The Definitive Guide: How to Become A Chef
Published: 29 Nov 2016
- What is a Chef?
- Vital Chef Skills
- Primary Duties
- Trainee Chefs: All the Details
- Chef’s Tools: What You’ll Need
- Training to Be a Chef: Where to Begin
- What is a Chef's Salary?
- Training: How to Become Qualified
- Becoming a Chef without Formal Training
- Chef Training and Further Development
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Career Opportunities
If you’ve ever watched Gordon Ramsey on TV and thought ‘I could do that!’ (minus the swearing and shouting, obviously!), or whipped up Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals in just 10, a career as a chef may well be for you.
The good news is you’ve come to the right place, as here on the site we’ve pulled together all the information you might need – a kind of ‘who, what and where of cheffing’– to give you a helping hand into the industry.
The first thing you should know is it’s a highly competitive arena; there’s a reason each and every TV chef has something original about them. The fact is, it’s a difficult industry to crack so it’s really important to stand out; you’ll have discovered this while watching TV’s The Taste, MasterChef and Great British Menu.
Create your winning, signature dish early on and show unrivalled passion and enthusiasm and you’re already half way there to the big chef salary.
What is a Chef?
Which Chef Job Description is for You?
An abbreviation of the French phrase chef de cuisine, chef means ‘chief’ or ‘head’ of a kitchen. To become a top quality head chef, however, you must first complete professional culinary training. You’ll also need to be passionate about food, as well as creative and imaginative when it comes to cooking.
As a trained chef, you may be required to manage a kitchen, lead a team and keep track of inventory; it’s important, therefore, to know in advance that a chef’s role isn’t about food preparation alone. In fact, that’s just the beginning.
When training to be a chef, there’s a host of routes you can go down. You might decide to become a personal chef, a hotel chef, or a restaurant chef. Alternatively, you may prefer to go down the path of becoming a private chef for a corporate client or well-known brand.
Some chefs may even go on to manage their own team within their very own restaurant or pub- an ambition shared by many professionals in the chef industry.
In larger kitchens, the head chef takes on a wealth of primary management responsibilities, from menu planning to supervision of staff, and even inventory control. It’s important in this instance, then, that you ascertain in advance if this type of career – with all the additional roles and responsibility that comes with it – is for you.
In terms of the training you’d need to do to first become a chef, this varies from role to role. For example, the principles and disciplines learned when training to be a personal chef may be completely different from those needed to become a Michelin-starred restaurant owner and chef.
Usually, however, becoming a chef requires a blend of practical experience and formal education. By this, of course, we mean hands-on knowledge working in a kitchen or cooking environment, complemented by written work at school or college.
Have You Got What it Takes to Be a Chef?
So you might enjoy cooking up a storm at home, but be warned; cooking for fun and cooking for a living are two very different things. For a start, there’s little pressure in your own kitchen – and minus a picky other half or friend, there’ll certainly be no threat of anyone sending your meal back to you.
You may make a mean cheese soufflé, or you might be able to chop veg at the speed of light. Similarly, relatives may be queuing up to sample your dishes. But could you handle the heat in a real, commercial kitchen? Following in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsey or Marcus Wareing can be tough – and we doubt it came easy to them in the beginning either!
So if you want to be a MasterChef extraordinaire – and get paid for it – we’re afraid you’ll have to work for it. Opportunities like this don’t just get handed to you on a plate (pun very much intended!), which means you will have to complete the necessary chef training and get the hands-on experience you’ll require.
Chef Training: Where to Start
Involving a combination of formal training and on-the-job experience, training to be a chef can be tough. When they say ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ they’re right, as few jobs are more pressured than a chef’s. Add to that the often-unsociable hours involved (chefs can work long days, split shifts and often past midnight each and every night) and you really do have to want to do the role in order to set out on the training.
So, what are the professional options available to you as a trained chef? Are you willing to put in the time it takes to attend culinary school and work to develop your skills and unique cooking style? Perhaps you’d like to open your own pub or restaurant eventually? All these things and more will need some consideration before you sign up for a relevant course. But don’t panic, we’re about to answer all your questions.
Hopefully, the very next section of our handy ‘How to Become a Chef’ resource will give you all the insight you need to take the first steps to getting your very own chef whites and becoming a full-time cook.
