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What does a chef do?
A chef is sometimes also known as a cook or culinary artist. There are many different types of chefs, including head chef (executive chef), sous chef, station chef (chef de partie) and commis chef. Some may even specialise in specific types of food, such as desserts and pastries, i.e. a pastry chef. Therefore, what a chef does will depend on their type of role and where they work.
A chef predominately works in a kitchen and carries out many different tasks, including leading a team, stock control, food preparation, cooking, presenting food and serving. The role can also have an element of administrative work, such as menu writing and completing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) documentation, which may require a chef to work in an office at some point during their working week.
A chef’s main aim is to produce quality, well-presented, tasty food. They must also protect customers from being harmed by unsafe food, e.g. protecting them from food safety hazards, such as food poisoning and foreign objects. Overall, being a chef is about enhancing a food establishment’s reputation (or theirs) to attract and retain customers.
Chefs can work in different types of food establishments, serving a wide variety of food. They will work with many colleagues (including agency staff) of different levels. They may also be required to liaise with other external stakeholders, including customers, food manufacturers, suppliers, delivery companies, volunteers, Local Authority Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) and Trading Standards Officers (TSOs).
Chefs can work in different sized establishments, from small businesses, e.g. pubs, to organisations with a few hundred employees, e.g. large hotels. Some chefs may choose to have their own business and may even work from home.
The responsibilities a chef has will depend on their type of role, the food they produce and the establishment where they work. For example, a head chef will have different responsibilities to a commis chef and working in a small pub kitchen will be different to being a chef in a large hotel kitchen.
Some of the duties chefs may have can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Monitoring, controlling, ordering and inspecting stock.
- Staying within budgets.
- Carrying out food safety and hygiene inspections and checks in line with HACCP, e.g. refrigerator temperature checks.
- Assisting in food hygiene rating inspections.
- Administrative tasks, e.g. documenting due diligence checks.
- Planning and writing menus, which also meet nutritional standards and allergen laws.
- Supervise cooks and other staff.
- Delegating to other staff members where required.
- Labelling of food.
- Washing and preparing vegetables, salads and fruit.
- Gutting and preparing animals and fish before cooking.
- Cooking and serving food to strict deadlines.
- Ensuring dishes are presentable and attractive.
- Ensuring that all food produced is of a high quality and portion sizes are consistent.
- Washing dishes, equipment and utensils (including the use of a dishwasher).
- Understanding and complying with relevant laws, e.g. food safety and hygiene, health and safety and licensing.
- Maintaining a clean and hygienic work environment.
- Complying with company policies, procedures, HACCP systems and risk assessments.
In small kitchens, a chef may need to carry out many of the above responsibilities. In establishments with a hierarchy (usually larger kitchens), these duties are divided between roles. For example, a head chef will be responsible for overseeing the kitchen, planning menus and finances. Whereas, a commis chef will be responsible for cleaning and preparing and chopping ingredients.
A chef can expect to work around 40-45 hours a week, but they can do more hours depending on the requirements of their role. The shifts can be quite long and up to 12 hours a day in some cases. Most of this time will require chefs to be on their feet, so they must have a certain fitness level.
Opting out of the Working Time Directive allows chefs to work more than 48 hours a week, and some chefs can work up to 60 hours a week. If they do not opt-out, the maximum they would be permitted to work is 48 hours a week.
Being a chef is not a 9-5 job, and those looking at becoming a chef must be committed to working unsociable hours, such as early mornings, evenings, weekends and bank holidays. There may be some roles that offer set days and hours. However, there may be a requirement for overtime in busy periods.
Travel may be a requirement for a chef if they work for a company with several food establishments or freelance at different locations. Some establishments may also provide on-site accommodation for chefs so they can stay during a season.
What to expect
Being a chef is hard work but rewarding. Preparing, cooking and serving well presented tasty dishes and getting positive feedback from customers can give chefs a real confidence boost. It also allows individuals to be innovators by experimenting and being creative with food, almost like an artist.
Having a meal out is an experience for people, and chefs are an essential part of this. Chefs can go home at the end of the working day knowing they have made customers happy with their exquisite food. If chefs become recognised for their talent, it will open up opportunities to work in high-end establishments, and there is the potential to earn fantastic salaries.
There are no boundaries for chefs, and there is a high demand for those with talent. There are opportunities to work in many different establishments nationally or globally, and there is scope for travelling and experiencing different cultures. There are also so many roles and cuisines to choose from, and it is a diverse industry. Therefore, chefs are unlikely to get bored.
Even though being a chef is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- Fast-paced – working in a food establishment can be fast-paced and stressful at times. As a chef, individuals will need to produce and serve meals promptly to customers. However, they will still need to maintain a high standard; in terms of quality, presentation and consistency. Being able to cope with pressure is essential.
- Difficult working conditions – depending on the type of kitchen, chefs will often need to cope with working in uncomfortable temperatures. When ovens, grills and hobs are on, it can get hot and humid. If there are walk-in refrigerators or freezers in the kitchen, chefs can get cold. Chef uniforms can increase discomfort, so individuals must prepare for varying temperatures.
