How to Become a Commis
Commis comes from the French word for 'assistant' and refers to an apprentice serving under a station or line chef. Most commis are recent graduates from culinary school or are in the process of branching out from a station they have already learned. The term can also be used to describe an assistant station chef in larger establishments where stations employ both senior and junior chefs.
The concept of the kitchen brigade was designed to help formalize the specific ranks and responsibilities in large hotel and restaurant kitchens. The system was created by Georges Auguste Escoffier, a French chef, in order to help his kitchens run more smoothly. The title of station chef, also known as a chef de partie, is used to refer to a member of the kitchen brigade assigned to a particular area in the kitchen, each having its own unique responsibilities and tasks.
Within the brigade system, there are ten primary stations that must be staffed. Smaller establishments will often combine one or more stations together and assign them to a single chef in order to maximize the efficiency of a limited kitchen staff. Larger establishments, on the other hand, may add additional stations in order to further distinguish some of the individual specializations within each larger station. Once again, commis is the title given to the assistant or apprentice working in each particular station.
The role of the saucier, commonly known as the sauce chef, is often the highest respected role in the kitchen brigade system of stations, reporting directly to the head chef or sous-chef. The saucier is responsible for a variety of tasks, such as sauteing foods and preparing soups and stews, however, their most vital role lies within the creation of all sauces and gravies that are meant to accompany other dishes. The saucier commis will typically be in charge of preparing any needed ingredients for the day, creating basic soups and stews, and possibly working with some of the more basic sauces. The saucier himself, on the other hand, would be responsible for monitoring any items being prepared by the commis, as well as handling the more complex or specialty dishes that the position is in charge of producing.
The poissonnier, commonly referred to as the fish chef, is responsible for the preparation of all fish dishes in the kitchen. This can include acquiring fresh fish on a daily basis from local fishermen or other merchants, as well as bringing in non-local catches, as needed, to supplement the menu. The poissonnier is also in charge of preparing all of the fish dishes on the menu, whether they be entrees or appetizers. In smaller kitchens, the poissonnier will often prepare any sauces that need accompany the fish, in the absence of a saucier. This would also make him responsible for any fish stocks or soups as well. The poissonnier commis is typically placed in charge of cleaning and prepping all of the fish that will be used that day. This include skinning, de-boning, and filleting, as needed, though sometimes this task is handled by the boucher in larger kitchens. He would also be responsible for the preparation of any basic fish dishes or simple soups and stocks.
The rotisseur, also known as the roast chef, is in charge of preparing any roasted or braised meats on the menu. This includes anything from steaks to veal to lamb or any other similar items. The rotisseur may also be in charge of obtaining meats from local suppliers or arranging deliveries from other retailers. The cooking styles used often focus on cooking the meats very slowly in order to hold in as much flavor as possible. Many meats are also braised, which involves searing the outside of the meat to lock in moisture and then cooking it in the oven or on a stove to bring out the flavor of the meat and obtain a tender cut. Similar to the other stations, the rotisseur commis would be in charge of prepping the meats, as well as preparing basic dishes. If a boucher is not staffed, both the rotisseur and his commis would be in charge of butchering the larger cuts of meat upon arrival.
The grillardin, also known as the grill chef, is, as the name implies, responsible for any foods that must be grilled. This can include meats, poultry, or even vegetables. The grillardin commis will typically work alongside the grillardin, assisting, as needed, with any grilling tasks. In smaller establishments, the tasks traditionally carried out by the grillardin and his commis may be incorporated into the rotisseur station.
The friturier, more commonly known as the fry cook, handles any foods that must be cooked in oils or other animal fats. Like the grillardin, the friturier can handle anything from meats to potatoes to vegetables. The friturier commis is often responsible for preparation of any items that need to be fried, particularly cutting and breading the foods to prepare them for the fryer. As with grillardin station, in smaller restaurants or hotels, the friturier station may also be combined with the rotisseur station. The task of breading the items may also be assigned to the boucher.
