If you're passionate about food and the art of cooking then a career as a chef may be tailor-made for you

Chefs work in a variety of settings to prepare, cook and plate food. You can work in restaurants, pubs, hotel restaurants, cruise ships, the armed forces and in contract catering. Responsibilities and job titles can vary depending on your specific role, the type of cuisine you produce and the nature of where you work.

The restaurant sector in the UK is a fast-growing one, which means there are many opportunities for dedicated, skilled chefs.

Due to the time and pressure demands of the job, a level of personal and professional commitment will be needed in order for you to learn, develop and succeed.

You can work at the following levels:

  • Commis chef
  • Chef de partie
  • Sous chef
  • Head chef.

Responsibilities

As a commis chef, apprentice or trainee chef, you'll:

  • get to grips with the fundamentals of cooking, such as knife skills. This may involve understanding the basic cuts (e.g. chopping, dicing, julienne and chiffonade) as well as learning how to handle ingredients correctly
  • work in different sections of the kitchen, helping the chef de partie
  • be responsible for food preparation and basic cooking and also learn about portion sizes
  • listen to instructions and work as part of a team.

Working as a chef de partie or section chef, you'll:

  • prep, cook and assemble dishes and make sure that they go out on time
  • be in charge of a specific section of the kitchen such as sauces, fish or pastry so you'll need to have a sound knowledge of cooking
  • assist the sous chef or head chef in developing menus
  • delegate responsibilities to commis chefs or other assistants (sometimes called demi-chef or demi-chef de partie) that are helping you if you work in a large kitchen.

In a sous chef role, you will be the second-in-command in the kitchen and will:

  • oversee the day-to-day running of the kitchen, order food and undertake the kitchen inventory (this potentially includes budgeting)
  • be in charge of training and oversee hygiene and cleanliness in the kitchen
  • prepare and plate dishes and have an input into menu design.

Operating as a head chef, executive chef or chef de cuisine, you'll:

  • create a vision for the cuisine, inspire your team and delegate tasks effectively
  • be responsible for quality control and tasting the dishes; making sure they are at the right standard and are presented correctly before they go out to the customer
  • recruit, motivate and manage staff
  • liaise with suppliers, oversee deliveries, manage the kitchen budget and design menus. You may spend less time cooking than in other chef roles.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for commis chefs are between £12,000 and £16,000.
  • More experienced chefs, such as sous chefs, earn between £20,000 and £30,000.
  • Head chefs can expect higher salaries of £25,000 to £55,000+.

Salaries differ significantly depending on where you work, both in terms of the setting and region. For instance, a sous chef in a Michelin starred-restaurant might earn more than someone in an equivalent position in contract catering. In some places, such as in a smaller kitchen, your role may be referred to as general chef.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Hours can vary greatly depending on your role and on the setting you are working in. You may be required to work in the evenings or on weekends or public holidays, depending on the nature of the business.

In the industry, full-time work is common. Some chefs work a standard working week of 40 hours.

Others follow the working time directive, which means that the maximum you would be contracted to work is 48 hours a week. You can opt-out of this directive, meaning you can choose to work more than 48 hours a week. It is therefore commonplace for some chefs to work 48-60 hours a week.

What to expect

  • There are more than 250,000 chefs in the UK, however only a fifth of these are female (Office for National Statistics, 2016). Recruiting, retaining and developing female chefs is important for the growth of the industry.
  • The traditional uniform is chef whites. Hygiene and health and safety are very important, so wearing a hat and an apron is standard.
  • You may work long hours, be on your feet for long periods of time and find yourself working in a humid, fast-paced environment. Achieving a work-life balance can be difficult. However, being part of a successful team that produces great food can be very rewarding.
  • You may have the opportunity to travel and learn about different cuisines, this provides variety and the opportunity to learn and progress.
  • French cuisine still has a big influence in the industry both in the UK and worldwide, particularly in haute cuisine.

Qualifications

It is not necessary to have a degree to become a chef; however a HND, foundation degree or degree in professional cookery or culinary arts would help you to gain knowledge and essential skills.

Many related degree courses contain a placement which, through working in a professional kitchen, can give you valuable, practical industry experience. Some restaurants prefer to recruit professional cookery or culinary arts students and graduates because of their familiarity with cooking techniques and food handling methods.