Vital Chef Skills
What Do You Need to Do the Job?
When entering into any industry, it’s important to know exactly what skills you’ll need to do the job, not just properly, but brilliantly. So we’re bringing you some of the key skills and character traits you’ll need to shine as a trainee chef:
- A keen interest and passion for food, the food industry and cooking in general
- The ability to work under pressure and during unsociable hours/times
- High standards of cleanliness and hygiene
- The ability to multitask
- Strong communication
- Leadership skills
- Creativity, imagination and flair for food preparation and presentation
- The ability to work individually and part of a team
- Good organisation skills
- The dexterity to prepare food via the proper techniques
- Pride in your work and team
- Strong business skills, in order to manage both a team and a restaurant
- The ability to motivate fellow kitchen staff
- Excellent time management
What Do You Need to Do the Job?
So you’ve discovered what it takes to become a chef, alongside the skills you’ll need. But do you know the ins and outs of being a full-time chef; what it requires and the kind of things you’ll be doing in your day-to-day role as either a trainee chef or seasoned pro?
To help you better understand the duties involved, we’ve put together a handy list below. Here’s to those very first Michelin stars!
- Preparing, cooking and presenting food in line with required, professional standards
- Ensuring that food is prepared and served promptly
- Monitoring food production, taking into account quality and portion size
- Stock control
- Following relevant hygiene, health and safety guidelines
Trainee Chefs: All the Details
It’s important to understand that, even as a fully qualified chef, it’s unlikely you’ll walk straight into a top restaurant and begin work. Instead, you may start out in a local pub or restaurant, before you get your name out there.
As a trainee chef, however, you may learn your craft as a kitchen assistant and work your way up. The kitchen assistant or trainee chef is also known as a commis chef, and at this level you’ll spend time in each area of the kitchen, getting to know how everything works.
You’ll learn a range of cooking skills, as well as how to use the equipment. Taking your time at this early stage to swot up on all the necessary duties it takes to become a top chef will stand you in better stead in the long-run.
With experience, you might progress to section chef (also known as station chef or chef de partie). This role will see you in charge of a particular area of the kitchen, and will give you all the skills you need to move up a role.
From here, the next step might be sous chef. If you’ve ever wanted to run an entire kitchen this role is for you; you’ll be taking care of everything when the head chef isn’t around, to ensure things are ticking over nicely ahead of his or her return.
It’s at head chef level, however, when you’ll become more responsible. You’ll be creating and updating menus, producing and meeting financial budgets and running a team – believe us when we say it’s not just about cooking!
Hours of Work
A chef’s hours are anything but sociable. You may be expected to work early mornings and/ or late nights, depending on your place of work. In some instances, you’ll also be expected to cover weekends and public holidays, and part-time, casual and seasonal work is often available for keen chefs willing to put in additional hours.
There’s probably a reason a certain Mr Ramsey gets frustrated in the kitchen – and we bet a lot of it will be a result of the heat.
Kitchens are hot and very humid, but they’re also very busy around key meal times. It’s important chefs wear whites, not just for hygiene reasons but to protect their clothes and skin from the possibility of minor buns and cuts.
Long, unsociable hours, heated appliances and high pressure can lead to accidents, which is why it’s important that all chefs – whether trainee chefs or otherwise – take extra care while cooking.
Chef’s Tools: What You’ll Need
Like a painter needs a paintbrush and a seamstress needs a sewing machine, a chef will also require all the tools of the trade.
When you’re working in a restaurant, however, you should be provided with all the equipment you need, but some chefs still prefer to use their own knives and other smaller tools, too.
When you’re learning, it’s important to have all the equipment you require. Most schools and colleges, while they’ll provide the main, larger pieces of equipment, may require you to have a small toolbox featuring the basic cooking equipment. This could be anything from knives to chopping boards, but do check with the establishment you’ll be completing your training with.
You’ll probably have to purchase your own chef’s whites in advance, along with a hair net and comfortable, practical and protected shoes. You could give your college a call in advance to find out the estimated cost of all the equipment; it may be that they have partnered with reputable chef firms to offer you discounts and deals.
Chef training is about so much more than the equipment, though. You’ll also need the commitment needed to help you gain the relevant cooking qualifications, as well as the desire to learn from those around you.
