With food sometimes described as the ‘new rock’n’roll’, the air full of buzzwords like ‘food miles’, and TV chefs with mass followings, working in today’s world of haute cuisine is not what it used to be. And London too echoes this trend: For example, the latest edition of Hardens London Restaurant guide describes the current growth rate of new London restaurants as ‘off the charts’. All this, of course, is great news for young aspiring head chefs. But just how do you get to make the grade in this booming culinary landscape?
Define your chosen field
Chefs may work in restaurants, hotels, and sometimes in catering too. But the working conditions and expectations can be quite different in each of these areas. A restaurant chef working for an ambitious owner, for example, may have to continuously impress a gourmet clientele, whereas a chef in a hotel environment may be responsible for maintaining standards across a much broader menu. And in the vast world of commercial catering, chefs may have to wear many more hats and be prepared to create many different kinds of food – anything from a fine-dining menu right through to fast food – often with very little notice.
In the culinary world, many establishments are looking for specialists with particular skills. So it’s important to acquire and develop those skills which are likely to be most sought after in the particular field in which you want to work.
Words of wisdom
If you’re ambitious, one good tip is to listen to what those who have got to the top have to say about the pathway to success. So here’s a sample of good advice from head chefs currently running a variety of successful kitchens:
“Be in control of yourself if you plan to lead others”
Taking on kitchen management responsibilities for the first time is a big step. So prepare for this in your current role by thinking through what your present head chef asks of you, following instructions to the letter, and making pro-active suggestions where you can. If successful, you’ll gain more independence in your present position, which will help to build your self-confidence and ability to work under pressure – both attributes which will undoubtedly be expected of you in any future leadership role.
“This is no TV show”
For a really dedicated chef, fame is a bonus, not the reason they do the job. The reality is that while diners may crave the great food you can produce, they are rather less interested in whether you get your name in lights. So coming into the industry with a plan to carve yourself a TV career is unlikely to get you very far. Instead, aim to be the very best you can be, and then see what happens.
“Be ready to work and sweat like never before”
There’s no fast track to becoming a top head chef. So be prepared to roll your sleeves up and work very hard, while somehow maintaining your enthusiasm. This can be tough when you burn or cut your fingers most days; have to deal with tired, argumentative kitchen staff; and have to learn to apologise to diners as they deliver a withering verdict on your signature dish.
It’s not the job title which earns you respect, it’s the way you treat those who work alongside you, and how you value the food prepared in your kitchen. Be ready to display your knowledge whenever it’s called for, but don’t just show off. Also remember to always respect, acknowledge and nurture the skills, know-how and creativity within your team.
“Set yourself high standards”
Be prepared to work harder than anyone else. After all, how can you ask a team to give their best if it’s obvious you won’t do the same? Service is all about working long hours, missing out on sleep, and putting up with too few breaks and very short holidays. Do the hard yards, and you give yourself every chance of achieving that dream job.
“Overnight success takes time”
Gaining a position as head chef is a process, not an event. You need time to acquire the knowledge and work experience the job demands. That suggests you may expect to have a variety of preliminary jobs as you work your way towards your goal. Remember too that a good head chef is required to do more than just excel in the kitchen. You may well have a front-of-house public relations role, and will certainly be called upon to hire and train staff, as well as guide and mentor their developing careers. Some of these skills can only be acquired gradually over time, so try not to rush what you do in the hope it might help you to climb the ladder faster.
“Dedicate yourself to your work, and don’t chase titles”
The simple truth is: once you start regularly exceeding everyone’s expectations, then job offers and titles will inevitably begin to crop up. So before you start looking to step further up the ladder, just be sure you are consistently going beyond the requirements in your present job. It should be all about developing your skills and looking for new experiences and opportunities to broaden your knowledge.
“Be forever curious about your profession”
Get out and involve yourself in the food world as much as possible: Watch TV cookery programmes, read new books and magazines, and above all, spend plenty of time at good food markets. Your mission should be not only to inform yourself, but also to use your developing knowledge to challenge and question your own assumptions about the kind of foods you grew up with. Never stop being inquisitive about food.
“Expect the industry to change and evolve throughout your career”
Tracing the history of the food industry will show you just how much food trends ebb and flow. Food is fashion, entertainment, culture and so much more. You will need to keep a careful eye on what’s happening among the trendsetters, but this can only work if you love food and are happy to immerse yourself in all that goes on in your industry. It also means being open to experiment and ready to embrace any new idea which fires your imagination.
Consider using a recruitment agency
If a job offer should come along, the above tips will help to position you in a good place from a career point of view. But when you’re working hard, it’s not always easy to build a network of useful contacts. That’s one clear advantage of consulting a good recruitment agency. They may have particular advice and contacts relevant to your chosen field. And importantly, once they know about your profile and the role you’re looking for, they will be in a position to put your name forward when something interesting comes up.