Everything You Wanted to Know About Becoming a Chef
In 2018 it is very cool to be a chef – dominating both TV programming and book sales, it is a profession that is very much in the limelight and it is therefore not surprising that so many people are interested in how to become a chef. At Tibard, we have been manufacturing and supplying chef clothing for nearly 40 years, so we know a more than a little bit about the industry. If you are serious about taking the plunge and either training or re-training to become a chef, then here are some of the key questions that you will want to know answers to.
How do I become a professional chef?
There are fortunately many opportunities and routes into professional kitchens and while talent plays a part, any chef will tell you that one of the most critical traits required is desire. The routes into kitchen fall into two main categories based on your age – are you training for a new career or in a career looking for a fresh start?
Becoming a chef as a school leaver
When leaving school, the options for a career are numerous but if you feel at home in the kitchen and are ready for a hard, but rewarding, life cooking then there are a few great options. One of the easiest is to go to a catering college for some culinary education. There are many colleges that offer courses and pathways – you can use the careers guidance on uk.gov to find your closest that offers the best course for you. During this one to three year course of study you will cover many basics but still have an awful lot to learn when entering a real kitchen for the first time – the idea is that you will have at least the core skills required to cope. It is also the first time you will get chance to don your chef whites – a true symbol of being a chef.
If education is not the direction that you want to go in, then there are still ways to break into the industry – one of which is to enter the kitchen as a kitchen porter or KP as they are known in the industry. This can offer a rewarding career but only in the right environments and with the right desire. It can be very hard being a ‘potwash’ or KP but you are exposed to the ins and outs of kitchen life – pushing your manger or head chef to allow you to help out on kitchen prep can identify yourself as someone with talent and desire – which will hopefully give you the footing to move up the brigade ranks.
Retraining to become a chef
While not the easiest route to becoming a chef, you can leave your old career behind and simply start fresh. In fact, many of the best chefs working today are to some extent self-taught and there are no shortage of stories where someone has left behind a 9 to 5 desk job to instead start their own food business. There are also many opportunities through TV shows such as Masterchef – the winners of which have almost always gone on to very successful careers in the industry.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority the luck of the draw that some people have (right place at the right time) may not happen for them – so alternative methods will be required. Much like the alternative educational route, it is very likely that the best way into the kitchen will be as a KP. This is your foot in the door and then gives you a chance to get your hands dirty with other kitchen work – but be prepared to work long and hard to achieve it.
Why choose catering as a profession?
While it is not the easiest profession to break into, being a chef as a career is a genuinely fantastic opportunity and one that many take. Tibard alone supply over 40,000 chefs in the UK each year and there are estimated to be over 100,000 catering and chef based roles in the UK. What we are trying to say is that chefs are very much in demand and if you are a capable and reliable professional, you are unlikely to find yourself unemployed as a chef.
Job security is of course a fantastic reason to become a chef but it is not the only one. There is of course the chance for serious fame and fortune – more on that later – but what most chefs will tell you is that they simply have a pleasure for cooking great food for people to enjoy. The satisfaction of creating, working under pressure and as a team are some very real benefits of being in the kitchen.
With a large number of catering roles in the UK, another major benefit is the ability to move around – not just the UK but the world. The skills are very much in demand and this makes you an attractive person to employ. The kitchen also offers a wide range of occupations for chefs, a by no means exhaustive list includes; head chef, sous chef, chef de partie, pastry chef, grill chef, breakfast chef and commis chef. Over the course a 35 year career, you can expect to move up the ranks into either more demanding roles or in similar roles in larger kitchens – expect a lot of variety.
Who are the major employers for chefs?
The majority of people may think of chefs just working in restaurants however, there are in fact 100’s of different sectors and industries that employ chefs. The largest sector of employers in the UK is the casual dining restaurant sector – these are the best known chains on the high street and incidentally some of the largest customers for Tibard’s chef clothing! These groups include the likes of TRG, Casual Dining Group and Yo Sushi – chefs at these types of restaurants will not always have the most creative freedom but do have secure employment, a laundered chef uniform provided and opportunities for fast learning in fast paced environments.
Hotels are also some of the largest employers of chefs and often have kitchens that would dwarf the likes of your local Frankie and Benny’s restaurant. Some hotels will have 100’s of chefs employer on staggered shifts to provide breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and 24 hour room service. These environments are busy but also offer the chance for moving up the ranks – the higher you go, the more creative freedom you are likely to have.
Independent restaurants are also big employers of chefs but are very hard to narrow down to just one type. These restaurants could be anything from the curry houses of Bradford to the family owned Italians of your local high street and everything in-between. What it will be like in these roles will vary dramatically based on the owners, the type of food offered and the experience that you have as a chef. In most cases, the more experience you have and higher up you work, the more creativity and control you will have in the kitchen.
A final employer worth mentioning is Contract Catering – these are the behind the scenes caterers for some of the biggest blue chip companies in the UK as well as various hospitality and events venues in the country. Masonic halls, livery companies, banking groups, schools and hospitals all use contract catering companies who provide the menus, chefs and experience to deliver food that is audience appropriate. Expect a lot of variety when working in this sector as well as the chance for moving between sites for catering groups such as Gather and Gather and CHCO.
How much are chefs paid?
One of the most important aspects of any career is the likely financial rewards and as a chef you can command a large salary – just expect to work hard to get there. Starting off in the industry, salaries will range from minimum wage to around £16,000. Head chefs are paid an awful lot more, with salaries of up to £50,000 – the exact amount will depend on experience, responsibilities and the size and type of operation that you are working for.
