HOW TO BECOME A CHEF
Are you passionate about food, excited by new flavours, and meticulous about presentation? Do you dream of running your own kitchen or a new restaurant, creating new dishes, or working with some of the best chefs in the UK? Then read on.
The UK’s restaurant sector is growing fast, and working as a chef is exciting, creative and very rewarding. It’s hard work, there’s no doubt about it, but the best chefs thrive on the buzz.
Training is part of the fun, and there are lots of opportunities for carving your own career path. We spoke to some of the leading chefs in Brighton and beyond to create a step-by-step guide that gives you the inside track on becoming a chef.
STEP 1 – ANSWER THE BIG QUESTION: SHOULD I BECOME A CHEF?
Becoming a chef is a big commitment, so the first step should be to ask yourself: is this 100% what I want to do? The best way to find out is to get some hands-on experience in a professional kitchen.
Get a job as a Kitchen Porter
A Kitchen Porter is the pot washer, and it’s where many great chefs started out. This entry-level job exposes you to the reality of kitchen life. You’ll experience the pressure of a busy shift, the fast pace of the kitchen, and the thrill of working with a team. You don’t need any experience to apply, and you can start at a young age, even as a teenager.
Kitchen Porters are in direct contact with the chefs themselves, so take this opportunity to observe and ask questions. Pick up lots of tips, offer to help with basic food prep, and you can start to learn the foundations of the trade. Dave Mothersill, owner of Furna did just that:
“I started as a kitchen porter in a seafood restaurant and was amazed at the produce coming through the door. I was very inquisitive and always pestered the head chef with questions. He was a very old school chef, hard as nails. From there I worked around the country in many kitchens.”
Volunteer in a kitchen
You could also get some cheffing exposure through work experience or volunteering. Phil Bartley from Bartley Kitchen Management told us how his work experience opened the door to his first job:
“I went to the Metropole Hotel in Brighton on work experience when I was 15, it was only supposed to be for a week but I ended up staying there for over two years, they offered me a kitchen job after school and at weekends so I jumped at the chance… It was a great introduction to the world of cooking and I absolutely loved the organised chaos of the kitchen. I still love it now!”
Loving life as a Kitchen Porter? Then you’re ready for the next step. Can’t stand the heat? Then cheffing may not be for you. But fear not, there’s a wealth of other exciting roles in the hospitality industry to consider from Restaurant Manager to Sommelier or Front of House. Do a little research and start mapping out your career in hospitality.
STEP 2 – GET SOME PROFESSIONAL TRAINING
Some of the UK’s top chefs followed a strict path of formal education, while others worked their way up through hard kitchen graft alone. There are no set rules or strict requirements for becoming a chef but the right training can fast-track your career and get you started on the right foot.
Formal training gives you a strong foundation and can stop you picking up bad habits. You’ll learn about everything from basic cooking techniques to health and safety. A good tutor can inspire you, help you to make contacts and open your eyes to the variety of opportunities available. If you find a particular niche that you love, you could start specialising while at college.
What degree is needed to become a chef?
To work in the kitchen, you’ll need to complete a food hygiene course. A degree or other formal qualifications aren’t essential, but they can help. GCSEs in Maths and English are a good start, and a degree or course in professional cookery or culinary arts will help you to gain the knowledge and skills to kick-start your career.
Many budding chefs study for a professional NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications) diploma. There are three levels to get you started, and each one lasts one school year if you study full-time:
Level 1 Certificate in Food Preparation and Cooking
Level 2 Certificate in Food Preparation and Cooking
Level 3 Professional Cookery Diploma
“Once I got into the swing of it I loved every minute. It was hard but I soon learned that if you put in 110 per cent and showed true grit, the lecturers would help you all they could.”
Got your sights set on becoming the next Paul Hollywood? Once you’ve gained your entry-level qualifications, you could think about specialising in an area like pastry. Alan White, formerly Executive Chef at GB1 restaurant at The Grand Hotel Brighton started gaining specialist qualifications early-on in his training:
“I always knew that I wanted to be in the kitchen creating the food, rather than serving it. So when I went to catering college I chose a course focused on developing professional culinary skills and did an additional patisserie course as well.”
Apply for an apprenticeship
You could learn while you earn by doing an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are usually combined with professional qualifications, so you’ll get certified at the same time. Typically, you’ll spend most of the week in the workplace, and a day or so at college.
People 1st International develops and quality assures industry skills for apprenticeships and vocational education. Apprenticeship standards are designed to form progressive career pathways that combine the knowledge, skills and behaviours that employers value within the industry. In short, you’ll be on the right path to a successful career as a chef.
