How to Become a Chef in the UK and Worldwide: The Complete Guide
This guide will cover everything you need to know to become a chef – from chef training and requirements, to specialisation and industry progression.
In the United States, employment for chefs and cooks is growing faster (at 11% over the next ten years) than the average for other occupations. Chefs are in short supply and high demand in the UK, too.
We eat out. A lot. We grab snacks and meals, we eat at parties and events, restaurants and food trucks — it is surprising how much of our food is prepared by someone else instead of in the home. Plus, we have personal chefs, caterers, cooking television shows, YouTube and social media influencers famous for their cooking, and services that deliver ingredients to people so they can cook at home – clearly there is a growing interest in the culinary arts.
This is all great news for chefs, and those interested in working in the industry. There’s never been a better time to be a chef, and to get some serious cooking skills under your belt.
This guide will cover everything you need to know to become a chef – from chef training and requirements, to specialisation and industry progression.
Why Become A Chef?
Some people pursue a career for the money.
A beginner cook might start at £18,000, progressing up towards £60,000 or more, based on the position. This doesn’t take into account other culinary arts occupations, such as a pastry chef who owns her own bakery, for example, or a personal chef.
Being a chef shouldn’t only rest on how much money you can make, however. This is a career that requires passion and a love for the work, and has so many other benefits that go beyond the money you make.
Not convinced? Here are ten reasons why you might want to be a chef:
1. It’s an exciting career with a wide variety of pathways
You love to cook, so why not make a career out of something you enjoy by becoming a professional chef. There are exciting opportunities for career progression from Commis Chef to Demi Chef, then Chef de Partie, Sous chef, Chef de Cuisine and finally Executive Chef. You then have the opportunity to take your career to various types of venues, including restaurants, hotels, resorts, catering companies and corporate events.
2. Big opportunities in a consistently growing industry
According to research from Statista, the industry has grown consistently for the last 20 years, with no signs of slowing down. People will always want to eat out and enjoy great food with friends and family.
3. Opportunities in all corners of the globe
From London to Melbourne, a cruise ship or a skyscraper, the choice is yours when it comes to finding work as a professional chef. If you’re the type of person that enjoys experiences and travelling, becoming a trained chef is highly portable and could provide the flexibility you’re looking for.
4. Specialise to your heart’s content
Many chefs enjoy the practice of preparing and cooking all kinds of food and cuisines. However, there’s a lot of room to specialise if you discover a deep love for Indian, Mexican or even desserts, pastries and sauce.
5. Fancy starting your own restaurant?
Most chefs are super passionate about their work and more importantly, their customers. The opportunities to design and build your own restaurant, as well as grow your own customer base are huge and can be really appealing for those with the desire to own a business.
6. It requires creativity and imagination on a daily basis
Developing and trialing new dishes involves elements of art and science, so it naturally attracts those interested in expressing their creativity. Chefs will often create new menus and trial special dishes on a weekly basis.
7. You get to enjoy making people happy through food
What could be better than making people happy through food? Becoming a chef offers immediate positive feedback in a way that few other industries can.
8. Fast-paced, intense and often exciting
Working in a kitchen comes with its challenges – for those that enjoy working under pressure to deliver, move fast and constantly learn, it may be the perfect role for you.
9. You get to dress like a chef
No requirement for a shirt, suit, tie or heels – there are few things more rewarding that putting on your Chef’s whites for the first time.
10. Flexible hours – for better or worse
Chefs tend to work a variety of hours depending on opening times. Some restaurants open for the evenings, others during the day. Catering companies will often work various shifts and caterers focused on corporate will often see more structured hours.
How Long Does It Take To Be A Chef?
The timeline for becoming a chef varies.
Your training might range anywhere from several months to many years. It’s dependent on your educational path and what you want to do as a chef.
Cooking schools or university training will have a set start and end date. Learning on the job (or as an apprentice) might go on for years. And even those who go to school will not necessarily land a top chef position when they finish. You’ll have to get some experience on the job.
The better question to ask, then, is what kind of chef you want to be and where you ultimately want to end up as a chef.
For example, our Leiths Essential Cooking Course is set up for 24 weeks, and provides you with a solid foundation that you work at in your own home. For something like that, you may choose to get more training or certification after such a course. You might go right to work on completion of the course.
