Chefs plan, prepare and cook cuisine. They work in a variety of settings, from restaurants and catering companies to the NHS and even the armed forces.
What is a chef?
As a chef, you’re an artist of the food world. You’ll research the best dishes to cook for an occasion and type of diner, looking into seasonality and sustainability. You’ll go on to source the best ingredients for your budget and purpose, then incorporate them in exciting dishes.
Depending on your level of experience and expertise, you may manage a kitchen and other staff members. Your work may be seasonal, and hours will vary depending on the setting you work in.
Your responsibilities will depend on the type of setting you work in, as well as your level of seniority. Common responsibilities include:
- Researching menus for particular occasions, such as specialist meals or to cater to particular diners.
- Sourcing ingredients to meet quality and budget requirements.
- Ensuring any dietary requirements are met and provided for.
- Preparing foods in advance, especially for particular catering events (this is usually the responsibility of chef assistants or junior chefs).
- Using specialist methods of cooking for particular occasions.
- Preparing foods in creative ways, learning new methods of presentation and keeping up to date with relevant food trends.
- Managing less experienced staff and delegating tasks across a staff team.
- Train up junior chefs in particular skills, such as knife work or decorative food preparation.
- Keeping up to date with relevant health and safety and food hygiene standards.
A chef salary can vary considerably depending on where you work and your level of expertise. If you work in a larger city, you’re likely to earn more. Equally working in a Michelin star restaurant is likely to attract higher salaries.
In the culinary world the vast majority of your training and development will come from hands-on experience.
The average salaries for chef jobs are around £25,000 (roughly a chef de partie salary). For entry level chefs, also known as commis chefs, can expect to earn around £10.34 per hour. As you reach higher levels of experience, and move across to more prestigious settings, you could earn a head chef salary or executive chef salary of £40,000 and above.
If you begin your career in a chef apprenticeship, you can expect to earn the national apprentice wage of £4.81 per hour for your first year (provided you are over 19). Following this, you’ll earn the national minimum wage for your age until your apprenticeship is completed.
You don’t usually need a degree to enter the catering profession, however, it can be helpful. Some degrees that would set you in good stead for pursuing a culinary career at higher levels include:
- Artisan Food Production degrees
- Culinary Arts degrees
- Culinary Arts Management degrees
- Food Business Management degrees
- Food Technology degrees
- Professional Chef Foundation degrees
With a degree, you could be set to start your career at higher levels, especially if your course includes relevant work placements.
Alternatively, you could study towards becoming a chef at college level. Examples include those offered by City and Guilds. You’ll usually need English and Maths GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C) or equivalents to join the course.
You could also take an apprenticeship route to a culinary career. You’ll usually need English and Maths GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C) to begin. You could work in various settings, working your way up to head chef jobs or executive chef jobs.
It’s a good idea to build up some work experience prior to applying for chef jobs.
Some chefs also start working directly on the job. You could start in a junior role, and with the right support, work your way up gradually.
Training and development
In the culinary world the vast majority of your training and development will come from hands-on experience. You’ll observe the work of senior chefs, such as a chef de partie, sous chef, and head chef.
Opportunities to train and move towards more senior roles will vary depending on what setting you work in. Large chain restaurants are more likely to have a set progression path, while independent restaurants are more likely to spot potential and train you up informally. You may need to move between different restaurants or jobs in order to access the training you’re looking for. The Hospitality Guild has an excellent map or traditional career routes through the industry to give you an idea of how you could progress.
You could also access training, up to date research and new practices via various culinary and hospitality organisations across the UK. Examples include the Institute of Hospitality and UK Hospitality.
The skills you’ll need as a chef will depend on the area you work in, and the level of authority you have. Some common skills required include:
- Excellent hand eye coordination - you’ll likely work with knives, so you’ll need to work safely.
- A good knowledge of the food that is in season.
- A good awareness of food hygiene and safety.
- An understanding of allergies and intolerances and how to manage risk around these for guests.
- Excellent communication skills - you’ll need to give and receive instructions quickly.
- A working knowledge of various culinary techniques.
- Team working skills - a chef rarely works alone but is instead part of a large team of culinary professionals, so you’ll need to be able to work well collaboratively.
- Ability to work independently - while you’re part of a wider team, you’ll have a set role to complete as part of a production line of skills. You’ll need to be able to meet requirements quickly and efficiently so as not to prevent your team from fulfilling their responsibilities.
- Ability to work well under pressure - you’ll likely work to tight deadlines in hot conditions.
- Ability to take on constructive criticism - this is especially true during your training and junior positions.
It’s a good idea to build up some work experience prior to applying for chef jobs. You’ll usually need some evidence of working in a kitchen in some capacity before applying to junior roles. This could be gathered by working on small weekend roles like washing dishes, or via unpaid shadowing.
If you’re currently studying towards a relevant food qualification, you could ask your course contacts if they could put you in touch with a local chef to shadow. You could also reach out directly and ask to shadow in a kitchen space. You may find that you need to hold a food hygiene certificate before entering.
As you develop your experience and skills in the industry, you could advance in roles within a kitchen. You could begin as a junior chef and move through chef de partie and sous chef roles to becoming head chef. You might find that in order to access new and higher paid positions, you need to move around different settings.
As a chef, you’re an artist of the food world. You’ll research the best dishes to cook for an occasion and type of diner, looking into seasonality and sustainability.
Many chefs build up their experience by working in a variety of different settings. They may start working in domestic kitchens, such as chef jobs in care homes or NHS catering jobs, to a restaurant, then through to large scale corporate catering.
You could also take an alternative route through the hospitality industry, leading kitchens as a kitchen manager. You might eventually aim towards setting up your own restaurant, with the right skills and experience under your belt.