MasterChef winner and the owner of Etch (one of the top 100 restaurants in the UK), Steven Edwards told us about his apprenticeship training:
“I trained at Burnham Beeches Hotel in Buckinghamshire. The reason I chose there was because it was near to where I grew up in Windsor and offered a fine dining modern apprenticeship.”
To find out more about NVQ diplomas and apprenticeships, you could check out your local colleges for courses, or ask your workplace about apprenticeship opportunities.
Becoming a chef with no experience
If you have no qualifications or experience, and you don’t plan on going to college or applying for an apprenticeship, then the best way to become a chef is by starting at the bottom. Apply for a job as a Kitchen Porter and work your way up from there.
At the same time, you could start self-teaching at home. Buy a book, watch some online videos and get hands on in your own kitchen. The more you practice, the better you’ll get, so roll up your sleeves and start putting in the hours.
With no professional experience, you’ll need to show dedication, reliability and real interest in becoming a chef. But, with enough determination, it’s possible to build a successful career with no qualifications or formal training.
How long to become a chef?
The amount of time it takes to become a chef can depend on a number of factors, including the training route you take, and the type of chef role you’re aiming for. For example, you could apply for a Commis Chef job after three years in college but you could be working and building experience for many more years before you secure your first Sous Chef position.
It’s widely agreed that a formal training course, like an NVQ or apprenticeship, can help you to secure that first role faster and give you a leg-up in the industry.
STEP 3 – BUILD YOUR EXPERIENCE
To become a great chef, you need experience. This is something you’ll continue to build on throughout your career – you could work as a chef your whole life and still not mastered every single technique. In this career, the learning never stops.
Think about building your experience right from the start, whether you’re working as a Kitchen Porter, studying for an NVQ or starting your first job as a Kitchen Assistant or Commis Chef. Work as many hours as you can in the kitchen, and fill the gaps by practicing at home.
Seize every opportunity
Whatever role you’re doing, you need to be proactive – watch how the experts work, ask questions and step forward to help. With experience comes confidence, and you shouldn’t be afraid to show your own flair – even at the start. Alan White, Executive Chef at the GB1 restaurant at The Grand Hotel Brighton, explains:
“Look out for people who inspire you, and watch and listen to everything they say. I’d also advise any trainee chef to put your full passion into the plate you’re creating and don’t be afraid to experiment. When you get the chance to express yourself, grab it and take your chances.”
What skills do I need to become a chef?
Being a great chef is about more than good cooking. Aside from all the slicing and dicing, the skills required to become a chef include everything from team work to time management.
Communication: Chefs need to know what’s going on at all times and be in-tune with the whole team. Get used to shouting ‘yes Chef!’ to let your Head Chef know that you’ve got everything under control.
Time management: Your food needs to reach every customer on time, and be cooked to perfection. You’ll also need to coordinate your timings with the other chefs in your brigade.
Working under pressure: Dealing with multiple orders at once can be very stressful. On busy shifts, you could be multi-tasking between grilling, frying, whipping and plating and more. The best chefs thrive under this pressure.
Attention to detail: Food prep demands precision, patience and perfection. It’s the little details, like seasoning and plating up, that make all the difference. You need to be meticulous.
People management: If you plan on working your way through the ranks, you’ll need to build experience in managing a team of chefs. Without this skill, your kitchen won’t run smoothly.
Creativity: Chefs need to think outside the box to design great menus and come up with new creations. Innovation will get you noticed as a chef, whether it’s the way you prep, cook, source or present your food.
STEP 4 – APPLY FOR COMMIS CHEF JOBS
As a recently qualified or trainee chef, you can apply for positions as a Commis Chef. Local job fairs can be a good place to start meeting potential employers and making contacts.
As the most junior member of the professional chef team, you’ll work under a Chef de Partie – following instructions is a key part of the role. You’ll learn the ins and outs of the kitchen, developing a practical understanding of basic cooking skills, portion sizes and kitchen etiquette.
Commis Chefs tend to work around different kitchen sections, such as fish, meat or pastry. You’ll need to get to grips with fundamental skills, like using knives – prepare to spend a lot of time practicing your basic cuts, from chopping and dicing, to julienne and chiffonade.
What do employers look for?
We asked some of the UK’s top chefs what they look for in a new employee. Here’s what they shared with us:
“Dedication, passion and willingness… I look for past education, how long they’ve stayed in a job and where they have worked previously.”
Phil Bartley from Bartley Kitchen Management:
“There’s only one real thing I look for and that’s an attitude. If a chef has the right attitude and is willing to learn then that is all that matters, experience counts but is a lot lower on my list.”
