What key chef requirements and qualifications do you need?
Updated 10 March 2023
The restaurant sector is constantly growing. Learning how to become a chef in this expanding field can provide an exciting, creative and highly rewarding career experience. With so many different types of restaurants and cuisines available, there's a lot of variation in a career as a chef. In this article, we explore how to become a chef, the qualifications required for this vocation and the top 10 key skills to help you progress your career as a chef.
Key chef requirements when starting your career
Key chef requirements when starting your career include a passion for cooking and the commitment to progress in your role. Chefs work in busy environments, and the work can be physically and emotionally demanding. Possessing a high level of patience and a number of soft skills are important factors that aid you in the workplace.
The path to being a successful chef can vary enormously. Not only are there several ways to make a start on this vocational journey, but there are also many different styles of cuisine and restaurants in which you can develop your skills. You aren't limited to one type of cuisine or establishment, which gives you more control over your own career direction.
What qualifications do you need to be a chef?
While it's not necessary to attend university or gain other formal qualifications to become a chef, undertaking one or more qualifications can still be important to help you gain essential skills and knowledge, plus demonstrate your interest in and commitment to a career as a chef. There are a large number of colleges, schools and universities that offer comprehensive courses and training that can help you launch a successful career in food.
Several qualifications that you can consider when looking at how to become a chef include:
Choose school courses: Studying food technology at school gives you skills and knowledge relevant to a career as a chef. There are also relevant Business Technology and Education Council (BTEC) qualifications for example, in hospitality and catering principles.
A college course: You can undertake different levels of professional National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) like a Diploma in Cookery. These range from a level 1 certificate in food preparation and cookery to level 2 professional cookery.
A university course: You can study for a foundation degree in culinary arts or professional cookery. A good alternative is a Higher National Diploma (HND), which is equivalent to the first two years of a foundation degree.
An apprenticeship: Apprenticeships mean you can work, earn and learn at the same time. Apprenticeships typically begin at an intermediate or advanced level.
Culinary school: Gain a professional qualification through a culinary school, where the teachers are cooking experts. Culinary schools can also be invaluable in providing contacts and opportunities to network.
Work experience: It's extremely helpful to gain skills through work experience, and many cafes and restaurants hire straight out of school, for example, as a kitchen porter. Work experience helps you to develop the right skills at the start of your career.
The other critical element all kitchen staff require is up-to-date food hygiene training. Most courses from school to university cover food hygiene. It's also possible to undertake certified training courses online, typically for a small fee.
Top 10 skills of a chef
Aside from the passion and ability to cook, there are a number of key skills to develop and master. Below is a list of 10 top skills that help you to develop a successful career as a chef:
1. Willingness to learn and upskill
Working as a chef is a very hands-on vocation with a lot of learning as part of the day-to-day role. Mastering techniques and flavours takes time and a lot of energy. To become a great chef, repetition combined with a high willingness to learn is critical.
Related: The Importance of Upskilling
2. A real desire for this vocation
Being a chef demands working long and often late hours during busy periods. This can include times when many others take holidays and celebrate, such as Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Valentine's Day and religious holidays. A genuine desire for this vocation means not only working during these time periods but also making sure that other people's dining experiences remain special.
Kitchens are, by their general nature, very busy with lots going on all the time, particularly during peak times of the day. Remaining highly organised in this environment helps chefs to work tidily and efficiently. A poorly organised and busy kitchen can be highly distracting, if not dangerous. It's important to take the time to tidy the kitchen and workspace throughout the day, wipe down surfaces and put equipment back in its place once it's clean. Experienced chefs also require organisational skills to manage their kitchen staff and control what's happening throughout the kitchen at all times.
4. Multitasking in a high-pressure situation
Alongside top organisational skills, being able to multitask is another critical skill for chefs. Kitchens are busy, high-pressure environments that require the ability to keep on top of everything while also planning ahead. Imagine how many things are happening all at once in a busy restaurant. One table may be at the start of their meal, another on their mains and sides and another on deserts. Preparing one meal alone involves several elements, so preparing a range of multiple dishes at the same time duplicates this over and over.
A top chef knows what is happening at all times, from managing their staff as they prepare each dish, through understanding what customers require with each meal, to communicating with the front-of- house team to ensure that area runs as smoothly as the kitchen.
Becoming a chef involves more than just following a recipe. A chef can be creative in terms of putting a menu together, how the dish looks on the plate and how it tastes to the customers. The creative reputation of a chef is what brings customers through the door, so having a flair for creativity may prove a fantastic skill to have and develop. Don't be afraid to experiment.
6. Time management
Strong time management skills are essential for managing the kitchen and the dishes that are coming out of it. The dining experience typically ebbs and flows with each individual customer and table. Certain periods are naturally busier than others. Being able to manage these periods efficiently ensures that the kitchen is running smoothly and keeps staff and customers happy.
Working in a kitchen with lots of different people from different backgrounds can be demanding. While a love of cooking may unite everyone, being able to both work together efficiently and get along with everyone is important to keep the kitchen running smoothly. A chef is like a moving part of a machine, with every person having a particular role to play for smooth operations. To ensure this, it's vital that you and your peers work well together.
8. Leadership skills
Experienced chefs also require strong leadership skills to get the best out of everyone and keep everything running smoothly. Head chefs, for example, are responsible for the overall running of the kitchen. Their directions are integral to providing a high level of service. At the same time, keeping everyone feeling positive and focused (even when the kitchen is busy and stressful) helps to maintain the right atmosphere.
Related: Top 9 Leadership Skills to Develop
Not everything goes to plan. For example, there may be a meal going out that is not to the standard of the kitchen or meeting the expectations of the customer. Chefs often receive feedback from their peers and customers on the food that they produce, and it may not always be positive. Being resilient enough to handle criticism and negative feedback constructively helps chefs to succeed, especially if it highlights potential issues with their food and allows them to develop and grow as a chef.
Excellent stamina, both physical and mental, is important for chefs, who are on their feet most of the day moving about in a busy and often very hot space. Working in a kitchen can be very physically demanding, and working long shifts in hot temperatures and without many breaks is tough. On top of that, the mental energy required to cope with the pressure can be significant. An experienced chef requires excellent stamina to keep up with the demands of the kitchen, remain focused on the tasks at hand and consistently produce delicious dishes for customers.
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