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Head Chef jobs

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What's it really like?

Michael Soutar is the Head Chef at the Quality Chop House, a restaurant in Farringdon, London that serves traditional British Cuisine. He has worked there for five years, first as chef de partie, then sous chef and finally chef de cuisine.

Michael Soutar

Michael originally took an interest in cookery whilst he was at university in Leeds studying French. He was given a copy of Madhur Jaffery’s ‘’Indian Cookery’’ book, and the wide availability of ingredients for Indian cookery on his doorstep inspired him. His course involved him taking a year abroad, which he spent in the Auvergne working as an English teacher, learning about French food. He found himself “spending more time in the kitchen than I was on my books”, and the moment he finished his finals he took the Eurostar to France, taking a job as apprentice chef in the Auvergne. He spent about two and a half years training in France, spending a few days a month at a catering college, before returning to England to work as commis chef at Mon Plaisir restaurant on Monmouth Street, London. From there he was promoted to demi chef de partie. His boss there recommended him for a post at Chez Nico, Nico Ladenis’ Michelin-Starred restaurant in Mayfair. For a few months he’d spend his day off working at Chez Nico until he was qualified for the job of commis chef there, which he took, with the attendant cut in salary.

Michael then spent a year in Brussels as pastry cook at another of Ladenis’ restaurants, returning to London to start up a Russian restaurant in Chelsea, Soviet Canteen. After this he moved to the Quality chop House as sous chef.

His daily routine begins at about 8 a.m., when he comes in to look over the previous night's receipts and begin preparing for the lunch service. He'll check the fridges and consult with his sous chef over the specials for that day, based on what orders have come in, in the morning. His menus typically are made up of about 1/4 specials, which helps to keep the work varied.

After the lunch service, he'll make orders for the next day's service before the preparation for dinner begins in earnest.

As for hours, if he's working a double shift, he'll go home at midnight. He spends about 50 hours per week in the kitchen.

What’s the best piece of advice for someone who wants to become a chef?
The vast majority of skills I learned in the first year, as an apprentice...If you’re fairly young, try and find a job as a kitchen porter or commis chef, ideally in a fairly decent restaurant. That really is the best way. You can get unpaid work in many restaurants as well. If he took an apprentice here, he would expect them to be attending catering college alongside their work experience.

What are the drawbacks of the job?
It is hard physical work, and it is painful. And you get used to losing your social life." But if you love the job, it doesn't matter: "When you’re young and single, it’s really not a problem. The only thing stopping me from working more is my home life.

Head Chef

Salary | Responsibilities | Qualifications | Skills | Working Conditions | Experience | Employers | Career Progression

Head Chef

Also known as...

  • Chef de Cuisine

The Head Chef is in charge of a whole kitchen, supervising everything from cookery to staff.

The Head Chef or chef de cuisine is at the helm of any kitchen, and controls the entire operation. He is responsible for every aspect of the kitchen's running, from ordering raw produce to maintaining hygiene standards, not to mention supervising the cooking of the food. Because the word ‘chef’ in English has come to mean a professional cook of any sort, it is important that the distinction be made between the Head Chef and his assistants.

Chef de cuisine is a title that comes from Georges Escoffier, the French chef and food writer, who died in 1935 and who, as General Manager, helped the Savoy Hotel to expand into the famous Ritz chain of hotels in London, Paris and New York. The chef de cuisine is at the top of what Escoffier called the brigade de cuisine, a hierarchy that stretched from the chef at the top down to the lowliest plongeur or dishwasher. The Head Chef traditionally reaches his position through a long apprenticeship in the lower ranks of the kitchen, gaining experience on every 'station' - sauces, desserts, fish, meat and so on - as a chef de partie, before taking charge of the whole array of different facilities that make up a modern kitchen. Nowadays, although it is possible to be formally trained as a chef, work experience remains an essential part of the training. Unlike his cousin the short-order cook, the Head Chef usually presides over a restaurant kitchen where much of the food is cooked from scratch. The short-order cook can be found working in an environment where he must produce food quickly, such as a fast-food restaurant or café.

Restaurant cooking is traditionally a male-dominated profession, but times are changing. Gordon Ramsay famously claimed in 2005 that ‘women can’t cook to save their lives’ – then went on to appoint a woman to the position of Head Chef at his 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in West London.

Salary

A reasonably successful Head Chef can expect to earn a salary of up to £35,000. For those who open their own restaurants the potential profits – and losses – become far greater. Starting wages as a kitchen porter will be around the minimum wage or even – for a would-be chef on work experience – non-existent.

Some restaurants will split tips between the waiters and the cooks.


Responsibilities

A kitchen belongs to its Head Chef, and as its guardian he has a number of duties.

Management of staff

As the boss, it is the Head Chef’s job to lead his workforce in the kitchen, and his powers extend to selecting who works for him. Like a general with his troops, he must have a relationship of mutual respect and professionalism with his staff. He needs to maintain and, where necessary, cut down or expand his staff in order to keep his kitchen running on time and to budget.

