How to become a chef?
June 29, 2010 5:29 AM   Subscribe

I am a 32 year old amateur chef in the UK. If I wanted to become a professional chef, Where would I start?

Things I have – extensive knowledge of culinary history, ingredients, and methods (I recently read McGee on Cooking from front to back like it was a novel) as well as knowledge of current ideas and trends in the world of restaurant food. Mad knife skills. An excellent ‘flavour vocabulary’ and the ability to create dishes and menus from available ingredients on the fly. Experience from the ages of 18-23 working in a high-pressure fine dining restaurant (as a server and front-of-house manager, but I know what goes on in the kitchen and I know what to expect regarding the shouting of obscenities and insane hours). I have also recently taken part in a cooking competition and was told by a chef with two Michelin stars that I had made an interesting, beautiful, well-balanced plate of food that he would happily serve in his restaurants.

Things I don’t have - professional kitchen experience, culinary qualifications. I also don’t have a lot of money. I can afford to work part-time to support myself while working for free or for very little money in a restaurant to start with, but I can’t really afford to attend culinary school. If I still lived in the states, I could talk to people who know people and maybe arrange a trial or a stage (big maybe, as I was in the restaurant industry nearly ten years ago), but I don’t have any connections like that here. Where on earth should I start? What other questions should I be thinking about?
posted by cilantro to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
You wouldn't have to work for free or for very little money in a restaurant, but you would have to start at the bottom as a commis chef, and then try working your way up the ranking. Look for independent restaurants that are well-respected in your area (where are you by the way?). Dependant on what you currently do, commis chef may well be a pay cut.

I took this route when I was a chef, and worked my way up to head chef in 5 years.
posted by ellieBOA at 5:35 AM on June 29, 2010


I can't speak for the UK entirely, but in Australia, your mad skills don't mean shit without some qualifications, namely tafe (uh, I guess like community college) certification as a Cook, or an apprenticeship in a kitchen.

In Australia, you would need to become an apprentice; your mad skills may or may not help you get an apprenticeship at a better class of restaurant, but frankly you'd have to come across orders of magnitude less cocky and entitled than you do here to have a chance at being hired at a good quality restaurant. The proof, as they say, is literally in the pudding, and if you've worked in high quality, high-pressure restaurants, you will understand that everyone has to do their time in one way or another - regardless of skills, mad or otherwise.

Good luck.
posted by smoke at 5:43 AM on June 29, 2010


and if you've worked in high quality, high-pressure restaurants, you will understand that everyone has to do their time in one way or another - regardless of skills, mad or otherwise.
Yep, which is why I understand that I would need to work for free, or for very little money, and work my way up. I don't expect to start anywhere but at the bottom, preferably at least one step higher than dishwasher, but who's to say?
posted by cilantro at 5:52 AM on June 29, 2010


Don't know about it myself, and this lady is in the US not the UK, but her blog entry on the subject sounds sensible.
posted by emilyw at 6:06 AM on June 29, 2010


Things I have – extensive knowledge of culinary history, ingredients, and methods (I recently read McGee on Cooking from front to back like it was a novel) as well as knowledge of current ideas and trends in the world of restaurant food. Mad knife skills. An excellent ‘flavour vocabulary’ and the ability to create dishes and menus from available ingredients on the fly. Experience from the ages of 18-23 working in a high-pressure fine dining restaurant (as a server and front-of-house manager, but I know what goes on in the kitchen and I know what to expect regarding the shouting of obscenities and insane hours). I have also recently taken part in a cooking competition and was told by a chef with two Michelin stars that I had made an interesting, beautiful, well-balanced plate of food that he would happily serve in his restaurants.

How interested are you in months of chopping, prepping stocks, scrubbing everything and doing dishes for zero money?

The entry-level cooks I've seen get the absolute gruntiest work for an almost indefinite period; even if they're hired as more than a dishwasher, they split the work with one.

Noone will give you any respect; the work you do is menial, below your skill level and when dishes hit the floor, you get absolutely zero credit for having peeled the potatoes or for having whipped butter for service.

The things you enjoy (creating meals from scratch, experimenting with flavour combinations and improving dishes) are things you have to suppress because no head chef worth his salt is going to let a prep cook fuck with their recipes. You do it their way, over and over again, and no matter how good you do it, if you start injecting any of your own "creativity" into the job, you get chewed out for the know-nothing that you are (on paper.)

