A Commis Chef is a trainee chef who learns about all the different aspects of cooking whilst working in a kitchen.
A Commis Chef is essentially a trainee position which will be held for a number of years before progressing to the next step. Much can be learnt about food preparation in school or college but only direct experience will ever prepare you for the rigours of working in a commercial kitchen. For this reason a Commis Chef will learn the vast majority of his skills ‘on the job’, while a day release at college may cover the theoretical and procedural syllabus. Being a Commis Chef can be an exciting and rewarding experience; the learning curve is huge and performing new skills under pressure is a challenge.
Kitchens are busy, hot places and the really searing action is jammed into tight windows of service times. It is not a job for couch potatoes but, for people that like the excitement, there is no substitute. If you are passionate about creating great food, then it could be the place for you.
Commis Chefs can expect to earn from between £12,000 to £18,000 depending on location and experience. As chefs are expected to remain in the role of Commis for 4 – 5 years there is a wide discrepancy in wages according to experience.
- A Junior Commis Chef can expect to start on around £10,000 – £12,000.
- A middle-weight Commis Chef with about two years under his belt can expect to earn £12,000 – £16,000.
- An experienced and ambitious Commis Chef with some specialist experience can earn between £12,000 – £18,000.
A Commis Chef is in the kitchen to learn about cooking techniques through practice. For this reason his duties will vary over the course of his career and even throughout a single day.
- For starting off, the most basic of all chef techniques is knife skills. Only hours spent doing veg prep will bring the necessary coordination, precision and speed.
- Commis Chefs will start with basic sauces and be expected to master these before moving onto more complicated ones.
- Salads and cold starters provide a good introduction to preparing dishes for service, as they cannot be under or overcooked.
- As more competence is shown, more responsibility will be given and a Commis Chef will be asked to move to areas requiring greater delicacy and urgency, for example – hot dishes, pastry or roasting.
- A Commis Chef may be asked to check food stocks – reporting on shortages, throwing out food that is close to expiry and keeping the larder areas in good order.
- At all times a Commis Chef is expected to work to established health and safety guidelines. His area must be kept clean, spillages dealt with immediately and personal hygiene maintained to high standards.
Although a Commis Chef is learning on the job, the sauces, veg and any other cooking ingredients that he prepares will be served to customers. Therefore it is vital that close attention is paid under instruction; a busy commercial kitchen cannot afford repeated mistakes.
No qualifications are required to be a Commis Chef ‘per se’, though you may be expected to gain some national certifications while you are on the job. However, it is a good idea to have a couple of GCSEs such as English, Maths, or Catering. Depending on the employer, these may be a prerequisite.
Some College courses offer placements during your course and are a great way to enter the industry.
- City and Guilds/ ASET: Level 2 Diploma in Professional Cookery.
- BTEC: HND in Professional Cookery.
- Foundation Degree in Culinary Arts Management.
While Working as a Commis Chef you may be required to gain NVQ level 1 & 2 in Catering.
Actual cooking skills are learnt on the job as a Commis Chef and you are not expected to know them before you start. However, to succeed as a Commis Chef, you will need to concentrate on the following general skills and abilities.
- Working quickly and efficiently. Time is of the essence in a busy kitchen; there is never enough to waste.
- Attention to detail. Food is a delicate matter; if you make a mistake the dish may have to be discarded.
- Ability to work under pressure. When service fills up and the pressure is on, it is crucial that everyone performs to their best.
- Ability to learn on your feet. You must absorb your lessons and put them into practice right away. The more quickly you can do this the faster you will progress.
- A kitchen is a busy, hot, noisy and exciting place. Due to the sharp and generally metal features of many tools and work surfaces it is a potentially dangerous one too. Health and safety practices must be rigorously adhered to. Other preventive measures such as verbal warnings of hot objects, spillages and the fact you are moving in a certain direction behind other workers all help to keep everyone safe.
- Chef’s uniforms are white, thick starchy cotton and closed by poppers for very good reasons. The colour shows up any unhygienic food residues and the ability to remove it quickly is vital in the event of a hot spillage.
- Working hours can be long and antisocial, especially if working in a hotel or restaurant. Split shifts are common, where the working day is split into two segments of around 5 hours each, with a long break in the middle. The exception to this is outside catering for special events.
- Due to the long hours spent almost entirely on your feet, heat and stress, it is a tiring job. Many find it satisfyingly so, but it is not a job for lovers of sedentary living.
No experience is required to be a Commis Chef though it would be natural to show some inclination towards cooking. Many Commis Chefs are promoted from Dishwashers or Kitchen Porters, as these two positions often involve basic veg prep or plating responsibilities.
Major employers of Commis Chefs are restaurants and hotels, of which there are literally thousands in the UK alone. Big hotel groups such as the Marriot, Hilton and the Four Seasons employ dozens of chefs in any one location. Additionally, you may be able to travel within the organisation. Applications may be made through local newspapers or online.
Another way to get a job cheffing is to work through an apprenticeship. Check out this website for more information.
The next logical step for a Commis Chef is to be a Chef de Partie who is solely responsible for one area of the kitchen and all the chefs working in that area. This could be the hot section serving up the mains, the pantry, desserts, starters, pastry or a number of other sub-sections depending on the particular kitchen. In order to qualify for promotion, a Commis Chef would be expected to have served 4 – 5 years in a busy kitchen and have an NVQ level 2 or equivalent in catering.
Also known as…
- Trainee Chef
- Chef’s Assistant
What’s it really like?
George Smith is 19 years old and has been working as a Commis Chef for one year. Between shifts he is studying catering full-time at college.
George, tell us a how you became a Commis Chef. What were you doing before you started working in a kitchen?
I was studying A-Levels at college. They were actually unrelated – History, Biology and PE but then I began working as a Kitchen Porter part-time and got into catering that way.
What is a typical day like in the life of a Commis Chef?
I begin the day with vegetable preparation, a lot of chopping. From here I go on to prepare the garnishes – small salads, lemon wedges and coleslaw for example. Right now it’s summer so at service I’m outside, in the beer garden on the barbecue. I grill sausages, burgers etc and have to set up and check the machinery too. That means cleaning the barbecue and checking the gas canisters are full. After service I have to check the fridges – decant produce from larger containers to smaller to save space, throw out old food and generally clean up.
Aside from all of this, I go to Catering College 5 days a week. I’m working towards NVQ Level 3 with a diploma in Catering at Westminster Kingsway College. The times of classes vary, as do the subjects studied. Right now I’m on a pastry rotation, which means I’m doing pastry for the next three weeks. After that we will move onto something else such as sauces or pantry.
What are your favourite things about being a Commis Chef?
It is an active job. There is room to be creative, though possibly more so in the future. It is challenging, hard work but despite this you can have fun and good banter in the kitchen. It’s not always a serious atmosphere.
Are there any things you dislike about working as a Commis Chef?
The hard work can become very tough at times. The pressure, while not necessarily a bad thing, can lead you to make mistakes. Sundays are particularly busy and leave me feeling pretty tired.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a Commis Chef?
I would say only do it if you really like it. Only do it for passion as it is hard work.
Where do you see yourself moving on from here, in terms of career progression?
I am trying to work towards becoming a Chef de Partie.
Do you have any other insider tips for potential Commis Chefs?
You have to really pay attention to what people tell you in the Kitchen. Listen to the Head Chef and the other chefs.