Craft & Food Trades
Chefs/cooks oversee the preparation and cooking of food and meals for organisations such as hotels, restaurants, canteens or hospitals. In large restaurants, chefs are organised into teams with different responsibilities.
Chefs work in all kinds of places, from pubs to cruise ships and from schools to the armed forces. In some places, for example, schools, they might be known as cooks. Their job is to prepare and cook meals.
In some kitchens (for example, in a small pub), the chef might work alone or with the help of only one or two staff. But some kitchens (for example, in major hotels) are huge, and might have dozens of staff, with a number of specialist chefs working under a head chef.
Chefs working in the armed forces, or for companies providing catering for outdoor events, will sometimes work in 'field' or mobile kitchens.
There is so much variety in the catering industry that it is impossible to generalise about a chef's typical working day. For example, some chefs specialise in vegetarian cooking, while others specialise in an ethnic style (such as Thai or Indian). Also, there are different types and levels of chef. In a large kitchen, there could be a:
- Chef patissier (pastry chef).
- Chef saucier (sauce and main meal chef).
- Chef poissonier (fish chef).
- Chef entremettier (vegetable chef).
What each chef does depends on what kind of chef he or she is. A fish chef will order new stock, inspect it on delivery and prepare it for cooking. Meat and fish chefs need to be prepared to gut and clean animals. Vegetable chefs might have to do hours of scraping and chopping of vegetables.
However, trainee chefs and kitchen assistants tend to do these more routine tasks. The cooking of a dish could take a few minutes or a few hours, so timing and teamwork are critical.
Chefs also have ranks. There is the commis chef (trainee), the chef de partie (section leader), the sous chef (deputy head/second chef) and the chef de cuisine (head chef). There are also chefs patron - these are chefs who own their own restaurants.
The higher-ranking chefs supervise the lower ones and might have other duties, including things like book-keeping and budgeting, organising training and stock control. Menu planning and recruitment are normally done by the head chef. The chefs at the lower end, especially the trainees, will do a lot of the preparation of food, as well as tasks such as cleaning floors and emptying bins.
In a small kitchen, where there are only one or two chefs, they tend to do all the preparation and cook a range of dishes, right through from starters to desserts. They also do more of the administration. The same can be true of chefs patron, who'll need good business skills as well as cooking ability.
Whatever kind of place it is, though, it is the menu and the standard of cooking that will make people want to eat there. So chefs take account of current eating trends, food fashions and nutritional information, to put together menus that will attract customers. They follow strict health and safety and hygiene regulations.
Kitchens are hot, busy and noisy (especially the big ones where lots of people are shouting instructions at once). Head chefs usually demand very high standards of work from their staff.
Chef/cooks usually wear overalls (known as 'whites') which they might have to buy for themselves. They might also have to buy their own set of knives.
Personal Qualities and Skills
- To enjoy cooking and cope with the kitchen heat.
- A lot of stamina.
- The ability to stay calm under pressure.
- To be well organised and quick thinking.
- To take a long-term view, as the training can be lengthy.
- To work well as part of a team.
- Good communication skills.
- Creativity and imagination to think of new menu ideas and food presentation.
You might need business and number skills.
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers for chefs
Employers include hotels, restaurants, pubs, work and school canteens, hospitals and the armed forces. Conference centres, cruise ships and other leisure operations also employ chefs/cooks.
Some vacancies are with contract caterers, who provide food for a range of different customers.
Opportunities occur for experienced chefs/cooks to open their own restaurant; however, this requires considerable financial investment.
Entry routes and training
To become a chef, you need to do either a full-time college course, or find a kitchen to take you as a trainee, with day- or block-release to college.
There are a large number of relevant courses, so entry requirements vary considerably. If you are applying to do a course, you must be able to demonstrate your motivation and commitment to the catering industry. Check prospectuses for more details.
Intermediate Level Apprenticeships and Advanced Level Apprenticeships in Hospitality and Catering might be available in your area.
Training for new entrants is usually a mixture of on-the-job training and day-release to college. NVQ Diplomas in Food Production and Cooking are available at level 2, and in Professional Cookery at levels 2 and 3.
Initial training usually lasts two to three years. After that, promotion depends on experience and ability.
Specialist qualifications are available for the experienced chef/cook who wants to develop more skills.
Foundation degrees in subjects such as culinary arts are available.