It’s likely that you won’t be learning how to cook Michelin star food right away; it’s probable that instead you’ll be picking up the basics. But do stick with it – learning the basics is as important as having a go at the ‘serious’ stuff; without them you’ll be setting yourself up to fail.
Training to Be a Chef: Where to Begin
Even before you choose a college and pick out your chef’s whites, you’ll want to work out what type of chef you’d like to be. Why? It may well help you decide where to study and for how long. To help you, we’ve put together a list (below) of all the options available to you as you embark on a career as a chef:
Executive Chef – Often referred to as the head chef, this is the ultimate job title for any trainee chef. In charge of everything related to the kitchen – including menu creation, personnel management and stock – the executive chef may be known to his team simply as ‘chef’.
Chef de Cuisine – While it may sound like a fancier title than executive chef, the chef de cuisine is actually the head chef’s equivalent. His or her placement within the kitchen can vary somewhat, too, depending on the individual restaurant's hierarchy. More often than not, in hierarchy terms, he’ll be equivalent to the head chef, but may sometimes oversee numerous establishments in a group of restaurants.
Sous Chef – Pronounced ‘soo-shef’, the sous chef (the French for ‘under chef’) is the direct assistant of the executive or head chef. Sharing some of his or her duties with the executive chef, this chef may take on costing, ordering and meal planning. In larger kitchens, however, the sous chef may have even more responsibility, covering shifts or having certain areas of responsibility.
Chef de Partie – Also known as a ‘station chef’, the chef de partie is in charge of a particular area of production in the kitchen. In larger restaurants or venues (with larger kitchens), this type of chef may even have several assistants or cooks to help him. In many kitchens, the station chef will be the only worker in that particular department. Station chefs can, in fact, be divided into any of the titles/roles below.
Sauce Chef or Saucier – Preparing sauces, stews and hot hors d'oeuvres, the sauce chef will sauté foods to order. Usually the highest position of all the stations, this requires a lot of determination and extensive chef training.
Fish Cook or Poissonier – Often, this station is handled by the saucier and sees the chef prepare the fish dishes for the restaurant or establishment. This can involve anything from gutting fish to cooking them, and is a highly skilled position to work up to.
Vegetable Cook or Entremetier - Making everything from soups to starches, the vegetable cook is an important member of any kitchen team.
Roast Cook or Rotisseur - In charge of preparing roasted and braised meats and their gravies, the roast cook may also make other meats to order. A large kitchen may have a separate broiler cook or grillardin (gree-ar-dan) to handle the broiled items and he or she may also prepare deep-fried meats and fish.
The Pantry Chef or Garde Manger - Responsible for cold foods, including salads, dressings and pâtés, the pantry chef may also be in charge of cold hors d'oeuvres and buffet items.
Pastry chef or pâtissier – A highly skilled job, the pâtissier or pastry chef will prepare delicate pastries and desserts.
The relief cook, swing cook, or tournant – This cook will replace other station heads should help be required.
Cook or Assistant - In larger kitchens, each station chef will have a cook or assistant to help with the duties that are assigned to that area. With experience, assistants may be promoted to station cooks, before being promoted to the role of station chef.
Do any of these chefs job roles take your fancy? It’s a good idea to ascertain the kind of training you’ll need to complete before taking on individual roles like this to ensure you have the right skills for the job.
What is a Chef's Salary?
Trainee Chefs: Salary and Perks
While some careers or jobs offer fantastic salaries, others are to be entered into predominantly for the love of the role. Starting salaries for chefs – similar to care workers and local journalists – aren’t always so tempting. But stick with the career and you could be earning anything between £40,000 and £50,000, so it really is worth pursuing if you believe you have what it takes.
As an indicator of salary, a trainee (commis) chef may start on around £13,000 a year, while section chefs (chefs de partie) can earn up to £16,000 annually. A second chef or sous chef, meanwhile, might earn up to £22,000 (a few thousand pounds short of the national average), with head chefs earning up to £30,000 a year.
An executive head chef in a top hotel can earn between £40,000 and £50,000 or more, but it’s important to remember these figures are meant as guidelines only. You may find you earn slightly more, or slightly less, depending on the restaurant or pub you begin working in.