The entremetier station is where one would find the vegetable chef. Unlike other stations which are managed by a single chef, larger establishments may often choose to employ two different chefs to work the entremetier station. A potager chef would be in charge of making any soups that are on the menu and a legumier chef would be in charge of preparing any vegetable dishes. The potager commis is typically responsible for making any basic stocks and preparing any necessary soup ingredients. The legumier commis would, in turn, be in charge of preparing any vegetables for their desired cooking procedure. Both chefs in the potager and legumier stations are responsible for creating any hot appetizers on the menu as well. In smaller establishments, the role of the potager would be handled by the saucier and the role of the legumier would be divided among the other stations according to the way the vegetables are to be prepared, i.e grilled, roasted, fried. The preparation of hot appetizers would then pass to the saucier.
The tournant is the all-purpose chef in the kitchen brigade. The role is designed to move from station to station, assisting with any tasks, as needed. The tournant, along with his commis, must have a broad knowledge of the basic operations of each station, allowing him to step in when another station member is absent or the workload approaches a more hectic pace. Also known as a swing cook, the tournant commis has one of the best opportunities to experience each and every station within the entire brigade. This is ideal for a commis who has not yet decided what role he wishes to pursue, or even someone who prefers a general knowledge base, as opposed to a more specialized concentration.
The garde manger, also known as the pantry chef, is in charge of most cold dishes on the menu. This includes various salads and cold appetizers, such as pate, cheese spreads, or even tartars. The garde manger is also in charge of making any large buffet services look presentable. This is typically done with a variety of decorative vegetables and other food items, particularly when they are carved or molded into unique and artistic designs. The garde manger commis is in charge of preparing all of the cold items to be assembled by the garde manger, as well as assisting with basic dishes and displays. The station may also be tasked with controlling all dry, refrigerated, and frozen ingredients, working with the chef de partie at each individual station to ensure adequate supplies are on hand at all times.
The boucher is in charge of preparing all meats and poultry before they are delivered to their respective stations for preparation in menu dishes. Also commonly referred to as a butcher, the boucher may also handle fish and seafood preparations as well. The boucher commis will assist the boucher in the butchering process. In smaller establishments, he may also handle breading various items to prepare them for frying. Another important role of both the boucher and his commis is handling charcuterie. This is a rather large category of food that includes sausages, hams, and other salted, cured, or preserved meat items.
The patissier, also known as a pastry chef, is typically one of the most beloved of all the station chefs, particularly for the dishes he is charged with preparing. This station is responsible for creating or preparing any baked goods, such as breads and pastries.
The patissier is also in charge of all dessert items on the menu, giving this station a wide range of techniques and types of food to be utilized. From cakes to pies to frozen desserts, the patissier has full control of nearly everything sweet that is served off the menu, as well as any confections used for displays are garnishes. In smaller restaurants, this role may also be charged with any fruit and cheese dishes, as well as the preparation of specialty drinks designed to be served with or in place of dessert. Since there are so many specific techniques involved in this role, the patisserie commis generally works side by side with the patisserie to gain hands on guidance on all aspects of the role. The patissier may also chose to work in an area separate from the main kitchen where room temperature and environment can be controlled more easily. At times, they may even operate in a smaller building detached from the main kitchen, particularly when large showpieces are being created.
Because of the wide range of responsibilities this position this position is tasked with, larger establishments may allow the patissier to employ a full team of pastry chefs under his command. If he chooses to employ other staff, they will often fall into one of four categories. Each specialized pastry chef may also have his own commis working under him as well.
A confiseur is responsible for creating petit fours, which are small delicate cakes with numerous layers covered in ornate frosting designs, as well as any candy that is served by the hotel or restaurant or used to garnish other dishes. A glacier would be in charge of handling any ice creams, sorbets, gelatos or other cold and frozen desserts. For this role, it may be extremely crucial to work in a temperature controlled environment. The tasks of handling breads and pastries will often pass to the boulanger, commonly known as a baker. The boulanger and his commis will be responsible for basic cakes as well. A decorateur, on the other hand, is charged with the creation of specialty cakes and more ornate dessert displays. He may also be specialized in sugar and chocolate sculpting as well, used primarily for large decorative centerpieces.