Or, you might start working today in a kitchen washing dishes and spend the next several years learning from other chefs. You might start as a commis chef and then, over the years, work up to being the head chef.
In other words, how long it takes before you arrive as a head chef varies.
How Do I Train To Be A Chef?
Essentially, there are two paths for you.
You can be an apprentice or get on-the-job training in a professional kitchen, learning as you go, or you can get culinary training at cooking schools or universities.
The first means you get a job in a kitchen, start at the bottom, and learn. The second is more structured and provides degrees or certifications that might open more doors for you when you’re done with your education.
Whichever route you choose, remember that you want to start with good training that will set you up with the knowledge of how to do things correctly. In particular, solid foundational training on the basic “rules” is a good idea. As is often the case in professional and creative realms (and being a chef definitely requires creativity), you should know the rules and why they exist before breaking them.
Specific certifications and education may be necessary.
Some certificates (from cooking schools) focus solely on how to cook, while other degrees include management courses and customer service. None are necessarily required, though they may open doors for you as a chef. It’s not necessary to get every certification available if your choice of career doesn’t require it.
There are, however, some certifications you will need. For example, in the UK, you will need training in food hygiene. You are expected to know about food safety and comply with all laws and requirements. And many jobs might require at least a high school diploma, college qualifications or equivalent.
You might need peripheral training based on what you plan to do as a chef. If you are planning on running your own cooking business or restaurant, you will need training in managing a business and related legal requirements.
Gaining experience as you work is valuable.
Whether you have training and certification or not, you can’t put a price tag on experience.
One of the best ways to become a great chef is to dive in at any level, no matter your training, and be willing to work your way up. This is somewhat like the apprenticeship approach. Even those who finish cooking school follow this approach somewhat; you rarely come out of cooking school and end up the head chef.
Learn as you go. Learn by watching others. Learn from what they teach and show you. Figure out what works (and what doesn’t) in different cooking settings. Get to know the kitchen from as many chef positions as possible. Get a feel for the stress and pressure level and learn to adapt.
Someday, when you’re the head chef, you’ll be glad you worked through all of that experience. You’ll know exactly what to expect from your staff because you’ve had to do it, too.
Another bonus from working up through experience?
You build a valuable network of people. That network will help you find out about job openings, or about people looking for jobs as a chef.
Some skills and qualifications can’t be learned.
Being a chef in a professional environment is often physically and emotionally taxing. It isn’t for the faint of heart. A chef needs to:
- Have a passion for food. If you’re going to make it as a chef, you have to have a passion for the culinary arts. You have to love working with food, delighting people with food, and being creative with food.
- Be a good time manager. Chefs have to be masters of time management. Working with food is a complex juggle of timing. It includes everything from when you purchase supplies, storage, cooking times, to finishing times. When it comes to food, bad timing means failure.
- Be able to manage or work with other people. Depending on the type of chef you are determines if you’ll be managing others. You may be managing a general staff of chefs, or those in your specific area. You might be managing just the kitchen, or handling hiring and firing. You may have to meet with restaurant stakeholders, clients, management, or customers. You will need some people skills.
- Excel at organization. The workload of a chef varies throughout the day. A chef must be organized and prepared for that. Workload management, and learning what does and doesn’t work, is crucial. A chef has to have a kind of triage mentality, able to see what must be done and what can wait.
- Be calm when things get stressful. Being a chef is high-pressure work. You’ll have deadlines to meet, problems to solve on the fly, and other people needing something from you.
- Be creative. Chefs are responsible for coming up with menus, recipes, and creating the flavors that they or their establishment are known for. There’s a reason it’s called the “culinary arts” because it is, indeed, an art. From tastes to presentation, creativity is a must.
- Physically strong. Working as a chef is physical work. You will be standing, lifting, cutting, stirring — all of that and more, for hours on end.
Consider your personality, your ability to handle stress, and all of these other factors; let that help you decide which approach to being a professional chef might suit you best. Perhaps you’d struggle in a fast-paced crowded restaurant kitchen, but excel as a personal chef. There are many options for you as a chef.
Choose your source of chef training carefully.
There are two basic approaches to take in training to be a chef: going to a cooking school, or learning online.
Both are legitimate, but you must keep a few things in mind when choosing which approach you’ll take. Consider the pros and cons before making your decision.