A graduate scheme could broaden your awareness of the industry and give you a different perspective, which would give a worthwhile insight for any budding chef. Though graduate schemes where you would be working as a chef are not usual, there are employers that offer schemes in nutrition and food development.

Entry requirements vary. Many graduate schemes will consider applicants with a good standard degree (usually a 2:1) from a range of degree courses, including professional cookery or culinary arts.

Skills

You will need show:

  • technical skills (cooking techniques, knowing how to cook, store and serve food)
  • an understanding of food hygiene and health and safety
  • self-motivation
  • flexibility
  • teamwork and communication skills
  • a willingness to learn and take on board instructions
  • organisational skills and the ability to delegate
  • attention to detail to ensure consistent, high standards
  • commitment and loyalty
  • a hard-working and calm approach
  • the ability to work without supervision.

Language skills are also valuable, particularly French or Spanish.

Work experience

Finding casual, part-time or weekend work as a chef in a restaurant or pub can be straightforward, and many choose to do this alongside their studies. Although you may be able to earn a bit more money in a similar role elsewhere, working in a reputable kitchen will provide you with an introduction to the basics and get you into the right habits, which will be a good investment in your future. Due to the nature of the job, gaining practical, on-the-job experience is advisable.

You may find it challenging to progress in your career as a chef without some form of relevant training so some chefs, who are prepared to train on the job, choose to do an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships often lead to a permanent position.

For those wanting to further their culinary knowledge, the nine-month Grand Diplôme course at Le Cordon Bleu in London is seen as one of the most respected culinary qualifications. The Grand Diplôme is a demanding course which teaches techniques of classical French cuisine.

Top chefs and restaurants have been known to recruit former Le Cordon Bleu students to work in their kitchens. The qualification is expensive. Intensive diplomas and other culinary related shorter courses are also available at the institute.

Employers

Job opportunities can be found in:

  • chain restaurants
  • Michelin-starred and AA-Rosette awarded restaurants
  • pubs and gastropubs
  • educational settings (schools, colleges, universities)
  • the NHS
  • the armed forces
  • contract catering
  • cruise ships
  • hotel or bar restaurants.

Look for job vacancies at:

The websites of major hotel groups, restaurant chains and contract catering companies will also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Training opportunities differ depending on where you work. A large chain restaurant or contract catering company will most likely provide you with structured training. Independent pubs or restaurants are more likely to offer you on-the-job training on a more informal basis.

Main training areas include:

  • food hygiene and health and safety
  • handling and storage of ingredients and stock rotation
  • company policies and procedures.

The Hospitality Guild has a comprehensive list of training opportunities listed by provider and by qualification type.

As a trainee chef, you will typically gain experience within different sections of the kitchen. You'll be assigned someone to help you. In a restaurant, this will most likely be the chef de partie or equivalent.

Key professional bodies provide industry news, articles and training opportunities. They also have information on other available external courses and events. It is a good idea to keep up to date with industry news at:

The sector skills council for the hospitality, leisure, tourism and related industries is People 1st.

The Institute of Hospitality has comprehensive resources on qualifications, training and career development.

Career prospects

Due to the broad range of cuisines and settings in the profession, it is common for chefs to learn by working in various kitchens throughout their career. You may choose to leave your current role for a new challenge in the same, or similar position in another kitchen.

Depending on the location of the vacancies and what your aims are, you may have to be prepared to travel to access the opportunity you are looking for. You may even move to a new geographical area to continue your development as a chef.

With further study, such as an undergraduate degree or a Masters, you could become a nutritionist or dietitian. Another option is to train as a food technology/cookery teacher or assessor, working for a college or training provider.

As an experienced chef with significant knowledge of food, leadership and budgeting skills, you could become a head chef or executive chef but this takes time and commitment. With substantial experience and recognition, you could become a private chef working at weddings, functions or events. Other long-term career prospects include:

  • chef manager
  • general manager or restaurant manager
  • food/product development
  • food and beverage director
  • head of catering/catering manager
  • food writer or blogger
  • restaurant owner.

These positions require you to have organisational skills, drive and determination.