As with all careers, though, you also have to begin somewhere. It’s improbable you’ll waltz into a job as an executive chef following your chef’s training, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen a couple of years down the line either.
Training: How to Become Qualified
While you may not require academic qualifications to begin work as a trainee (commis) chef, many employers will look on you more favourably if you have at least a basic understanding of the industry.
Of course, you might decide to prepare for the training by taking on a full-time trainee job, or you may opt to complete the training first – whichever you choose is fine, there are often no hard and fast rules to becoming a trainee.
Becoming a Chef without Formal Training
It may not be the easy route, but it is possible to find yourself in a trainee chef role without putting yourself through the training. Famous chefs such as Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsey entered the industry this way, but many will have persevered with the training in order to first become fully qualified. Either way, it’s going to require much perseverance and resilience to become a top, Michelin-star chef.
If you decide to start by gaining some on-the-job experience, the first thing you need to do is find a kitchen. Of course, this means find a kitchen in a local restaurant, pub or bistro that is willing to give you some hands-on experience while paying you a fair wage. Even if you begin by washing the dishes, this can often be the best route into the industry.
Next, consider self-studying. By this we mean find online revenues (like this one!) which will give you an insight into the industry without the need to spend thousands on training courses. Take a look on YouTube, or search for cheap but highly-recommended online cookery courses – the more you do and the more you know, the more marketable you’ll become.
Finally, don’t be afraid to put in the hours. In order to reap the benefits of becoming a full-time chef, you’ll need to dedicate yourself to some hard work. This may mean working gruelling hours and shifts, coping with angry and frustrated customers and answering to the head chef. At all times, ensure you have a positive attitude and keep your end goal in sight: becoming a top chef.
Chef Training and Further Development
Once you’ve found a job in the chef industry, your training and development doesn’t have to stop there. There’s a variety of advanced courses you can take to ensure you stay at the top of your game.
You may find that your employer encourages you to take a particular course, or even funds you while doing it. What’s more, many employers are open to suggestions when it comes to bettering your skills – after all, a more skilled chef working in their establishment only looks better on them, too. Here are just a few options worth considering:
- Level 3 (NVQ) Diploma in Professional Cookery
- Level 3 Award in Supervising Food Safety in Catering
- Level 3 Diploma in Advanced Professional Cookery
- Level 3 Diploma in Professional Patisserie and Confectionery
- Level 3 (NVQ) Diploma in Hospitality Supervision and Leadership.
Some of the options (above) will allow you to further your skills in particular types of cookery, so it’s worth considering the very best route for you.
Take a look around, too, for relevant private training academies. These may offer specialist professional development courses and qualifications to help you bag your dream job.
The UCAS website offers a host of advice and tips, including details of relevant courses, so do make sure you check it out before embarking on anything new.
While you may find that you can get a job in a kitchen straight from school and work your way up, here’s a list of useful UK-based chef’s qualifications to help you on your way:
- City & Guilds diplomas in professional cookery
- BTEC HND in professional cookery
- Health and safety and food hygiene certificates
For those wishing to study full-time or take a professional qualification in a food-related subject, it would be useful to take a course in one of the above.
GCSE Mathematics and English at grade C or above or equivalent will also be required, while a science-based subject will prove useful.
A-levels are not always required, but this will depend on the course you apply for. Usually, a degree in hospitality will prove a great route, alongside any relevant work experience.
Take a look at the The Institute of Hospitality - the professional body overseeing the hospitality market - as well as The Craft Guild of Chefs for additional useful information.
Frequently Asked Questions
We’d like to think you’ve got to this section of the guide and received an answer to all your burning questions. But failing that, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most commonly asked questions, to ensure you can get all the additional information you require about chef training:
What kind of training is required to become a chef?
As mentioned previously, many chefs will receive their training on the job or while working as an apprentice chef. Prospective chefs will learn everything from how to prep different foods, to how to look after their tools and keep their working area clean and sanitised. On top of this, they will also discover knife skills and a range of cooking techniques and disciplines.
It may not always be necessary, but many chefs will learn their craft at culinary school. This can lead to an NVQ or degree and will help stand you in good stead when trying to gain a job in the industry.
