. Ability to lead and communicate. And the ability to teach and learn too.
Advice for future chefs?
Professional cooking is not for everybody. Before you invest into it full tilt, get a part-time job or a stage in the kitchen for a few months. If you like it, just keep your eyes open and learn as much as you can from everyone you work with. Come to work with a smile on your face and be eager to learn.
How will this career evolve in the next 5 years?
People are aware of what they eat. That alone should drive up the market for unprocessed food and bring us back to homemade, locally grown foods giving real chefs a chance to shine in “mom and pop” kitchens.
Top career tips:
Don’t be afraid to put in your time.
Don’t be afraid to express yourself.
Be creative and have a positive attitude.
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