Welcome to my new series #Cheflife, where I shall be talking all about the delightful industry known as hospitality.
You might be thinking about becoming a chef, you might be training as a chef, you might just be curious about what being a chef entails. Maybe you just want some dirt on what goes on.
Regardless, I am here, to talk about what #Cheflife is actually like.
So you want to be a chef?
Let me guess that you love food. You love to cook, cooking makes you happy, all you want in life is to create beautiful food. So it only makes sense that being a chef is your natural calling, right?
Listen, to be a chef you absolutely need to love food. You need to love food so much that it takes priority over every other area in your life. You need to love food so much that even when you’re physically and mentally exhausted, your hands can still work and your feet can still move quickly. You need to love it so much that the love doesn’t dissolve into hate. If you are a chef, you may not actually spend that much time cooking outside of work because you are so damn sick of it. Really, if you love food, and you’re not willing to ruin that, do not become a chef. Keep cooking as a hobby because a chef is about so, so much more than putting food prettily onto a plate.
How to get into cheffing.
So you want to pursue it. What next?
Well you’re very lucky in that, if nothing else, it’s very easy to get a foot on the culinary ladder. There are also lots of different paths which you can follow.
There are culinary schools up and down the country (I’m UK based guys, so please keep that in mind) which offer a whole variety of courses. From three year intensive courses which cover every aspect of cooking- such as butchery, different cuisines and patisserie. To part time courses which take a year or two and consist of evening classes several days a week. Going to a culinary college and undertaking a course is the most traditional way to become a chef, it’s generally not too expensive and ensures you have all the basic skills a chef needs.
A stage, pronounced stah-j, is essentially an unpaid placement in a kitchen. There are a lot of now famous chefs who started their careers by undergoing a stage in their youth, although it’s now not such a common occurrence for first timers. I would always recommend studying in a college or something similar first so that you’re not thrown into the fire straight off. It’s not the 1980’s anymore and 14 year olds suddenly working 100 hour weeks isn’t legal, so as much as it worked for some of the greats, get some experience first.
Before I trained as a chef I worked in a local cafe one day a week. It was a low key, low stress kind of job which gave me my first taste of hands on cheffing. If you want to dip your toe in the water and you’re a competent enough chef at home, try engaging with local delis and cafes and see if they’ll take you on one or two days a week.
Although kitchen porters are traditionally pot washers, their role in restaurants often entails helping with basic prep when it’s busy. I’ve also personally known one or two who have been promoted from their KP position to commis chefs in their restaurants, where they can climb the ladder like anyone else.
What about you, Véro?
What about me. Well like I said, I worked one day a week in a local cafe, and then I decided to train as a pastry chef.
This meant moving to London and undergoing a six month intensive course at Westminster Kingsway, which ended up with my earning a diploma in patisserie.
Now I intensely enjoyed my course; I was in college for five days a week studying many different areas of classical french patisserie, chocolate, sugar work and bread. Here’s me. So naive. So stupid. So innocent.
Yes I also had an ugly ass fringe and pretty shitty glasses. I was young okay.
Anyway, I had a wonderful time studying. However the six months cost ten thousand pounds and that’s not an amount everyone can pay.
How easy is it to find work?
Very. Before graduating I had already secured a position as a pastry commis at Fera at Claridge’s, which at the time was a brand new venture under three star Simon Rogan in London’s best and most exclusive hotel. It was the London opening of the year, and I was one of fifty chefs there to launch it. I’ll talk more about my time there later in this series.
In general though, if you have college training, it’s easy to find work. Once you’re an established chef with a few hot names on your CV, it’s even easier. I could find work in any restaurant I wanted, to be honest, and so could any of my chef friends. There’s a VERY high turnover in kitchens and that means they want fresh blood all the time. The average length of a chef sticking in one place for long is not particularly high, it’s a shifting landscape.
There are some things you need to ask yourself in you want to be a chef. And if you don’t fit the criteria, you won’t last. Even if you do fit the criteria, you might not want to be there for long.
- Are you able to work fifteen hours + a day under immense stress?
