The roll-call of world-class British chefs is inspiring, including the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Nathan Outlaw, Martin Wishart and Tom Aikens. But you don't have to be a culinary god to carve out a career as a chef - the main ingredient, it seems, is passion. Rosalind Mullen reports.
As any hospitality employer will tell you, skilled chefs are always in demand in this industry, but with the 2012 Olympics looming there are even more opportunities for talented professionals. Clearly this is good news for those creative, hard-working jobseekers among you who are looking for steady career progression.
That said, what you do need to ensure a successful career in the kitchen are either some recognised college qualifications (see page 56) or some rock-solid, on-the-job training from a committed employer. In fact, both of those elements will help to propel you from commis chef to demi-chef to sous chef to head chef while you are still young enough to enjoy the responsibility.
Our case studies show you can be a chef in a variety of environments, from stately homes, to fine-dining restaurants, to city firms. What we haven't been able to cover are the myriad opportunities in gastropubs, casual-dining chain restaurants, hotels, fast-food outlets, oil rigs, hospitals, schools, private yachts... In short, as a talented chef the world really is your oyster...
The Catering Manager
Who? Steve Lathaen, 39
What? Catering manager
Where? Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Which company? National Trust
So you're not strictly a chef?
Well, I oversee anything to do with food and drink, including suppliers, producing the food, serving it, staff recruitment, catering projects and liaising with other departments within the National Trust. I've got a head chef, sous chef, bakers and so on in place, but I dive in when needed.
Where did your career begin?
I wanted to cook as a young lad, so I took a general catering course at college then worked as a commis chef in hotels for a couple of years. I worked front of house and then became a barman in a four-star hotel. I have also worked in pubs as an assistant manager and ran three pubs as manager before going back into hotels where I honed my knowledge in F&B control, deliveries and stock control.
And how did you move into this role?
About seven years ago I moved to the East Midlands and worked as a temporary agency chef here at Calke Abbey. I then took the job of head chef, increased the business, improved procedures and was promoted to catering manager about four-and-a-half years ago.
What's it like to work for the National Trust?
It's a people company. I feel appreciated - there's a great atmosphere. I also like the variety of work, the fact the clientele are all different and of course the sociable hours. I'm the gaffer, so I work longer from 8.30am to 6pm, but most of the chefs do 8am to 4.30pm.
Where could your career go from here?
I'm happy here, but my career development could be to property manager, or a regional role.
What's your secret?
You have to be hard-working, have good customer service skills and the ability to develop a relationship with local suppliers. I just love the buzz of the kitchen and seeing food go out and people enjoying it.
The National Trust in a nutshell:
● The conservation charity has 150 restaurants and tearooms and employs 1,000 staff in catering.
● The emphasis is on using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
● Last year, catering brought in £10m profit.
● The National Trust will help young chefs achieve recognised catering qualifications.
The Commis Chef
Who? Lynsey McCallum, 21
What? Commis chef
Where? Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh
Did you always want to be a chef?
Well, since a young age I have had a passion for cooking and this has helped me to progress. I used to do part-time jobs preparing vegetables when I was growing up, then I did a hospitality management course at Inverness College, which taught me all aspects of the industry. After that I did a three-month cookery course.
How did you get your job?
I started at Martin Wishart's Cook School in August 2009, but have been working in the restaurant for the past year - learning on the job.
Describe your day
We get in at 8am for set-up. I prepare the cold starters and do jobs for all the other sections. I help everyone in the kitchen, including some cooking. The shift splits from 3pm to 4.30pm and then we work through until about 10.30pm.
So you work long hours
I always knew it would be long hours. I love working with Chef and being part of a team. They have given me a lot of confidence and encouragement. I'm always learning new stuff.
How busy do you get?
There are 10 of us in the kitchen and we tend to do 35-40 covers at lunch and dinner, going up to 50-60 on Fridays and Saturdays because we turn tables.
What are the challenges of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant?
You have to perform to a high level to maintain the good reputation of Chef and the restaurant. You don't want to let him down.
What next for you?
My next move in the restaurant will be into the pastry section next month. I'm excited.
What do you like about your career?
Well, it's a good job. Everyone has to eat. The hours are unsociable, but one day you could be running your own place.
Restaurant Martin Wishart in a nutshell
● Chef-proprietor Martin Wishart opened the restaurant in 1999.
● The restaurant has a Michelin star and four AA rosettes.
● More recently Wishart opened the Cook School and Restaurant at Cameron House hotel on Loch Lomond.
The Unit Chef Manager
Who? Robbie Lamb, 32
What? Unit chef manager
Where? Wragge & Co, the City
Which caterer? Wilson Vale
What qualifications did you start with?
Initially, I did a general catering course at Thanet College, including NVQ2 in food preparation and cooking and NVQ3 in confectionary and pastry.