Steven Edwards from Etch:
“Three qualities I look for are in chefs are attitude, ability and desire… I look for chefs that have worked in a similar environment. If they haven’t, I recommend doing a stage to make sure this is what they really want to do.”
Michael Bremner from 64 Degrees and Murmur:
“I think attitude is the most important. Someone who loves what they do and is willing to graft and learn to be the best is always valued far higher than myself to someone who may be technically better but doesn’t work as hard.
The other thing I look for is presentation – it’s very important to me that people who work for me look after themselves and are presentable; especially if they’re working in an open kitchen…”
What does a great CV look like?
A great CV is your golden ticket to getting a job interview. It needs to be well-written and tailored to each role and workplace. Don’t be shy when singing out your achievements but be careful not to over-egg it – exaggerated or false information can be easily sniffed out.
Michael Bremner from 64 Degrees and Murmur advises spending some time on your cover letter and interview preparation:
“A good cover letter is a very good start – it’s important to see that they’ve actually thought about the specific job they’re applying for, that they know the sort of kitchen we are and what we do, and to see why they want to work for us.
And when it comes to your CV and work history, Michael Bremner says that sticking power is crucial:
“If you look through their employment history, it may be that they’ve worked in several amazing places, but if they’ve only lasted a month or so in each then alarm bells will start to ring. It usually means they’ve either not been up to the job or they struggle to stick around, so most likely won’t stay around in a position you offer.”
Phil Bartley from Bartley Kitchen Management agrees:
“I look at where they’ve worked but more importantly how long for, if a chef holds down a job for a few years at a back street pub then that CV will be near the top of the pile above the chef who’s worked in ten Michelin starred kitchens but moved every three months, that rings alarm bells for me.
How to become a successful chef
Once you’ve landed your first job as a chef, the hard work really starts. This is your big opportunity to show your commitment and get some serious experience in the bag. Your qualifications may have got you through the door but now you need to prove yourself.
Put in the hours, seize every opportunity and learn from the experts. Cheffing is a competitive industry but there’s lots of opportunity for those who show the determination to succeed. Dave Mothersill, from Furna restaurant in Brighton shares his tips on how to get ahead:
“Listen and learn from the people around you, read cooking books, eat out as much as possible and try and do a couple of stages in different kitchens every year to learn new techniques and work in different environments and remember every day is a school day!”
Working your way up
After a successful start as a Commis Chef, you could progress to Section Chef (Station Chef) and start building your experience in particular areas, like desserts. A wide variety of station experience gives you a great foundation to work your way up the career ladder and apply for other jobs.
Cheffing careers follow a clear hierarchy of roles and levels. It’s common for chefs to spend at least two years at each level before moving up a rung. Small kitchens are unlikely to employ every role, so it’s a good idea to get some experience in a bigger kitchen, especially during the early stages of your career.
Chef career ladder:
Commis Chef / Line Chef: This entry-level position sees you supporting other chefs in the kitchen. You could be making pasta one day and pies the next, so be proactive, say ‘yes’, and get as much experience as possible.
Chef de Partie / Station Chef / Station Chef: The next rung up, a Chef de Partie is in charge of a particular kitchen section. Specific roles include ‘poissonier’ (fish cook), ‘rotisseur’ (meat cook) or ‘pattisier’ (pastry chef). Working your way around several different stations will build your expertise and give you an in-depth understanding of the entire kitchen.
Sous Chef: Second in command, the Sous Chef is the Head Chef’s right hand. This hands-on role sees you running the kitchen team, so the pressure is really on. Staff training, kitchen hygiene, menu design and budgeting are all elements of this role, along with plating and preparation. Larger kitchens may have more than one Sous Chef role, include a Junior Sous Chef and Senior Sous Chef.
Head Chef / Chef de Cuisine / Executive Chef: It takes years of experience and training to become a successful Head Chef. Along with designing menus and running the kitchen, a Head Chef needs an eye for budgeting, a passion for people management, and a vision for the cuisine. Although they do less hands-on cooking during a shift, they need to be on-top of quality control. Recruiting new staff and motivating the team are also part of this role.
Patience pays off
When it comes to working your way up, it can pay to take it slow and build your expertise at each level. Alan White, Executive Chef at GB1 gives his insight:
“… work through the steps in the kitchen ladder in order, from commis chef right through to the head positions rather than skipping milestones for a quick salary increase. Each role change will set you up with a depth of experience which will be really valuable for the future. The experience will always pay, and salary increases will come in time.”
Chomping at the bit to get started with your Chef career? You could begin right now by searching for a job as a Kitchen Porter, Kitchen Assistant or Commis Chef. For more inspiration, take a look at some of our Head Chef interviews.