It is common in high end kitchens for you to always have two or more double shifts on your weekly rota. This means fifteen hours plus. If you’re working in pastry, you’ll always be the first one in and the last one out. Typically on a double, I would be in at 8am and out past midnight. You are supposed to have a break, legally, however if you’re busy the food comes first. More often than not I wouldn’t have anything other than bathroom breaks over these sixteen hour shifts. It would also be non stop work, no time for dallying and phone chilling.
- Can you keep your mouth shut?
Sorry this is so blunt. Being a young chef is like being in the army. There’s a strict structure in kitchens and you don’t say no. You never say no. If any superior chef asks something of you, it’s only yes. This means absolutely no talking back. If chef B asks you to do something one way, but you’ve been shown a different way by someone else it doesn’t matter. You don’t say it, you don’t point it out; you do what you’ve just been told by chef B. If it’s frustrating because you find that way stupid and slow…it doesn’t matter. You have to do what you’re told. If you’re the kind to talk back or go off course with what you’ve been instructed, you aren’t going to last and you certainly won’t progress.
- Do you have thick skin?
I don’t. At one point I cried every single day I was working for a month. I cried in the fridge whilst doing labels, I cried at my counter whilst prepping fruit. I didn’t have time to stop what I was actually doing to cry, so I had to cry whilst working. I do not have a thick skin, so when I got screamed at, degraded, had things slammed near me etc etc, I took it personally. Especially when I was exhausted on top of it all.
- Can you put the kitchen first?
It’s life. Some chefs have families at home and honestly I don’t know how they manage. I remember finding my head chef once in tears because he was worried his two young children didn’t know him. My colleague once told me she only ever saw her husband when they were in bed sleeping because, both chefs, they never had time off together. Whilst working as a chef, it was my whole life. I spent five days a week racking up over 80 hours; my days off were spent comatose, I was exhausted. Too exhausted for anything else. Even when I went to a different kitchen where I worked only 60 hours a week, it was hard to hold down a relationship. I met my current partner whilst working there, and in order to see him, he would have to meet me at midnight for a quick dinner, sleep, and then I’d be off at 6am in the morning. For months that was our relationship. In the end I left the job in order to have a real relationship because I couldn’t do both. (I don’t regret it; two and a half years on and we live together with our cat. But I gave up climbing the ladder for him, and not everyone can just up and leave their career for love).
- Do you want to be a chef because you like creating pretty plates?
If that’s your sole motivation, I’m sorry but being a chef won’t live up to that dream. You. Don’t. Have. Time. For. Pretty. When you are a chef creating a plate, you aren’t thinking of making it beautiful. You are only thinking of your mise-en-place (prepared components) and how much you have left and if you’re going to run out and be utterly fucked and multi-tasking eight different things because you’re low on X and you need to cook and prep it mid service so you have enough to last until the final table has ordered. The beauty is gone, this job isn’t about beauty; it’s about being organised as fuck.
- Are you organised as fuck?
You need to be. You need to be constantly thinking and fixing and creating solutions to problems which haven’t even happened yet. You need to be able to juggle a dozen things, time everything to a precise manner and learn, more than anything, that you can NEVER BE OVERPREPARED. Also, you have to do this all quickly. There is no dilly-dallying. That’s a major no no in kitchens. Working quickly, work effeciently.
- Are you all about the glamour?
There’s no glamour behind the scenes. You will sweat, you will be stressed, you might even have the odd panic attack. I don’t want to frighten you but it’s part of the job. You are going to spend huge chunks of time every single day, on your knees, cleaning and shifting around heavy pieces of equipment. Cleaning is a third of the job. As is sorting out stock in it’s rawest form. This means walking in to find a hallway of 40kg palettes of fruit and veg every single morning and having to spend forty minutes sourcing containers and sorting everything so it fits in the fridges. The bigger the restaurant, the more stock. In one job, it was 1am and our head chef was pissed with how the fridge looked. He made fifteen chefs stay until 3am to sort it out. They had to be back in at 7am the same morning. You can’t say no.
You will sign a disclosure saying you are willing to work over the legal max of 40 hours a week. And, in many places, overtime is not paid. My salary worked out as little as £3 an hour when I was earning Commis pay for 45 hours, but was in fact, working up to 100 hours some weeks. This was in a five star hotel where the cheapest rooms went for over half a grand a night. Yes, it’s illegal. It’s a joke. But that is the reality of hospitality. Do not expect paid overtime.