10 essential chef skills
Updated 21 March 2023
If you're passionate about food, are good at leading and motivating others and enjoy creating innovative dishes, a career as a chef may be the perfect fit. Chefs can work in multiple settings, including restaurants, cruise ships, resorts, hospitals, hotels, yachts and health spas, and can also specialise in a specific cuisine. What's more, many chefs eventually open up their own restaurants and some even become famous. In this article, we list some of the top chef skills needed to succeed in this often challenging but rewarding field.
What skills does a chef need?
There are a variety of skills needed to be a chef. A chef, otherwise known as a chef de cuisine, head chef or executive chef, is a professional cook who oversees all aspects of a kitchen. There are also other roles in the kitchen that contain the word "chef" in their titles, such as a sous chef, who is second in command after the chef, and a chef de partie, who manages a specific area in the kitchen.
While most kitchen roles expressly focus on the preparation of food, and also the management of other kitchen staff, the duties of a chef encompass many more and wide-ranging responsibilities. Apart from managing kitchen staff and ensuring the quality of dishes that leave the kitchen, a chef's duties typically include the following:
Inventory control and management
Purchasing of ingredients and kitchen equipment
Managing a kitchen's budget
Firing, hiring and training kitchen staff
Maintaining hygienic and safe kitchen practices
For chefs to successfully execute these duties, they need a combination of several technical and soft and skills.
Top technical chef skills
Technical skills are job-specific skills and refer to the specialised knowledge and expertise a person needs to execute their job properly. One typically acquires technical skills through training, formal education and on-the-job experience. If you want to work as a chef, you'll need the following technical skills:
A chef needs to run a smooth-operating kitchen. Doing so requires the implementation and maintenance of sanitary practices to ensure that a kitchen remains hygienic and that the food patrons receive are safe to consume. In addition, chefs are responsible for maintaining the necessary health and safety standards and should know how to apply first aid in the case of burns, cuts or other accidents in the kitchen.
Kitchen staff work with a wide range of equipment and tools, such as meat slicers, mixers, food processors and deep fryers. A chef needs to know how to operate everything in a kitchen so that they can ensure that kitchen staff use all equipment and tools correctly and safely. It's also their responsibility to ensure that all equipment is properly maintained.
Food preparation skills
Whether a chef acquires this knowledge by attending a culinary school or through on-the-job training and experience, they need superior cooking and culinary skills. These include knowledge of the various cooking techniques applied in classic and modern cuisine, a refined palate to carefully balance flavours and seasoning and an understanding of wine and food pairing. A chef should also understand how to divide the duties in the kitchen and guide their execution.
Apart from creating an exciting menu and ensuring that kitchen staff produce high-quality dishes, it's a chef's responsibility to guarantee the profitability of a kitchen. This means that they need basic accounting skills, including the ability to plan and create budgets and control labour and food costs. An important aspect of staying within a budget is purchasing quality products at the right cost, which involves choosing the correct suppliers.
Running a cost-efficient operation also requires hiring competent kitchen staff and paying them at a fair rate while also ensuring that employee salaries don't exceed budgetary requirements. In addition, a chef must ensure unnecessary food wastage in a kitchen and must enforce strict inventory control.
Knowledge of nutrition
Working as a chef requires a solid understanding and an awareness of nutrition. Besides focusing on creating tasty and attractive dishes, a chef needs to consider the nutritional value of the food they present to customers. Factors to keep in mind when planning menu dishes, for instance, is the body's ability to process various foods and whether certain products can cause an allergic reaction.
Quality chefs typically aim to serve healthy, fresh and nutritionally balanced food by sourcing their ingredients locally where possible and refraining from using artificial food colouring, MSG and GMO products in their dishes.
Top soft skills
Effectively running a kitchen requires more than the relevant technical skills. Here's a list of some of the vital soft skills a chef needs to cope with the demands of the job:
Attention to detail
Excelling as a chef requires an eye for detail. Creating the same menu items day after day and ensuring that the quality and presentation of the food remain constant, involves precise measurement of ingredients, correct cooking temperatures and consistent standards when it comes to the plating of dishes.
To produce quality dishes efficiently, especially when a restaurant is packed and the pressure is mounting in the kitchen, chefs must ensure that kitchen staff has prepped their stations and that all stock and food items are available. Managing these responsibilities also require attention to detail.
As opposed to cooks who exclusively prepare the available items on a menu, the role of a chef involves periodically updating a menu with exciting new items. Chefs employ their creative skills and culinary expertise to invent innovative dishes that challenge traditional concepts, recipes and presentation. To find their own unique style, chefs draw on the flavours and ingredients of various cuisines and often also produce new interpretations of classic recipes.
Some chefs experiment with new and groundbreaking cooking techniques to find a method with which to realise their creative vision. Providing innovative dishes and plating them in an interesting and attractive fashion is one of the main ways in which chefs can establish themselves and create a loyal following of discerning customers.
A high level of discipline
Being a successful chef requires hard work and a disciplined approach. The job entails long hours, wide-ranging responsibilities and constantly checking on the quality of work of others. On a daily basis, chefs need to ensure that a kitchen is safe and clean, that kitchen staff have prepped their stations adequately, that there's enough stock and that every plate that leaves the kitchen is of a high standard.
In addition, it's their responsibility to ensure that guests receive their meals in a timely fashion, that different courses leave the kitchen at the right time and that all guests at a table receive their meals at the same time. Effectively orchestrating the various activities that go into delivering delicious dishes to customers requires that a chef work in a disciplined and meticulous fashion.
Strong leadership and management skills
Just like a chef, kitchen staff work long hours, which means that they need a strong leader to motivate them and help them remain focused in a fastpaced and at times stressful environment. When a restaurant is full and multiple orders come in at the same time, a chef must remain calm and focused and set an example for their staff of how to conduct themselves in a kitchen.
A chef must know how to provide clear instructions, take disciplinary action, inspire and praise staff, provide proper training and ensure the safety of their team. They should also set the tone when it comes to teamwork. Working together as a team is vital in a kitchen since different staff members need to liaise with each other and must coordinate their activities to complete dishes. A chef can lead by example by actively listening to others, providing clear information to relevant parties and defusing tension or conflict when it arises.
Passion and motivation
Working as a chef can be an exciting and rewarding career. However, the occupation comes with its fair share of challenges, which include long hours, working in fast-paced and high-pressure environments, dealing with difficult customers and delivering delicious and exciting food while also ensuring that a kitchen is profitable. To maintain a strong work performance over the years and stay motivated and enthusiastic about their job, a chef needs a strong passion for the culinary world and the hospitality industry. A chef must also feel passionate about delivering excellent customer service.
Willingness to learn
To stay up to date regarding the latest developments in the culinary world and produce innovations, a chef must be willing to constantly keep learning and developing as a professional. Apart from networking with other chefs, reading new publications and following main figures on social media, chefs can also learn from their staff. Although their expertise may not match that of a chef, kitchen staff are often passionate about food and may have interesting ideas. A chef can also keep learning through travelling to other countries and learning about different cuisines.
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