The other duty of any commis is to properly maintain the appropriate tools for the station and chef he works for. This may include knives, pastry bags, grilling tools, or even specialty pots and pans. The commis is charged with having all of the various tools prepped and ready to go at the beginning of the day, as well as ensuring all of the tools have been properly cleaned and put away at the end of the day.
Commis Education Programs
There are three basic levels of education that a budding chef may pursue, the first of which is completing one or more certificate or diploma courses. Unlike traditional schooling, certificate courses range from eight to ten weeks in length and focus on either a general overview of cooking methods or techniques or they spend the class time teaching students to master a few small specifics of a process, such as wedding cake decorating for patissiers or cooking shellfish for poissonniers. Certificate courses are typically offered by the same institutions that function as fully staffed culinary institutes and are often taken by students already in the industry wishing to learn specific techniques or newcomers who are trying to decide if a career in the food industry would suit them well.
For a more in depth education, students may also pursue a two year degree at an accredited culinary school. The teachings offered with a two year degree tend to focus on high level overviews of many of the major cooking styles. Two year degrees are designed to give students a strong foundation of general techniques to help them prepare for a role as a general service chef or to lay the groundwork for future learning. Many individuals seeking a career in restaurant or food industry management may also pursue a two year degree in order to gain a more in depth understanding of all the processes he would be overseeing later on in his career.
Once a two year degree has been obtained, students may elect to pursue an additional two years of schooling in order to obtain a four year degree. The second half of this program is generally where chefs will begin to focus more on their individual preferences with regards to which types of stations they would like to work at in the future. The remainder of the four year degree program will consist of many elective classes, each catering to specific types of foods, such as meat, pastries, or sauces, or focus on particular cooking styles, such as grilling, baking, or frying. If the student is, in fact, interested in pursuing a job as a head chef or sous-chef, they will generally pick electives in the most common kitchen classes, further strengthening their broad knowledge base.
There are several paths a budding chef may take to become a commis, as well as several points in their career at which they may take the position.
The most common path taken by a student is the pursuit and completion of a two year degree first. Once the degree has been obtained, the student may then seek employment to begin building their professional experience. This not only gives the student time in a professional environment with real time hands on experience, it also helps them to narrow down the specific areas they may be interested in. Some students may even seek to gain employment as a tournant commis in order to get first person experience at each of the main stations in the kitchen brigade. Once they have been employed for a year or more, they can either choose to remain in a tournant role, focusing on general kitchen duties with average wages, or they can continue to pursue their education and continue working towards their four year degree.
If the student does continue his education, he will begin taking classes for the second half of the four year degree program. During this time, he can either choose to focus solely on school work, potentially completing the classroom portion of the degree in a shorter time period, or continue to maintain employment while also taking classes, which may come in very helpful later on when years of experience become a deciding factor when applying for higher level jobs.
If he chooses to focus solely on classes, he will take a break form working until the time comes for him to pursue an internship with a chef currently working in his chosen specialty. These internships are typically unpaid but are considered a commis like position. Once the student has obtained the necessary grades and hands on experience, he will be granted his four year degree and will be free to pursue a role as a paid commis at the restaurant of his choice. Any relationships established during previous employment or during internships may come in extremely handy at this time, particularly when choice jobs are in high demand.
On the other hand, if the student continues to work while taking classes, arrangements can often be made with the employer to offer the student a combination of both paid and unpaid hours in order to both meet the internship requirements while also allowing the student to retain some form of income. Other establishments may also allow the student to work at a reduced wage, returning them to full pay once the proper number of internship hours have been met.
Of course, there are always the rare cases that many people hear of, particularly involving celebrity chefs, where the individual started out washing dishes at a local restaurant, filled in at a station for a few days when a chef or commis was out, and quickly climbed the ladder of success, going on to have their own television shows and a chain of restaurants. These cases are, of course, few and far between, therefore, an aspiring chef should always plan on having to put in the necessary effort towards education and gradual upwards movement, rather than seemingly overnight success.
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