Anyone who enjoys cooking has probably thought about what it might be like to work as a high-end chef. And let’s be honest – more than a few of us have pretended our kitchen was a studio and we were the latest Food Network star. But in reality, the road to becoming a chef takes time to travel. It requires countless hours of hard work, especially in the early years. “Paying your dues” is definitely what aspiring chefs must do to reach the upper ranks of the profession.
There are no strict educational or training requirements to become a chef. For most, the knowledge and skills are simply gained during those long hours in the kitchen. However, those who want to reach the pinnacle of the profession could be well served by choosing a culinary degree in addition to an apprenticeship. This guide is designed for those who want to do more than simply cook – it is meant for those who want to tailor their lives to a culinary dream.
If you’ve ever watched Gordon Ramsey on TV and thought ‘I could do that!’ (minus the swearing and shouting, obviously!), or whipped up Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals in just 10, a career as a chef may well be for you.
The good news is you’ve come to the right place, as here on the site we’ve pulled together all the information you might need – a kind of ‘who, what and where of cheffing’– to give you a helping hand into the industry.
The first thing you should know is it’s a highly competitive arena; there’s a reason each and every TV chef has something original about them. The fact is, it’s a difficult industry to crack so it’s really important to stand out; you’ll have discovered this while watching TV’s The Taste, MasterChef and Great British Menu.
Create your winning, signature dish early on and show unrivalled passion and enthusiasm and you’re already half way there to the big chef salary.
Have You Got What it Takes to Be a Chef?
So you might enjoy cooking up a storm at home, but be warned; cooking for fun and cooking for a living are two very different things. For a start, there’s little pressure in your own kitchen – and minus a picky other half or friend, there’ll certainly be no threat of anyone sending your meal back to you.
You may make a mean cheese soufflé, or you might be able to chop veg at the speed of light. Similarly, relatives may be queuing up to sample your dishes. But could you handle the heat in a real, commercial kitchen? Following in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsey or Marcus Wareing can be tough – and we doubt it came easy to them in the beginning either!
So if you want to be a MasterChef extraordinaire – and get paid for it – we’re afraid you’ll have to work for it. Opportunities like this don’t just get handed to you on a plate (pun very much intended!), which means you will have to complete the necessary chef training and get the hands-on experience you’ll require.
Chef Training: Where to Start
Involving a combination of formal training and on-the-job experience, training to be a chef can be tough. When they say ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ they’re right, as few jobs are more pressured than a chef’s. Add to that the often-unsociable hours involved (chefs can work long days, split shifts and often past midnight each and every night) and you really do have to want to do the role in order to set out on the training.
So, what are the professional options available to you as a trained chef? Are you willing to put in the time it takes to attend culinary school and work to develop your skills and unique cooking style? Perhaps you’d like to open your own pub or restaurant eventually? All these things and more will need some consideration before you sign up for a relevant course. But don’t panic, we’re about to answer all your questions.
Hopefully, the very next section of our handy ‘How to Become a Chef’ resource will give you all the insight you need to take the first steps to getting your very own chef whites and becoming a full-time cook.
What Skills Do You Need to be a chef?
When entering into any industry, it’s important to know exactly what skills you’ll need to do the job, not just properly, but brilliantly. So we’re bringing you some of the key skills and character traits you’ll need to shine as a trainee chef:
- A keen interest and passion for food, the food industry and cooking in general
- The ability to work under pressure and during unsociable hours/times
- High standards of cleanliness and hygiene
- The ability to multitask
- Strong communication
- Leadership skills
- Creativity, imagination and flair for food preparation and presentation
- The ability to work individually and part of a team
- Good organisation skills
- The dexterity to prepare food via the proper techniques
- Pride in your work and team
- Strong business skills, in order to manage both a team and a restaurant
- The ability to motivate fellow kitchen staff
- Excellent time management
Chef’s Tools: What You’ll Need
Like a painter needs a paintbrush and a seamstress needs a sewing machine, a chef will also require all the tools of the trade.
When you’re working in a restaurant, however, you should be provided with all the equipment you need, but some chefs still prefer to use their own knives and other smaller tools, too.
When you’re learning, it’s important to have all the equipment you require. Most schools and colleges, while they’ll provide the main, larger pieces of equipment, may require you to have a small toolbox featuring the basic cooking equipment. This could be anything from knives to chopping boards, but do check with the establishment you’ll be completing your training with.
You’ll probably have to purchase your own chef’s whites in advance, along with a hair net and comfortable, practical and protected shoes. You could give your college a call in advance to find out the estimated cost of all the equipment; it may be that they have partnered with reputable chef firms to offer you discounts and deals.
Chef training is about so much more than the equipment, though. You’ll also need the commitment needed to help you gain the relevant cooking qualifications, as well as the desire to learn from those around you.
It’s likely that you won’t be learning how to cook Michelin star food right away; it’s probable that instead you’ll be picking up the basics. But do stick with it – learning the basics is as important as having a go at the ‘serious’ stuff; without them you’ll be setting yourself up to fail.
Training: How to Become Qualified
While you may not require academic qualifications to begin work as a trainee (commis) chef, many employers will look on you more favourably if you have at least a basic understanding of the industry.
Of course, you might decide to prepare for the training by taking on a full-time trainee job, or you may opt to complete the training first – whichever you choose is fine, there are often no hard and fast rules to becoming a trainee.
Becoming a Chef without Formal Training
It may not be the easy route, but it is possible to find yourself in a trainee chef role without putting yourself through the training. Famous chefs such as Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsey entered the industry this way, but many will have persevered with the training in order to first become fully qualified. Either way, it’s going to require much perseverance and resilience to become a top, Michelin-star chef.
If you decide to start by gaining some on-the-job experience, the first thing you need to do is find a kitchen. Of course, this means find a kitchen in a local restaurant, pub or bistro that is willing to give you some hands-on experience while paying you a fair wage. Even if you begin by washing the dishes, this can often be the best route into the industry.
Next, consider self-studying. By this we mean find online revenues (like this one!) which will give you an insight into the industry without the need to spend thousands on training courses. Take a look on YouTube, or search for cheap but highly-recommended online cookery courses – the more you do and the more you know, the more marketable you’ll become.
Finally, don’t be afraid to put in the hours. In order to reap the benefits of becoming a full-time chef, you’ll need to dedicate yourself to some hard work. This may mean working gruelling hours and shifts, coping with angry and frustrated customers and answering to the head chef. At all times, ensure you have a positive attitude and keep your end goal in sight: becoming a top chef.