- Health and safety risks – working in a kitchen can be dangerous. Workers will face many different hazards, e.g. hot surfaces and liquids, use of kitchen equipment and appliances, knives, hazardous substances, slips, trips and falls and work-related stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has further information on health and safety in catering and hospitality.
- Food safety risks – unsafe food, e.g. contaminated with microorganisms, foreign objects, chemicals and allergens, can harm customers. Chefs must strictly comply with HACCP systems and complete associated paperwork properly for due diligence purposes. If food makes customers ill, it can be very damaging for businesses and chefs. It may be too much responsibility for some individuals, but it is a necessary part of the chef role.
Preparing animals and fish (e.g. gutting) is an integral part of a chef’s role. If an individual is not comfortable handling animals or fish, then being a chef would not be the right career path (unless they decide to work in vegan/vegetarian establishments).
The number of female chefs is relatively low. According to the last Office for National Statistics figures (2017), only 17% of women were in chef positions in the UK. It has risen slightly since then, but it shouldn’t put off women who want to enter the profession.
There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective chefs must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working in a fast-paced kitchen is difficult and stressful. It is physically and mentally demanding, requires working in uncomfortable working environments, and the hours are long and unsociable. However, there are many positives too, and those that become a chef really enjoy their work.
When considering whether to be a chef and the type of role, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a chef
Being a chef is physically and mentally demanding. It can also be hazardous and stressful work, so individuals need to have the right personal qualities to carry out the role successfully.
Some of the personal qualities that a chef requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for food and cooking.
- Being creative and an innovator.
- A desire to learn, progress and develop.
- A high standard of personal hygiene and cleanliness.
- Knowledge of food production methods, e.g. technical and cooking skills.
- Knowledge of food safety and hygiene and health and safety legislation.
- Knowledge of maths, e.g. for measuring ingredients.
- Good hazard perception and risk awareness.
- Having practical skills and can work effectively with their hands.
- Good knife skills.
- Good communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Good customer service skills.
- Good listening skills and the ability to understand and follow instructions.
- Good organisational and leadership skills.
- Good time management.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- Having resilience and the confidence to produce good quality and safe food in challenging conditions.
- The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment for basic tasks, e.g. writing reports and menus.
- The ability to work in a physically demanding role and environment (hot/humid).
- The ability to work with and maintain different types of kitchen equipment and appliances.
There are many different ways to become a chef. One way is by taking a relevant university or college qualification or enrolling on an apprenticeship.
Course levels – foundation degree, higher national diploma or degree.
Foundation degree or higher national diploma (one or two A levels or equivalent).
Degree (two or three A levels or equivalent).
Example courses – Professional Cookery and Culinary Arts.
Course levels – level 2, 3, 4 and 5 courses.
Level 2/3 – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent.
Level 4/5 – one or two A levels or a level 3 diploma or relevant experience for level 4 or 5 courses.
Example courses – Level 2 Diploma in Culinary Skills, Level 3 Diploma in Professional Cookery or Level 4 Diploma in Professional Culinary Arts.
There is an apprenticeship route to become a chef.
Intermediate level – some GCSEs, usually including English and maths or equivalent.
Advanced level – five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English and maths.
Opportunities are found on the Government’s Apprenticeships website. The armed forces (Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force) also offer an apprenticeship route into the chef role.
On the job training and volunteering
There are no set academic or training requirements to become a chef. Therefore, gaining qualifications is not the only route into the role. However, some employers may stipulate that specific qualifications are required, e.g. GCSE maths and English.
There may be an opportunity to work in a kitchen (as a kitchen assistant or trainee commis chef) in restaurants and pubs and learn on the job by shadowing chefs. There are also opportunities to attend relevant training courses whilst working. On-the-job training can lead to becoming a chef with the right experience, training and supervision.
There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering can also help individuals (with no experience in the kitchen) understand what is involved in being a chef and help them build their knowledge and skills. There are charities (e.g. conservation and hospices) and community kitchens that can help provide practical experience.
Having any work experience relevant to working in a kitchen can be beneficial and can help an individual work towards becoming a chef. Even amateur community courses in different aspects of food preparation and cooking can count.
Training courses to become a chef
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help chefs enter the profession and enhance their employability. Most colleges and accredited private training providers provide food-based training courses.
Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for chefs include:
- First aid at work.
- Food and beverage service.
- Food preparation and service.
- Food safety and hygiene training, e.g. at least a level 2 course.
- HACCP training, e.g. at least a level 2 course.
- Allergen awareness training.
- Principles of nutrition.
- Additional health and safety training, e.g. COSHH, slips, trips and falls and manual handling.
- Customer service skills.
- Culinary skills.
- Advanced cookery.
- Stock control.
- Language courses, i.e. if wanting to work in a French or Italian restaurant.
There are also courses in specific areas, such as:
- Patisserie and confectionery.
- Pasta making.
- Fish preparation and cookery.
