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The Definitive Guide: How To Become A Head Chef

Published on: 14 Nov 2017
head chef

Do you find yourself glued to TV programmes like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Saturday Kitchen? Or perhaps you’re never far away from the kitchen, huge cookbook in hand?

If you see yourself as the next Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson, perhaps a career in the food and drink industry is on the cards for you? The good news is, you don’t always need any formal qualifications to become a chef; just passion, drive and plenty of enthusiasm.

Of course, you’ll be working longand unsociable hours too – and if you make your way up to head chef level, you’re likely to have even more responsibility. Still want to become a head chef, despite that? Then you need to get stuck into this guide, which tells you all you need to know about entering the industry. Read on…

What is a Head Chef?

So what exactly is a Head Chef and what exactly does it entail?

  • Job Description

    Another name for a head chef is an executive chef – and if you’re lucky enough to be in either role you can expect to be looked up to by your team. In fact, you’ll be close to a superhero in the kitchen - as what you say goes!

    Even the waiters and the kitchen porter will look up to you. And no one will respect you more than the sous chef (the assistant to the head chef) who will no doubt have his or her heart set on the very same position you’re in.

    Of course, you’ll have to hold your own with the front of house team, as well as successfully run a busy, stressful - and often very, very hot - kitchen!

    Setting the tone for the rest of the establishment you’re working in, your menus will pretty much define you too. Make a bad choice or two and people may talk about the range and quality of food on offer. Pick the right ingredients and flavour combinations – and set the right prices – though and you’ll have people itching to make a booking!

  • Hours of Work

    So, what does a typical week in the life of a head chef go like? Well, you’ll usually work shifts, which isn’t ideal if you’ve to juggle a hectic social life as well.

    That said, most chefs do the job because they’re passionate about food, so few things will come in the way of them achieving their dream.

    Your working week may involve early mornings and late nights and you’ll almost certainly have to work weekends, too. Bank Holidays will no longer be chill time for you, either; you’ll probably have to dust off your chef’s whites and get in the kitchen.

    Be aware that as a head chef, you’ll be working in a hot and stuffy kitchen – and you know what they say: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out…” What we mean by that is a job in the industry will be tough, but it’ll be rewarding as well.

    Alongside working in the kitchen, prepping food and delegating tasks, you’ll also find that you need to work at a desk from time to time. You’ll be planning menus and working out restaurant budgets, too. The rest of the time you’ll be working in a high-pressure environment, under hot and bright kitchen lights. Get ready…it isn’t going to be easy.

  • Main Responsibilities

    Ever wondered what a head chef’s main responsibilities are? There’s a lot more to the role than simply plating up hot and cold food.

    Of course, you will prepare and display food; that goes without saying. But you’ll also organise and manage the work of the kitchen staff.

    You’ll be key in deciding which jobs need to be done – and when – and you’ll be happy and comfortable sharing jobs out amongst your dedicated team.

    Here’s an at-a-glance look at what you can expect to be doing day to day:

    • Menu planning
    • Ensuring food is priced right
    • Making sure the quality of the food is in keeping with the caliber of restaurant you’re serving it from
    • Managing stock and ordering food from various suppliers
    • Controlling and managing a budget
    • Maintaining good health and hygiene standards
    • Organising the staff rota and ensuring everyone knows what they’re doing and when
    • Recruiting new staff and training and developing existing team members.

    So, just why do head chefs love their job so much? We spotted this quote online – via Tim Luff of The Fishes in Oxford. He said:"It's fantastic to have the freedom of expression with your food, to put your own stamp on the menu and to have more time for creativity and self-expression,"

    But don’t focus on the positives of becoming a head chef. Anyone who’s really passionate about entering the industry needs to be aware that it isn’t an easy ride, either. And it certainly isn’t just about preparing food.

    Tim Luff adds: "There's more paperwork than you'd think, and more people related things to worry about, for instance, when chefs in your brigade are off sick or on holiday. You can sometimes end up feeling like an agony aunt or uncle, too – dealing with problems when all you want to do is cook."

Key Head Chef Qualifications

So, what qualifications do you need to become a head chef?

Any food-related qualifications will definitely stand you in good stead, but they’re not the be all and end all – and the hospitality industry is one of the few which encourages people to work their way up to a certain level.

Did you know many head chefs have got to where they are in the kitchen ranks simply by training on the job? Rather than shying away from certain tasks, they’ll have grabbed every opportunity with two hands; from work placements to overtime, they’ll have had a go at everything.

That said, formal qualifications will get you to the position of head chef much faster – and if time’s an issue, maybe this is the route to go down.

How about working your way up the ranks by taking the Modern Apprenticeship route, as well as studying for NVQs or SVQs?

If you don’t fancy going down this path, you can study full time at college, with useful qualifications including a City & Guilds diploma in professional cookery, a BTEC HND in professional cookery, or a foundation degree in culinary arts.

On top of this, demonstrating that you’ve achieved any kind of health and safety or food hygiene certificates will certainly take you a long way.

Vital Head Chef Skills

In terms of the key skills you’ll need to do the job, here are just a handful:

  • Great cooking skills and attention to detail
  • Leadership and management skills
  • The ability to manage a budget and keep accurate records
  • Good organisation and communication skills
  • The ability to work under pressure
  • The ability to inspire others and help them develop
  • Innovation in your cooking; customers want to see something different

On top of this, you’ll also need a passion for food, experience in a kitchen and a can-do attitude.

Are you someone who’s full of energy and ready to hit the ground running, no matter how much sleep you’ve had the night before? If so, a role as head chef sounds like it’s right up your street.

You’ll also be an innovative thinker, happy to create new and exciting dishes as and when required.

What is a Head Chef's Salary?

Have you decided that a role as Head Chef is definitely for you? Perhaps you’re wondering about salary, then?

A starting head chef salary could be anything between £16,000 and £18,000, with an experienced head chef earning up to £30,000 per year.

Those chefs at the top of their game can earn £50,000 per year or more, with TV chefs earning lots more.


How To Become a Head Chef

So, you’ve decided that a job as a head chef is the one for you; now, what to do next?

Start at the bottom and work your way up, if you don’t want to go down the educational route. A lot can be said for having the experience - and the passion - to succeed.

Alternatively, look into relevant courses and think about enrolling on the one that suits you. A good educational grounding will provide an excellent foundation for a long and rewarding career as a chef.

How To Develop a Head Chef Career

Have you ever wondered how your career might progress after becoming a head chef? If you can demonstrate that you’re good at your job, you could go on to do all sorts of food and drink-related roles.

With plenty of experience under your belt, you might go down the route of running your own business. Or you might simply choose to run a larger kitchen, or even work on a cruise ship.

Once you’ve held down a role as a head chef for some years, you might feel ready to take the plunge and try something else entirely. Do your research and see what else is out there; who knows where you could be in 10 or 15 years’ time!

First though, you need commitment and a real willingness to learn; have you got what it takes to become a head chef?

Career Opportunities