You've got years of assembly-line work ahead of you and you will be passed along the line in favor of younger culinary graduates. At some point, if you end up in a good situation where a chef really believes in you, you might get to show the things you enjoy doing, but by that point most cooks are jaded, burnt-out and hate their job.

Also, because you have zero credentials, businesses can assume you have zero other options (because if your title is "line cook" and you have zero culinary schooling, you're battling for the same menial work everywhere, often against more qualified candidates) and will use that against you. You'll move up slower, you won't get raises because your reputation on paper isn't as strong as it is in house. If you apply elsewhere, there's no way to prove how capable you are unless your head chef vouches for you.

I did some of this; I went from bus boy, to server, to bartender, to manager, to cook. I was good, but I had a really kind head chef point out that I was currently his bitch because my cooking currency held no weight anywhere else. He told me that the rags to riches stories do happen, but only rarely and are essentially due to a charitable head chef who appreciates his staff. Those are rare, in an industry plagued with egos, so if you want to make a career out of a long-shot, bottoms up to you.

Best of luck.
posted by Hiker at 6:46 AM on June 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


I know nothing of the field, so please excuse me if this is an ignorant suggestion, but have you considered finding work for a summer or a few months at a country restaurant? There are loads of superb restaurants/ b&bs scattered around remote parts of Britain, many with Michelin stars, and many of them hire students, providing room and board and minimal wages, for waiting jobs. They might well have similar work in the kitchens, and if it's a well reputed kitchen, you'll have a foothold.

This place, which I mentioned in another recent comment, for instance. I chatted with the staff and most of them were young East European students here to make a little money and enjoy the scenery
posted by tavegyl at 7:12 AM on June 29, 2010


Don't laugh, but have you thought of entering amateur contests? The winner of Masterchef in 2005 opened her own restaurant soon after.
posted by mippy at 7:26 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Both Hiker and tavegyl are correct - Hiker for an accurate description of what your life will be like for the next five years or so (by which time you'll be totally burnt out on the profession), and tavegyl for pointing out what is probably your best way in. I worked a few summers in resort areas, and we always had entry-level type people with no real experience trying to get their foot in the door. Finding a hotel with a large staff that has to hire a lot of entry-level people to keep up with staff turnover might also be a way in to the profession.

In my 15 years in the kitchen, I saw a lot of people like you come and go: career changers who thought that a passion for food and cooking was actually a job qualification for an entry-level kitchen job. The honest answer is that for the first two or three years, you're just meat for the grinder. Until you have some relevant kitchen experience under your belt, no one cares how passionate you are, or how much you know about food and wine and cooking. They just want the potatoes peeled and the entrees prepared exactly as the recipe specifies.

One of the few people that I recall as being successful as a career changer was a lady who put in about five years to get some experience, and then took her new found kitchen skills and her existing passion for food and wine and opened a very successful catering business. But most people like you generally lasted anywhere from six weeks to six months before they disappeared back to the 9 to 5 world. And full disclaimer - when I was your age is about when I started to get burnt out on the business. It was another four years before I could finally get free, but cooking for a living is generally a young person's game.
posted by ralan at 7:50 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Are there community college/vocational school options for culinary training where you are? Are you absolutely certain that the cost is prohibitive? I ask because culinary school opened some very cool, creative doors for a few people I know:

My former neighbor went to culinary school and now works as a food stylist and caterer/recipe developer. The food styling part of her work came about after she interned with a photographer instead of at a restaurant. Living next to her was awesome as I'd periodically get surprise test-batches of whatever she was working on--like, some grill manufacturer would hire her to develop recipes for them to demo on their new product or she'd be hired to cater an event with special dietary restrictions so she'd have to retool some recipes to fit. She gets to be really creative in her work in a way that restaurant line cooks don't.

The caterer I hired for my wedding was similarly independent. He does small-scale catering (for up to 200 people) and organizes/leads food-focused trips through Italy for small groups. He gets total creative control over the food he makes and is genuinely thrilled to be doing what he's doing.

Another acquaintance attended culinary school and then became a personal chef and also teaches cooking classes. I don't know her very well, but her career path also seems to have more individual creativity than that of a restaurant line cook.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:21 PM on June 29, 2010


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