Professional bodies, such as the Craft Guild of Chefs and the British Culinary Federation also advise on reputable training courses and provide events to help individuals become chefs, giving them the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the areas and cuisine in which chefs specialise. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training courses required for chef roles and other training needed for specialist tasks. Jobs can be found on Caterer.com, Chef Jobs UK and other job sites.
Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for chefs. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under health and safety and food hygiene legislation, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Where do chefs work?
Chefs can work for domestic and commercial clients, such as private households, public authorities, charities, the armed forces, churches and private companies.
They will work in a variety of food establishments, such as:
- Restaurants (chain, Michelin-starred or AA Rosette-awarded restaurants).
- Pubs and bars.
- Bed and breakfasts.
- Cruise ships.
- Hospitals (NHS or private).
- Schools, colleges and universities.
- Care homes and hospices.
- Armed forces.
- Private households.
- Private businesses.
- Catering businesses (including contracts).
- Their own home (if self-employed).
Working in kitchens can be challenging. A lot is going on at once, and they are hot and humid environments. Chefs will likely have to wear a uniform, such as chef whites, a hat and an apron. Having on extra clothing can make working conditions even more difficult.
How much do chefs earn?
The salary a chef will earn will depend on their qualifications, experience, location and whether they choose to be self-employed. It will also depend on the type of chef role, for example (these are only a guide):
- Commis chef (entry-level) – will typically start on £13,000 – £18,000 a year.
- Chef de partie – £19,000-£23,000 a year.
- Sous chef – £20,000-£30,000 a year.
- Head chef – £25,000-£50,000+ a year.
The downside to being a chef in an entry-level position is that salaries are relatively low, but this can quickly change with ambition. The more qualifications and experience a chef gains, the more earning potential they will have. Earnings can also increase further where a chef becomes renowned and works in a high-end food establishment with an excellent reputation, i.e. Michelin star chefs. Prospective chefs must understand that it is a competitive field. Therefore, they must work hard if they want to have more earning potential.
As an apprentice, salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Some employers will offer £200+ a week to apprentice chefs.
Types of chef roles to specialise in
There is a hierarchy in the kitchen within a food establishment and many different types of chef roles, for example:
- Commis chef – an entry-level position that assists in food preparation and cleaning.
- First commis chef – has more experience and may supervise other commis chefs.
- Chef de partie (station chef) – they have a responsibility for one particular area in the kitchen and will lead the team working in that area. They report to the sous chef.
- Sous chef – sous is French for under. They are second in command to the head chef and deputises for them when they are busy. They manage the whole team within the kitchen.
- Head chef (chef de cuisine/executive) – oversees kitchen operations, develops dishes, sets the menu and manages financial budgets. There is usually only one head chef, so it is competitive.
There are also plenty of opportunities for chefs to specialise in various aspects of food preparation and cooking. For example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Pastry Chef (Pâtissier) – makes desserts, bread and pastries.
- Meat Chef (Rotisseur, Roast Chef) – specialises in roasted and braised meats, but sometimes will make sauces.
- Pantry Chef (Garde Manger) – looks after the area where foods are kept and prepared cold, e.g. salads and cured meats.
- Vegetable Chef (Entremetier) – prepares and cooks vegetables, soups, and other appetisers or side dishes.
- Fish Chef (Poissonier) – selects, prepares and cooks fish and fish dishes, including seafood.
- Sauce Chef (Saucier, Saute Chef) – makes sauces and gravies.
- Fry Chef (Friturier) – specialises in fried foods.
- Grill Chef (Grillardin) – responsible for grilling foods, e.g. meats.
- Butcher Chef (Boucher) – prepares and cooks meat, but also fish and seafood.
All different chef roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, most chefs will need to know how to prepare ingredients, cook/chill/reheat and maintain food hygiene and safety. Any additional areas of expertise required will depend on what a company is looking for in a chef and the type of work a chef wants to carry out.
If food is not prepared, handled, cooked and stored safely, it can result in customers becoming ill. It can affect a chefs reputation, as well as the establishments. It may also result in enforcement action.
If food is not of a quality expected by customers and is not well-presented, this can also lead to a poor reputation. If customers are unhappy, they can add negative reviews online, which can affect future business. Therefore, chefs must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to produce food professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out duties if they have not been trained and are not competent.
Food safety and hygiene standards, culinary techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, chefs need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they produce high-quality, safe food. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives chefs the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them progress their career, leading to a senior position, such as a sous chef.
Joining a professional body can help prospective and current chefs enhance their skills and overall career. The Craft Guild of Chefs and the British Culinary Federation offer different levels of membership, CPD and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression within the industry. With more qualifications and experience, a chef can become a chef de partie, sous chef and even head chef. They can also decide to focus on a particular area of cooking, such as desserts. Alternatively, they may want to move away from cooking to managing the food business or may choose to start up their own business and become a freelance chef. There is potential for growth and movement in catering and hospitality.
Having the knowledge, skills, and experience can also lead to a career in different industries. For example, a chef may want to teach/train prospective chefs at a college, university or private training provider. They may also want to work into manufacturing and work in development kitchens, e.g. as a chocolatier.