How to become a chef

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Chef preparing food

Are you a budding Jamie or Nigella? Has MasterChef inspired you to cook up exotic culinary creations?

If you’re an aspiring chef, we’ve got the perfect recipe for you. In this article, we explore what the job involves, what skills and qualifications you need, and how to become a chef.

'Apprenticeships, diplomas and on-the-job training are all ways to become a chef'

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What is a chef?

Chefs prepare, cook and present food.

Whereas the kind of cooking you might have done at home is about designing a plate of food, professional cooking is “a production line”, to borrow the words of MasterChef’s 2009 winner, Mat Follas.

These chefs-de-partie are adding sauces before the

meal is served

In a professional kitchen at a restaurant or hotel, food is served to hundreds of diners every night. Instead of a single chef being responsible for the entire dish, the job is divided up into teams to get the job done efficiently.

This makes the professional kitchen a hierarchical place, and there are several ranks of chef:

  • A commis chef works on a particular area of food preparation, eg sauces, vegetables, roasting.
  • A chef de partie is in charge of one of these areas.
  • The head chef’s second-in-command is called the sous chef, and they direct much of the work in the kitchen.
  • As the boss of the kitchen, the head chef oversees all the kitchen activity, including coming up with the menu. They also have overall responsibility for the food.

As if things weren't complicate enough, some kitchens have even more ranks in between (like a junior chef de partie, of all things).

What does a chef do?

This depends on the rank, but the tasks and responsibilities of a chef include:

  • Cleaning and preparing vegetables and salads.
  • Preparing meat and fish for cooking.
  • Cooking food to a strict deadline to make sure the food is served on time.
  • Presenting food attractively.
  • Understanding and keeping to food safety standards and laws.
  • Making sure portion sizes are consistent.
  • Finding and ordering ingredients (stock) at the best price and quality, and checking it when it arrives.
  • Inspecting the kitchen to make sure it is efficient and safe.
  • Coming up with the menu.

What qualifications do I need to be a chef?

You don’t need any formal qualifications to begin training as a chef. As always, we recommend GCSE English and maths at grade C/4 or above. As well as showing you have basic numeracy and literacy, this will broaden the apprenticeships, training and qualifications you can apply for – either now or later in your career.

There's no single set of chef qualifications you need to become chef. There are several routes you can take once you’ve left school or college:

  • Start an apprenticeship.
  • Study for a diploma or similar qualification.
  • Apply to work in a kitchen.

Training on the job

Working part-time in a kitchen while you're at school

could be a great way to gain experience

According to 2009 MasterChef champ Mat Follas, the best way to become a successful chef is to “go and knock on the back door of a restaurant and get on with it”.

If you’d like to try out working in a kitchen, this is something you could consider as a part-time or summer job. This will give you experience to put on your CV and help you gain further work if you’re serious about becoming a chef.

But while this is a good way to gain experience, it doesn't guarantee you formal training or qualifications.

Qualifications

NVQ diplomas in professional cooking are available at levels 1 to 3, and you’ll gain chef qualifications in topics such as:

  • Food preparation
  • Food hygiene
  • Food service
  • Pastry

At level 3, you may start to gain formal experience in the kitchen, larder and in working with pastry.

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is a paid job with training and study.

You’ll spend most of your time in the kitchen, training with your more experienced colleagues, and also be given time to work towards chef qualifications such as NVQs.

Chef and kitchen qualifications are currently offered at intermediate and advanced levels – that means you’ll come out with qualifications equivalent to four GCSEs. According to the government, apprenticeships are available in roles such as:

  • Kitchen assistant.
  • Craft chef.
  • Commis chef.
  • Chef de partie.
  • Sous chef.

Some chef apprenticeships don’t require any formal qualifications – not even GCSEs – although any qualifications you have will help your application.

What skills does a chef need?

Chefs need to be able to work together in a team -

like these happy chaps!

Demonstrating these skills will help your application, and you’ll also develop them on the job:

Creativity and leadership are also important attributes to develop during your career if you aspire to be a head chef.

You also need to be clean and aware of hygiene – no chef wants a trainee turning up to their kitchen with greasy hair and dirty fingernails.

Working in a kitchen can be physically demanding, gruelling work – you may have to lug around heavy items, and conditions are often hot and humid. The hours can be long, and you’ll often work at unsociable times – particularly late into the evening.

How much does a chef earn?

A chef salary varies widely depending on their level.

Trainee chefs can expect to start on around £13,000. With experience, you could be earning £18,000 to £25,000, while a head chef might earn £50,000 or more.

Now you know how to become a chef, check out other careers in hospitality, leisure and tourism.

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Image credits

Lead image via Pexels

Chefs-de-partie via Flickr

Young chefs via Flickr

Chef team via US Defense

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