Deciding to become a chef can be a highly rewarding career move, especially if you are passionate about food. There are plenty of opportunities to grow professionally and apply some creative licence to your work, while if you are business savvy, there is the potential to open your own restaurant and make bucket-loads of money.
Before all that, though, you need to know how to land the right position. Whether it’s your first experience of the kitchen or you’re a more experienced hand, it’s important to have an idea of the kind of scrutiny you’re going to face during the recruitment process.
To help you prepare, we’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked questions in a chef interview, most of which are designed to give the head chef or restaurant manager an idea of your background, abilities and motivation.
So, if you see yourself as the next Gordon Ramsay, pay attention: these are the interview questions and answers that could change your career.
1. ‘Tell me about yourself…’
This is a standard opener in a lot of interviews, so it’s always good to practise your answer with a friend (or in a mirror) beforehand. It’s useful for recruiters because not only does it inform them about your background, but it also sheds some light on how you perceive yourself as a candidate.
Answer this question with a very brief overview of your prior experience, your approach in the kitchen and an explanation of why you are here now. For instance: ‘I am a dedicated and enthusiastic young chef, prepared to work hard and learn from the best. I have worked in some great small kitchens, but now I’m looking to make the step up in order to really challenge and develop myself.’
2. ‘Why are you leaving your current role?’
When answering this question, it’s important to emphasise that, rather than being driven by a desire to leave your previous role, you’re motivated by the opportunities on offer at your new one. You can say something along the lines of ‘I enjoyed my last job, but I feel that the time is right now for a new challenge, and I’m really excited by the opportunity for growth and development at this restaurant’.
Whatever you do, don’t badmouth your previous employer, even if you hated every minute of working for them. There’s nothing more unprofessional than a candidate who airs their dirty laundry in public; so, however tempting it may be, exercise some restraint.
If you got fired, meanwhile, don’t lie; instead, try to spin it positively and emphasise the lessons that you learned.
3. ‘What are your weaknesses?’
Increasingly, recruiters are less interested in asking a candidate about their strengths and more focused on deducing what people perceive to be their weaknesses. It can tell potential employers a lot more about you, while it has the added bonus of being a far trickier question to answer.
Therefore, you need to have a good answer prepared. Some experts claim that you should downplay your weaknesses but acknowledging your flaws can be a positive quality in itself. Therefore, it’s recommended that you adopt the ‘faux-strength’ approach, instead, and turn your negatives into positives.
Make sure that you avoid clichés, though. Claiming that you ‘work too hard’ or that you spend too many hours at work isn’t fooling anybody. Instead, say something like: ‘My standards are very high, and this can sometimes spill over into frustration when those around me don’t apply the same commitment or dedication to their work.’
4. ‘Why do you want to work at this restaurant?’
The answer to this question ultimately depends on your own personal goals. Maybe there is a particular chef that you would like to work under and learn from, or the restaurant serves a particular kind of cuisine that you want to immerse yourself in. Perhaps you simply want to challenge yourself in a busier and more demanding environment.
Whatever your reason, make it a positive one. Avoid saying something like ‘because it’s a prestigious restaurant’, for instance; your interviewers already know that, and it doesn’t tell them anything about your motivation or your goals.
And definitely don’t mention salary as a motivation, either, even if that’s all you actually care about. Good restaurants want chefs who are committed to developing their craft, not mercenaries after a quick payday.
5. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’
This is another popular interview question, primarily because it reveals what your career goals are for the short, medium and long term.
Of course, your answer depends on what exactly those personal goals are, but ensure you maintain a balance between realism and ambition. For instance, if you are just starting out, you’re not going to be running your own establishment within that timeframe, but it’s entirely plausible to suggest that you would like to be running your own section of the kitchen.
Remember: you don’t want to give off the impression that you’re going to jump ship at the earliest opportunity, but you do need to show that you are driven and that you have plans of actually achieving something.
6. ‘Tell me about a time that you worked in a team to achieve something.’
No matter how prestigious or famous they are, professional kitchens everywhere rely on one thing above all else to function effectively: teamwork. Therefore, potential employers want to be confident that you can work well with others.
This will probably include asking for a specific example, so if you’re just starting out, feel free to draw inspiration from school projects, sports teams you’ve represented or any part-time work you’ve done in the past. If you’re experienced, though, then you should ideally give a kitchen-specific example, such as a time that you were short on manpower but still delivered a successful service, for instance.
7. ‘What would your ideal menu look like at this restaurant?’
Basic soft skills are important to assess in an interview, but your potential employer will also want to get an idea of your creative vision and how your style might align with theirs.
If you are applying for a senior chef role, you will be expected to go into a lot more depth and detail about individual ingredients and flavours, as well as wine choices and even produce providers. If you are applying for a junior position, though, your recruiter will instead want to see if you have a competent knowledge of combinations and the potential to make a creative impact further down the line.
Don’t be afraid to indulge yourself when answering this question, but always bear in mind the signature style of the restaurant that you’ll be working in.
8. ‘Which chefs do you admire the most and why?’
With this question, your interviewer is trying to assess several things, chief of which is your knowledge of the ongoing trends and developments within the culinary world. For instance, you could say that you find it inspiring how a particular chef is having success by blending two contrasting styles, or how another is putting out new spins on traditional dishes; talk about how this inspires you to try out your own ideas.
Identify the right kinds of qualities, too. Saying you admire Gordon Ramsay because he’s made a lot of money is a nothing answer, but talking about how you have learnt valuable lessons from his relentless work ethic and willingness to learn says a lot more about you.
9. ‘Tell me about a time where you had to work under pressure. How did you handle it?’
If you’ve got experience of working in a professional kitchen, then you will definitely have experience of working under pressure. Give an example of a specific time when things were especially hectic, such as when you were overwhelmed by orders, or there was a high-profile food critic dining in the restaurant.
If this is your first culinary role, though, then you will need to provide a different example. Whatever you choose, the important thing is to convey that you are capable of keeping your cool when chaos erupts and that you can remain professional and focused on the job at hand.
10. ‘What have you done to improve your skills in the last year?’
Whether it’s taking courses, reading books and blogs, eating at different restaurants, making contacts within the industry or spending every minute of your day experimenting with possibilities and ideas, it’s vital that you are always striving to improve.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a 16-year-old school leaver or an experienced sous chef of 15 years; there is always something you can learn or something that you can do better. Make sure your interviewer understands how committed you are to this process, and make sure they know that, if they hire you, you’ll be applying what you have learned to the job.
As you can see, many of these questions are fairly clear-cut. As long as you have done your preparation and your research, and you are committed to your craft, then the rest should fall into place.
Are you a chef? What other interview advice would you give? Let us know in the comments section below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 1 December 2016.