The majority of other roles will fall within £16,000 to £50,000 and will be largely be dependent on experience and your position in the kitchen. Ultimately, in the middle to higher positions in the kitchen, being a chef is a very well paid job – especially given that a university education is not required as entry criteria. Despite the 40-50 hours weeks (and occasionally much longer), the hourly rate is still far higher than comparable positions in other service industries.
Higher positions than head chef do exist – most often group development chefs or consulting chefs – who will work with multiple sites to develop a more strategic menu proposition across an entire chain of sites. These roles can pay £50,000 - £150,000 and will be dependent on the chef’s personal brand and profile, as well as ability, skill and experience.
What is a chef stage and how do I get on one?
Something that many chefs will take part in during their career is a ‘stage’ – this is like an internship where a chef will have chance to work in top kitchens to broaden their experience and further develop skills. A chef on stage is known as stage or stagiaire and the length of the stage can be anything from 1 day to months – it all depends on the restaurant and the ability of the stage to pay their way.
Most of the top restaurants in the world offers stages to chefs and it is a very useful way for a young chef to sample a wide range of culinary areas and techniques – from French Classic gastronomy of the traditional Parisian kitchens to the modern European Scandi culinary movement of Stockholm and Copenhagen. The profile of restaurants offering stages mean that they are often highly competitive but persistence and a good word from a previous Head Chef can be used to get a foot in the door.
What interview questions are chefs asked?
If you are very serious about becoming a chef, you will ultimately be answering interview questions at some point. The exact questions that you will be asked will very much depend on the type of role that you are applying for – a Head Chef interviewing for a Michelin star kitchen is going to be asked vastly different questions than those asked to a sous chef of a gastropub.
The majority of interviews will focus around personal profile and experience – with the prospective employer being interested in how you verbal responses support your CV (if it isn’t true don’t write it). These will include questions such as;
- Why did you decide to become a chef? What other back-of-the-house positions have you previously held?
- Did you go to culinary school? What credentials did you earn through your culinary studies?
- What did you like best about the education experience? What did you like least?
Other questions will focus on your particular skill sets – the type of cooking that you are used to and if you have ever held specialist roles within a kitchen. Here the interviewer will be looking to see how your skill set fits with the skill set required for the role, as well as if you have any specific ability that will set you apart from other applicants. Questions could include;
- Is there a chef you admire the most? Who and why?
- What is your favorite cuisine? How many different types of cuisine are you capable of producing?
- What is your favorite cuisine to cook?
- What is your favorite wine?
- Tell me about your wine knowledge.
Many interviews will have a practical element – if not in the first interview, most likely in a follow up interview. In fact, you will be highly unlikely to receive a role without having first cooked for your new employer. This will test your ability to work under pressure in a kitchen and ultimately demonstrate exactly what you can do. Expect a casual chat and interviewing to occur during the cooking itself, likely with the interviewer asking questions specifically relating to the actions that you are taking in your demonstration cook.
What is a celebrity chef and how do I become one?
Wanting to become a chef and wanting to become a celebrity chef are two very different desires – with one far more achievable than the other. To purposefully set out to become a celebrity chef is not something that is achievable and almost all ‘celebrity’ chefs fell into the position fortuitously or because of a cooking ability that paired with an ease in front of the camera.
The very concept of a celebrity chef is one that can be questioned – what do we actually mean by celebrity chef? Who are the best known celebrity chefs? Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and James Martin are all chefs with huge profiles – although each one has an entirely different personality and area of expertise – in terms of both cooking and media appearances.
Jamie Oliver is very well known for his work in educatering, food policy and cook books. He has also worked closely with brands such as Sainsbury’s – his profile is built upon his friendly and personable nature, boyish looks and natural charisma. While he is undoubtedly a skilled chef – he would not be considered a culinary great such as Massimo Bottura or Magnus Nilsson – two chefs who you are unlikely to have heard of unless you are in the industry.
Gordan Ramsey on the other hand has built both a massive TV career – in the UK and the States – as well as having an empire of highly respected and rated restaurants. His culinary skill and ability is what raised his profile in the first place to then get TV appearances – his subsequent blunt, sweary and sometimes aggressive personality is what then cemented his profile as an entertainer.
The key behind both is that neither set out to be celebrity chefs, a series of fortunate events allowed them to build their personal brands to the point that both enter the mainstream and have become household names.
There are plenty of other chefs who are also household names – depending on whether or not that household watches Great British Menu. This programme has been enormously popular in recent years and has become something of a celebrity chef generator with those who do well on the show having subsequently seriously raised their personal profiles. The one common element is that all of the people are selected for the show based on their culinary abilities.
If you do want to become a celebrity chef, first of all become a chef. Then who knows where the journey could take you.
What uniform do chefs wear and why?
There is one aspect of being a chef which is almost universally recognised and it has become possibly the single defining aspect of the profession – chef whites. We know a thing or two about these, as Tibard is the leading supplier in the country – we make over 80,000 garments a week for chefs.
A chef’s uniform consists of specialised clothing for every part of the body – chef jackets are lightweight and cooling, aprons are used to protect from stains and chef trousers are designed to be comfortable and offer movement. Chef shoes are built to withstand long shifts on your feet and chef hats are used for health and safety reasons – although the traditional tall chef’s hat is becoming less common in the modern kitchen, with chefs opting to wear skullcaps instead.
If you want to read a more thorough history of chef whites, check out our other article on the subject.