The Head Chef must not only hire and fire his workers, but also supervise the cooking at every stage. He is personally responsible for what comes out of his kitchen, and so must trust his staff to follow his instructions correctly.

Menu

The Head Chef is, of course, in charge of the cooking and he has the final say on the contents of the menu. In some restaurants the menu changes day by day according to available produce; more usually, there is a fixed menu that is prepared in advance and the Head Chef will decide on one or two Specials, which will provide additional reasons for regulars to return to the restaurant as well as keeping work in the kitchen varied.

Food stocks

The Head Chef must take charge of all buying of raw produce, the quantities kept in storage, and the overall economy of his kitchen. It is his responsibility to check food deliveries as they arrive, to ensure that they are of good enough quality to serve to his customers. The chef needs to build up rapport with the vendors. The chef must have a thorough understanding of all his recipes as well as having an idea of numbers of diners who will be attending the restaurant that day: factors as general as the weather or major sporting events can have a direct effect on restaurant attendance and the Head Chef must be aware of all factors affecting turnout.

Health and Safety

The Head Chef must have a thorough grounding in Health and Safety practice as well as being prepared to enforce it throughout his kitchen.

Training Apprentices

A commis or apprentice chef becomes a Head Chef after he has acquired enough skills and experience to do the job properly. When he finally does become a Head Chef his responsibilities will include training others in the skill he has learned. Because cooking is such a hands-on job there is much that can only be learned by doing, and the Head Chef must be responsible for his charges’ instruction.


Qualifications

The Head Chef traditionally gains his job by rising up through the ranks of the kitchen, as commis (apprentice) and eventually sous-chef (or 'under-chef', the Head's deputy). However, the following qualifications are recommended by LearnDirect Careers Advice:

  • GCSEs in Catering, or Hospitality and Catering
  • Level 2 Diploma in Professional Cookery (awarded by ASET and City and Guilds)
  • BTEC National Certificate/Diploma in Hospitality, or Hospitality Supervision
  • BTEC HND in Professional Cookery
  • foundation degree in Culinary Arts Management.

The second item on this list, the Diploma, is becoming the most widely-recognised. Until recently, the main qualification for a would-be chef was the City & Guilds ‘706’ series of qualifications, which equipped students with the complete range of cooking and administrative skills. However, these are being phased out in favour of Diplomas in Professional Cookery, which were introduced in March 2007 and require students to pass 12 separate modules to gain Level 1 or 2 certificates. Level 1 covers fundamentals of cookery; Level 2 widens the scope of ingredients and recipes, as well as introducing more ‘investigative and theoretical units’ that prepare the students for careers.

In these courses, as with the old 706 qualifications, students must begin by relearning basic elements of cookery before building on this solid foundation to learn all aspects of kitchencraft. In the words of Dr Sally Messenger, Sector General Manager of City and Guilds, ‘all students will cover primary cooking techniques - learning to stew and braise, boil, poach and steam’. The new Diplomas retain the mark of quality that employers had come to expect from vocationally-trained chefs: employers ‘can be confident that graduates will arrive with a full range of cooking skills, well-versed in kitchen operations, knife skills, health and safety and time management’. The course at Westminster College has an excellent reputation.

A course is likely to demand work experience, often simultaneously with the formal training.

For more information see the City and Guilds Website


Skills

Besides cookery skills and a passion for food. A Head Chef needs to be an excellent manager, extremely well-organised, committed and decisive.


Working Conditions

A restaurant kitchen is a hot place, full of stoves, ovens and knives. The hazards are obvious and a chef might come home at the end of his shift with scars and burns all over his hands. The hours are long; a typical breakdown might be an 8am-4pm shift and a 4pm-12, sometimes done on the trot – most of which will be spent standing up.


Experience

So much of a chef's training takes place hands-on that experience is utterly essential. Most courses come with a requirement that trainees arrange work experience whilst they study.

A typical work experience position will involve a lot of menial work: kitchen porter is a common first job, because it is relatively unskilled and therefore the easiest to get. Contacts gained in this way can open doors for more interesting work.


Employers

There is no single major employer for chefs as they are required anywhere there is food to be prepared. However, medical, educational or military facilities often cater for hundreds of people and a correspondingly large staff is required. Professional catering companies that serve, for example, the film industry are always in demand. And the opportunities for becoming self-employed by starting your own restaurant are plentiful.


Career Progression

It is impossible to become a Head Chef without first being a sous chef, and in order to do that one needs to have been a chef de partie in every part of the kitchen. Chefs de partie handle the different ‘stations’: pastry, sauces, sauté, grill, fryer, salad, the line (the food’s last stop before heading out into the restaurant) and as many more as are required. Fryer is a common station for beginners. Several months’ experience working your way through this hierarchy are absolutely necessary, if you are to understand the job of the head chef, well enough to do it.

A typical head chef will already have worked in two or three restaurants, on various stations. His understanding of how a kitchen works will be completely intuitive by the time he reaches this level. He will have collected a broad range of recipes and made several high-level contacts in the restaurant world.