Becoming a chef

By at home

Reckon you’ve got what it takes to cut it in a professional kitchen? We find out what it takes to become a successful pro.

Let’s make no bones about it, being a chef is hard work. It involves long hours, eats into your social life and can be very stressful. But if you’re passionate about food and enjoy cooking, it can be a rewarding career. You’ll need to have stamina, be organised, adaptable, creative and be able to hack the pressure. Working as part of a large team is also crucial, so you’ll need excellent communication skills and a can-do attitude. There are no specific entry requirements for trainee chefs but GCSEs in maths, English and other languages come in handy. If you’re 16 years old or above, you can apply for a Modern Apprenticeship. This means you will get practical experience and gain a Level 3 National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), or a Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ) after three years’ work.

You can also apply directly to a kitchen and start as an assistant, whatever your age. This will allow you to see chefs at work, get a feel for the environment, and find out if being a chef really is for you. It will generally take around four years to get fully trained while working in a kitchen. Alternatively, you can study full-time at a further education college or chef training school. There are a number of City & Guilds qualifications at varying levels, aimed at those who want to work in professional kitchens and food outlets. Courses run from one to four years.

When you start out in your career, the pay isn’t brilliant. A commis chef will probably earn between £9,000 and £16,000, while a sous chef could earn between £14,000 and £26,000. Head chefs (chefs de cuisine) can earn anything from around £25,000 to £50,000 plus. If you decide to open your own restaurant the financial rewards (or losses!) can be substantial.

Types of chef
There is a hierarchy in the kitchen, and you’ll need to be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up. Once you’ve mastered basic skills, there are several areas you can specialise in, such as pastries and desserts (patissier); sauces (saucier); seafood and fish (poissonier); soups, vegetables, starches and egg (entremetier)

Kitchen assistants

This is usually the first port of call for those who are new to working in professional kitchens. You’ll start by sweeping floors, cleaning out fridges and ovens and learning the way a kitchen works.

A junior or commis chef is the first rung of the ladder for newly trained chefs. The commis will usually work under a chef de partie, learning basics such as vegetable preparation.

Chef de partie
A chef de partie (senior or head chef), is in charge of a particular area of production – or station. The number of stations can vary immensely according to the size of the establishment, but can include grilling, roasting, frying, vegetables, sauces, soups, and pastry – in smaller kitchens several stations may be combined. In large kitchens, each chef de partie might have several cooks and/or assistants.

Sous chef
The sous chef (deputy head chef) is second in command and receives orders directly from the chef de cuisine for the management of the kitchen, and will often stand in for the boss when he is not around. 

Also known as the aboyeur or expediter, this is the person who takes the orders from the dining room and relays them to the kitchen stations. The announcer also puts the finishing touches on the dish before it goes to the dining room. In some operations this task may be done by either the executive chef or the sous chef.

Chef de cuisine
This is the head of the kitchen, responsible for overall management. He supervises staff, creates menus and new recipes with the assistance of the executive chef and restaurant manager, makes purchases of raw food items, trains apprentices and maintains a sanitary and hygienic environment for food preparation.

Executive chef
The executive or head chef is in charge of everything related to the kitchen, including menu creation, staff management and business aspects. While the position requires extensive cooking experience and often involves actively cooking, it will also involve good management skills and some essential business knowledge, too.

Classic cuisine
The basis of fine dining is French food, and when you hear about a chef being ‘classically trained,’ that means French cuisine and techniques. Classic French cuisine was formally defined by the great chef Augustus Escoffier, who modernised haute cuisine in around 1900. He introduced the ‘brigade’ system of kitchen hierarchy that is still used today.

The French took the classic recipes from haute cuisine and adapted them to create new recipes. For example, there are five mother sauce recipes in classic French cuisine. By applying French principles to create new recipes, over 100 sauces can be made from them. To be classically trained, you study under a head chef to learn the recipes and techniques over two to three years.

Do you have what it takes? 

  • Good multi-tasker.
  • Willing to give up evenings and weekends.
  • Remain calm under intense pressure.
  • Creative and business minded, too.
  • Able to withstand hot, steamy conditions.
  • Passionate about food and cooking.
  • Work well in a team.
  • be able to follow/give concise instructions.

‘It’s more than just cooking’
Juan Camilo Sanchez, 22, is working as a chef…

‘I studied for a NVQ Chef Restaurant Diploma, a three-year course at Thames Valley University. ‘We learnt all the basic food skills, and about the restaurant process. I was working as a waiter before the course and worked weekends in the kitchen at a sister hotel, which helped me improve, but was really exhausting! ‘Now I’ve finished my course, I want to train further and go into fine dining. I’m still working in the kitchen, five days a week. Being a chef can be very tiring and poorly paid so you need to have a real passion for it and everything it entails. There is a lot more to the job than just cooking.’

Pictures: getty images

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