Talk us through your first job
It was at the House of Lords under executive chef Mark Thatcher and I got it through a contact who was senior sous chef at the time. I went in as a commis chef covering maternity leave, but they kept me on and I was promoted to chef de partie. It's a big brigade of 40 and I spent three years there. We had good budgets and the best of the best ingredients. A lot of chefs stayed, but the dishes were classical and I was young - I wanted to work in a more modern kitchen.
How did you steer your career?
I used a recruitment agency and got a job with contract caterer Avenance. I spent two years as a chef de partie working in the executive dining rooms of HSBC in the City. I moved up to senior sous chef and got my first head chef position in September 2002 at the Saatchi & Saatchi contract.
What about your current job?
I moved to Wilson Vale in 2006, having discovered it was one of the top 50 companies to work for. I have full control on the day-to-day running of the unit, and manage six members of staff plus any casual/temps as needed. I look after all the bookwork, implement all Health & Safety and COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) measures. It's a challenge as there are 17 meeting rooms, which can cater from 60 covers fine dining to 200 for canapés. We also offer bespoke working lunches. Off site I help develop menus and staff cooking techniques, and run workshops. I find it extremely rewarding. I like to motivate the kitchen brigade, create team spirit and give them ideas.
Is there scope for a further career move?
I'd love to go into a development chef's role.
So, you'd recommend contract catering as a good sector for chefs?
Yes. Some chefs used to turn their noses up at contract catering but there are Michelin-starred chefs working in the sector nowadays. It's fantastic. Our [executive dining] units compete with Michelin-starred restaurants on the high street. It also has better shifts - you don't have to work 50 hours for 40 hours' pay. And in big companies the HR is in place to make sure everyone is looked after.
Wilson Vale in a nutshell
● Wilson Vale holds 65 contracts worth £13m a year, mainly throughout the Midlands and north of England.
● It employs 550 staff, many drawn from the restaurant and hotel sectors.
The Head Chef
Who? Becky Robinson
What? Head chef
Where? Law firm Speechly Bircham, the City
Which caterer? Lusso, part of contract caterer CH&Co
What made you choose being a chef as a career?
I think it must have been around the first time I had my Gran's infamous chocolate mousse. I've always enjoyed cooking and baking with my mum, but working in the industry is a lot more exciting than I thought. Every day is different.
Give us a brief idea of your career history
I achieved the National Diploma in Catering and Restaurant Service in Wellington, New Zealand, and worked my way up the ladder in kitchens in Australia, London and Edinburgh. In 2006, I joined contract caterer CH&Co's bespoke Lusso division. My current role is head chef at Speechly Bircham, a law firm in the City.
Tell us about some of your achievements there
Since I joined the team in November 2010, I have increased sales, retained business and competed directly with the increasing competition from outside. The site has also been regularly used for sales visits to promote CH&Co and our standards have helped to win new contracts for the company.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career?
I'd advise anyone to study for NVQs and apprenticeships for a few years, although you can also make it through on-the-job training, common sense and passion. It depends on how hard you work, how focused you are and who you work for, but there are plenty of opportunities out there.
Have you thought about your next move?
I've been lucky to work with brilliant people. I hope to go up beyond head chef now. I oversee five chefs in the kitchen, but I would like to work in a larger unit.
What qualities would you look for in a successor?
To do this job well you need to be innovative, creative and able to think on your feet. You also need to be open-minded, flexible, hardworking, passionate and dynamic. And having a good sense of humour helps.
Lusso in a nutshell
● Part of CH&Co - it's the bespoke staff catering and fine dining in the City brand.
● The Speechly Bircham contract caterers for 500 legal staff on site and includes a staff restaurant, client fine dining, internal and external functions.
● Other brands in CH&Co include Charlton House, Ampersand and Chester Boyd.
● At interview, ask your potential employer what training they will provide
● Find out whether you will be cooking fresh food from scratch - you need to match the job to your aspirations and talents
● Hours tend to be long but check exactly what shifts you would be working
● Try to do a few shifts before you accept a job as it's important to work in a friendly environment
● If you want accolades, ask yourself if you are prepared to put in the hours and the hard work and then target fine-dining employers
● Bear in mind that to progress, the modern chef needs more than just cooking skills - for instance, you will need to be computer literate, numerate and able to create a menu
● Ask yourself whether you are really passionate about food - without it you won't be able to put in the long hours to enjoy and succeed at your job
What qualifications do i need?
There's a choice of VRQs, NVQs, BTecs, degrees, diplomas... The list goes on, but it isn't as complicated as it sounds. In fact, to make it even easier, we've listed some organisations that will help you to find the best course:
● Hospitality Industry Training
● UKSP (a sister to Sector Skills Council People 1st)
● Craft Guild of Chefs
● Springboard (a charity helping young, disadvantaged unemployed people find work in hospitality)