Complete Guide: What Is a Sous-Chef? Definition and FAQs

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 12 October 2022 | Published 19 July 2021

Updated 12 October 2022

Published 19 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you want to pursue a job in a professional kitchen, there's a hierarchy of roles, and it helps to understand to see which roles you can apply for and how you can progress in the job. In this article, we look at what a sous-chef does, the sous-chef's role in the kitchen hierarchy, what skills a sous-chef needs, how to become a sous-chef, typical hours and salary expectations, and how to find jobs as a sous-chef.

What is a sous-chef?

In the hierarchy of a professional kitchen, the sous-chef is the third most senior position. The full term is 'Sous-chef de Cuisine', which is French for 'under-chef of the kitchen'. The sous-chef is the main assistant of the head chef, who in turn works under the executive chef. Sous-chefs play an essential role in ensuring that the executive and head chef's commands are obeyed throughout the kitchen. A sous-chef is the chef with the most senior authority who plays the most active role in the running of the kitchen day to day.

In commercial kitchens, including those in hotels, restaurants and on cruise ships, the sous-chef has a great amount of responsibility, and in some cases may take on extra duties and responsibilities while being adaptable in the event of unforeseen issues in the kitchen. For instance, when the executive and/or head chef is unavailable, the sous-chef steps in to undertake their duties.

Related: What Are the Different Types of Chefs? (With Salaries)

What does a sous-chef do?

The sous-chef is tasked with realising the executive chef's vision for the presentation of dishes, maintaining efficiency among the kitchen team, overseeing apprentice chefs and ensuring all food served to guests meets the quality standards of the establishment.

A sous-chef is also responsible for knowing, in detail, how to use each piece of the kitchen's equipment and how they might be repaired in case they malfunction or suffer damage. Sous-chefs are also in charge of monitoring the kitchen's pantry, checking fresh ingredients and testing the menu.

What other responsibilities does a sous-chef have?

The sous-chef is responsible for maintaining the hygiene, health and safety standards in the kitchen. This means they're directly responsible for ensuring that the food served to diners is safe to consume.

Where does a sous-chef fit into a kitchen hierarchy?

Within the kitchen hierarchy, the executive chef is the highest-ranking member of staff, followed by the head chef. In terms of direct leadership, however, the sous-chef is generally the head of the kitchen team. A sous-chef is charged with maintaining discipline in the kitchen and responding to any member of staff who acts in a manner that violates the establishment's rules and policies. On the other hand, a sous-chef will sometimes devise an incentive system to reward members of the kitchen who perform to the highest standard.

The sous-chef is considered a leader because they must react to any incident that might disrupt the ongoing operation of the kitchen, while the executive chef focuses on the food itself. They also ensure that the kitchen is properly maintained outside of serving hours, such as checking that it's been thoroughly cleaned. In the kitchen hierarchy, the following kitchen staff typically report directly to the sous-chef:

  • Dishwashers (Escuelerie)

  • Waiter/waitresses (Aboyeur)

  • Junior chef (Commis Chef)

  • Station chef (Chef de Partie)

Related: What Is a Chef de Partie?

What skills does a sous-chef need?

Managing a commercial kitchen isn't an easy job, and the position requires a well-defined set of skills to be able to perform the role to a high standard. The most important sous-chef skills include:

Excellent cooking skills

Since a sous-chef is highly ranked in the kitchen hierarchy, they must have exemplary cooking abilities. This means preparing food to a high standard, selecting high-quality ingredients, suggesting appropriate menu items and developing high-quality recipes.

Leadership

The role of sous-chef requires a great deal of leadership ability as they're responsible for managing the kitchen staff and leading the kitchen during service. This requires the ability to motivate staff and to implement strategies to ensure the kitchen team is working at its best.

Time management

Sous-chefs need excellent time management skills to effectively prepare for the busy hours of service, keeping things moving during those hours, and checking that the kitchen has been cleaned and is ready for the next shift.

Communication

Since sous-chefs relay information between the executive chef, head chef, other chef staff, kitchen assistants, serving staff and even customers, sous-chefs need to have excellent communication skills to keep on top of information during the busy hours of service.

Creativity

A creative mindset is an essential skill for a sous-chef, who might be tasked with designing or adapting the menu, selecting new dishes and options, and deciding on daily specials based on the available inventory.

Management

The sous-chef role is effectively a managerial position for checking supplies and upholding the working environment for the rest of the kitchen staff, including organising schedules and ensuring the executive chef's requirements are met. They need to know how to communicate effectively with their team at all times, particularly during the high-pressure situations that can arise during the busiest hours of their shift.

How to become a sous-chef

Working at a high level in a commercial kitchen requires extensive knowledge and experience in culinary matters (also known as gastronomy). There's no one direct route to becoming a sous-chef, but the following steps represent one pathway into the role:

1. Complete school education

While there are no specific academic requirements for becoming a sous-chef, it's helpful to be able to demonstrate a basic level of education when applying for a junior position in a kitchen when you may not yet have any work experience to demonstrate your work ethic. GCSEs or A-Levels in subjects such as food technology and business studies.

2. Undertake culinary training

A degree in culinary arts from an institute of higher or specialised education is recommended. Formal culinary training is highly recognised and will involve placements in kitchens that will give you valuable experience and knowledge that's provable for your CV.

Related: How to become a chef (with skills and salary info)

3. Start an apprenticeship

After you complete your training, or if you can get direct access to a scheme, you can embark on an apprenticeship role in a kitchen to get started in building your career towards becoming a sous-chef. If you already have some experience, you may be able to progress straight to a chef's assistant.

Related: Your Guide to Chef Apprenticeships (And How To Get Started)

4. Work your way up

Whether it's within the same business or represents a change in employment, rising through the ranks in the kitchen is the best way to reach sous-chef status. The various roles you might occupy during your time in the kitchen include Comis Chef (junior chef) and Chef de Partie (station chef), who manages a designated area of the kitchen. After years of learning and proving yourself in these other roles, you might be promoted to the role of sous-chef.

Related: How to become a sous chef (plus frequently asked questions)

5. Obtain references

The most important thing for being hired as a chef will be recommendations by previous employers. Reputation is enormously important in professional kitchens, and the endorsement of a respected chef will play a huge part in determining your prospects.

6. Keep learning

There are other recommendations you can obtain, such as diplomas, certificates and awards that reflect well on your culinary skills. Having occupational health, safety and hygiene training is also an advantage, though some establishments will facilitate this training when they hire you.

How much does a sous-chef earn?

Depending on the size of the kitchen, your experience, and the reputation of the restaurant, the salary of a sous-chef can vary tremendously. The average salary for a sous-chef is £30,501 per year.

How many hours do sous-chefs work?

The number of hours a sous-chef works per week depends on the setting in which they're working; however, on average sous-chefs work between 40 to 60 hours per week. Restaurant shifts generally last between 8 and 12 hours.

Where can you find sous-chef jobs?

In countries with strong tourism industries, such as the UK, hospitality sector establishments such as hotels, pubs and restaurants are usually in high demand. This means that it's generally possible to find work in the culinary industry. There's only one sous-chef per kitchen shift but, in large cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, there are plenty of kitchens to run.

Cruise ships are also viable sources of employment for kitchen staff, but they're dependent on seasonal visitors. However, a proven sous-chef is likely to be able to find work throughout the year.

Related: Guide: Using Indeed Job Search

Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location.

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