If you’ve got creative flair and an affinity for good food, opting for a full-time career in the catering industry could be a wise move. Respected, revered and occasionally rich, top chefs combine highly valued culinary skills with an astute business acumen to build multinational global brands.
Of course, your own ambitions don’t need to be so grand; some people just like to cook. But either way, if you’ve ever considered stepping out of your own kitchen and into a more professional environment, read on – this is everything you need to know about how to become a chef.
1. Research the Profession
As with any potential career decision, you should always research the profession thoroughly. This will give you a clearer indication of what you’re letting yourself in for, including any downsides.
Chefs work in a wide variety of settings, preparing, cooking and plating food. While most of these positions are within restaurants, cafés and gastro-pubs, it is also possible to find work in hotels, ships, aircraft, private events, hospitals and the military.
Generally speaking, there are four types of chef within most professional kitchens, operating within a hierarchical structure. They are:
- apprentice or trainee chefs, known as commis chefs
- section chefs, known as chefs de partie
- sous chefs, who act as the second-in-command of the kitchen
- head/executive chefs, who are responsible for the management of the entire kitchen and are known as chefs de cuisine.
Professional kitchens are high-pressure environments that operate under very strict time deadlines, and you should be comfortable working under such constraints.
Depending on your role and level of seniority, your responsibilities will vary.
- develop their culinary knowledge and technical preparation and cooking skills under the supervision of more experienced chefs
- assist and help the chef de partie as required
- prepare food and cook basic dishes.
Chefs de partie:
- prepare, assemble and cook dishes to a strict deadline schedule
- manage certain sections of the kitchen such as sauces, fish or pastries
- assist in menu development.
- oversee the day-to-day running of the kitchen at ground level
- manage the kitchen inventory and order stock as necessary
- train and develop junior chefs
- implement (and ensure compliance of) hygiene and cleanliness policies and procedures
- prepare and plate dishes when required
- provide a significant input into menu development.
Chefs de cuisine:
- develop the overall creative vision and direction of the cuisine
- ensure all dishes are cooked and prepared to a high standard
- recruit and manage all kitchen staff
- manage the business development side of affairs such as budgeting, delivery taking, liaising with suppliers and designing menus
Essential Skills and Qualities
A quantifiable knowledge and understanding of basic cooking and food hygiene techniques are a prerequisite to starting work in any kitchen; you will also need to be able to demonstrate the following:
- the ability to work calmly and quickly under pressure in a crowded, loud and fast-paced environment
- strong teamwork and communication skills
- a willingness to learn and take on board instruction and constructive criticism
- a high level of organisation skills and the ability to prioritise and delegate
- attention to detail in order to ensure consistency
- a hardworking and robust approach
- the ability to work independently when required.
Working Hours and Conditions
Working hours vary depending on the industry that you work within, but as a general rule, you will likely work a minimum of 40 hours each week. It is also legally possible to take on more hours if you wish, especially in larger, busier kitchens.
On the whole, though, the majority of chefs – especially in the hospitality industry – work highly unsociable hours, including most evenings and weekends. Some chefs prefer to take jobs in less commercial kitchens, such as in schools or hospitals, to negate this.
Salaries in the catering industry are not just defined by your level of seniority within the kitchen but also by region and prestige; for example, a sous chef at a two-star Michelin restaurant in London would likely be earning significantly more than a sous chef with an events contractor in Newcastle. Other industries might offer higher rates due to additional factors as well, such as military chefs deployed in dangerous locations or maritime chefs living on a ship for eight months of the year.
As a rough estimate, though, commis chefs can expect to earn around £19,000 per year, with section chefs averaging £23,000; sous chefs average around £27,000, with head chefs looking at around £33,000. In the US, chefs can expect to earn an average $43,180 (£31,000). With experience, recognition and the necessary business savvy, it may also be possible to open your own restaurant or pursue other opportunities in the retail or entertainment sectors, where potential earnings can be highly lucrative.
2. Get the Qualifications
Technically, there are no formal education requirements for becoming a chef. If you show willingness, commitment and enthusiasm, it is entirely possible to obtain a position as a food preparation assistant or similar and work your way up from within a kitchen.
However, many industry figures claim that attending a culinary college programme is an essential part of a chef’s training and that their increased exposure to a wider range of cooking techniques and ingredients gives them a broader skillset; depending on the school, this could involve obtaining a diploma or even a degree. Some of the most prestigious culinary institutions in the world include:
- Apicius International School of Hospitality (Florence, Italy)
- Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York, USA)
- Hattori Nutrition College (Tokyo, Japan)
- Institut Paul Bocuse (Lyon, France)
- Johnson & Wales University (various locations, USA)
- Le Cordon Bleu (worldwide)
Alternatively, there are countless competitions for amateur or home cooks who are looking to demonstrate their talents and get noticed; one of the more prominent is MasterChef, a prestigious televised national competition that has seen many of its participants land high-profile jobs in professional kitchens.
3. Land Your First Job
While education is important, the most important stepping stone for any potential chef is gaining hands-on experience in a fully functioning professional kitchen. Most bars, restaurants and hotels regularly advertise for catering assistant positions, and while your duties might seem relatively basic at first, it’s an invaluable opportunity to gain hygiene and food prep qualifications, as well as first-hand experience of how a kitchen operates.
In terms of progressing further, some organisations might offer practical apprenticeship schemes or graduate schemes for those who have attended higher education; the more prestigious the school, the more likely you will stand out from the crowd. Look for commis chef positions on general and catering-specific job boards, and don’t limit your applications to one kind of industry setting. Don’t forget to check the individual websites of larger chain businesses, too, as well as recruitment agencies who specialise in providing catering staff for contractors.
Finally, don’t ignore potential networking opportunities, either. If you are a quick learner and possess a good attitude as a kitchen assistant or a commis chef, you might make an impression on those above you; this could easily result in a job offer further down the line.
4. Develop Your Career
As you gain more experience and become more confident and knowledgeable, you can make your way up the ladder, either by progressing to senior positions or by working in more prestigious restaurants. Many chefs find that their development is often helped by working in other kitchens under different personalities, particularly if the type of cuisine is different. If you are particularly ambitious, you can also seek to work in kitchens abroad in order to expand your skillset; for example, many chefs spend time working in French or Italian restaurants to learn different techniques and recipes that can be taken back home.
There are opportunities to grow outside of the kitchen, as well. You could choose to focus more on the business side of things and own or manage restaurants or catering services or pursue a career in education at a culinary or general school. You could even try your hand as a food blogger or a restaurant critic – there are many potential opportunities within the industry.
The last 30 years have seen a huge change in the dining habits of consumers, with the number of people eating out at restaurants increasing significantly. This has seen real growth in the UK’s catering and hospitality sector, which is expected to be sustained in the near future, leading to a wealth of vacancies for chefs. In the US, meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the profession as growing at a ‘faster than average’ rate, with job opportunities arising from the ‘need to replace workers who leave the occupation’.
Ultimately, there is an exciting and challenging career path to be enjoyed as a chef, especially if you are passionate and ambitious about creating your own courses and dishes. While the hours may be relatively unsociable and the conditions humid and stressful, the feeling of producing high-quality food that is loved and enjoyed by customers can be reward enough in itself.
Have you ever worked in a professional kitchen? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below!
Not sure becoming a chef is the way to go? Check out our comprehensive list of professions for more inspiration!
Salary information is based on data compiled and published by various sources, including the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by XE.com on 28 February 2018.