Students in these programmes discover many of the skills that they need to become successful chefs, via hands-on learning under experienced chefs.
Lasting between several months to four years, culinary courses may give would-be chefs all the skills they need to start out in a restaurant, hotel or pub.
Are there any requirements in terms of certification or licensure?
To work as a chef, you do not require a license but you will have to undertake necessary training in order to be considered for top roles. While many chefs will work their way into the top roles as a result of starting out as a kitchen porter, most will need to pass culinary qualifications to even be considered for a role in the industry.
How long does it take to become a chef?
As with any professional career, it can take anything from several months to several years to become fully qualified. You may begin working as a sous chef for some time before gaining the necessary experience to work your way up to executive chef; how long this takes depends on a number of factors – including, for instance, your commitment and passion for the industry and your willingness to learn.
What are the long term career prospects for chefs?
There are a host of options for those interested in becoming a chef. Given enough relevant experience, a sous chef can become a head or executive chef, while some many even go on to open their own venues or food establishments. However, running your own business requires a certain set of skills which may not be gleaned simply by working as a chef. It’s important, therefore, to undertake the necessary training, which could include anything from marketing to management and accounting.
How can I find a job as a chef?
It may be that you start out in lower-level jobs in the kitchen (such as a kitchen porter or sous chef) and work your way up; this is how many chefs learn their craft and it’s a great leg up to a more hands-on role.
Taking a less prestigious position within a kitchen will prove beneficial for your career; possessing the willingness to learn and having the determination to succeed are all traits that will help you on your way to your end goal. As you gain experience, you’ll also build a network of contacts in your area’s culinary community. This will stand you in better stead when looking for a job elsewhere should you want to progress further.
Is there anything people don’t tell you about the profession?
Like any profession, chefing can often seem more glamorous from the outside. But one of the biggest misconceptions about culinary arts is the notion that owning and running a restaurant is easy – or fruitful. More than 80 per cent of restaurants fail within the first five years of opening; it’s a known fact and one which you should keep in mind when considering starting up your own culinary venture.
Owning and running your own venture takes years of hard work before you even open the doors; even top chefs with extensive knowledge may find they fall at the very first hurdle. It’s not just about being a great cook; you have to know how to manage a team and market a restaurant too.
What careers do students commonly pursue with a culinary degree?
A chef’s salary isn’t always very tempting, and you may first start out on a very basic wage. After all, you’ll have to earn your stripes as a chef following completion of the necessary cooking qualifications.
Qualified chefs can move in a variety of different directions in terms of a chef career, though. It isn’t all about earning Michelin stars and being the top of your game; you may instead start out at a modest-sized pub or restaurant, or you might choose to work on a cruise liner after you learn to be a chef.
You may even still opt to be a chef apprentice, to brush up on the skills learned during your course. It’s important you select the appropriate route for you and go about putting all your time and energy into making it a success.
Is a college degree a must for a career in the culinary field, or can someone be successful without a degree?
Of course, as with many professions, you can be successful without a degree. That said, having the necessary chef qualifications will help you on your way in the first instance; after that, it’s about working your way up and proving you’re a great cook.
You will, however, be required to learn so much more than cooking; everything from front-of-house skills and back-of-house procedures may be expected of you. A good culinary course will teach aspiring and trainee chefs all aspects of the culinary and restaurant world to help them on their way to greater success later on.
Do you have any tips for people who want to learn to be a chef?
Willingness to not only succeed but to learn too, is the greatest piece of advice we can offer. Exposure to many distinct chefs and foods will help aspiring chefs develop their own style, while experimentation will help you discover new flavour combinations and dishes.
Always taste the food you’re serving, too; it’s the only way to discover if others will like it. Never stop learning and always be nice – it’s important people can get on with you if you’re to work your way up to become an executive chef.
Can you offer any advice to students looking to become chefs?
True, you can complete the necessary qualifications for a chef, but it’s also worth learning all you can about the craft before you embark on a course.
Always give your absolute best effort to any project or dish as a trainee chef; even if the particular cuisine you’re studying or preparing isn’t to your taste.
Don’t be afraid to adapt, too. If your meal isn’t working, try something else. Finally, don’t give up – if you have the passion and drive to succeed, you will. Keep at it and don’t stop learning new techniques and skills.
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