Your work schedule or daily expectations may not allow you to attend classes in person. While learning in-person is usually an ideal option, learning at home has its benefits because of affordability, geographic restrictions, low stress, familiar work environment, and schedule flexibility. Yet not all online chef training is equally valuable.
Whichever path you choose, at a cooking school in-person or online, keep in mind that your choice of chef training should:
- Teach core skills that can be practiced. Look for training that doesn’t assume you know something, and instead, breaks things down into small steps that you’ll be using throughout the training.
- Have a structured curriculum based on the right order of those core skills. There are lots of videos and recipes on how to cook freely available, but they aren’t necessarily structured or built on previous training. It doesn’t help to watch a video on working with meat if you don’t know how to properly use and care for knives.
- Have professionally created videos. Poor videos make for poor instruction. You want to be able to hear and see clearly. Look for videos that offer multiple angles, zooming back and zooming in when appropriate, mimicking what you’d experience as if you were there in-person.
- Be a known and solid source of training. It’s true that anyone might be able to show you how to boil an egg on YouTube, but if you want to be a chef, you need to be trained by chefs, not just anyone. Students pick up the habits and qualities of their teachers, so be sure you are learning from top-notch teachers if you want to be a top-notch chef.
- Be practical, not theoretical. Talking about theories of food and cooking doesn’t help you make a loaf of bread. A lecture hall has its place in education, but cooking is a hands-on skill. Most of your training should be very practical and actual in nature. In other words, at the end of it, you should have some food in front of you that could be eaten, not just a recipe.
- Fit in with your learning abilities. Find training that gives you time to work, at your pace. You won’t learn anything if you’re lost in a fast rush of instruction that doesn’t allow you to pause, practice, try again, or ask a question.
- Leave you feeling confident when you are finished. At the conclusion of your online training, you should have confidence in your chef abilities. If you legitimately can’t perform and complete basic cooking skills after finishing the course, something went wrong in either what you were taught, or the way you were taught.
If online learning is the choice you make, look for an online learning system that allows you to connect with other students and instructors for community and feedback.
What Can I Do With My Chef Training?
As a trained chef, the world is your oyster (and not just for cooking). Having solid skills in kitchen management and food preparation is incredibly marketable. People are always going to need to eat.
Follow your dream and run your own business.
Dreamed of opening your own bed and breakfast? Imagined that someday you’d have your own bakery or cafe? Caught yourself sketching out a logo for that coffee shop with a unique lunch counter? Want to call the shots and come up with your own food brand and customer experience? Like creating food for special events?
If you like the idea of running your own business and combining your chef skills with marketing and customer service, this path might be a great option for you.
Create recipes for the perfect home meal.
Some might think that chefs would be nervous about the rise of food delivery services (such as Hello Fresh, Gousto, Riverford Organic, or Mindful Chef) that make it easy for people to prepare fine meals at home. Are these kinds of services putting chefs out of a job?
Not at all.
Someone has to be creating and testing the recipes these types of services send out with the ready-to-use ingredients. Most of the customers using these services aren’t chefs (which is why they use the service in the first place), so it takes a skilled chef to create recipes that are simple yet delicious.
If you like creating recipes and experimenting in the kitchen, this might be an ideal route for you.
Become a personal chef.
Having a personal chef isn’t just for the supremely wealthy. As we grow more health conscious, everyone from gyms to individuals are looking to have a chef on hand. Cooking for specific dietary needs or to help out a busy family by putting meals on the table is a solid route for a chef, particularly if the traditional restaurant setting doesn’t appeal to you.
If you have an interest in specific types of food, or working with particular diets or budgets in mind, becoming a personal chef is ideal.
Food stylists are needed.
A food stylist is someone who creates food that is geared towards photography, video, or film. When you see gorgeous photos of food on social media or in cookbooks, a food stylist has been at work.
If you enjoy art and design, and take great pleasure in beautiful plating and presentation, becoming a food stylist is the perfect career for your chef’s training.
It’s Not Too Late
If you’re wondering if it’s too late for you to be a chef, the short answer is no.
More and more people are leaving previous careers and turning to a career in food.
Even if you don’t want to work in a restaurant or even be a full-time professional chef, there is value in learning to cook professionally. Learning to confidently work with food opens the doors to catering or other food-centric businesses, or even cooking for family and friends.
As more and more people get used to eating out, the need for chefs grows. The best time to become a chef is right now, with the demand growing and the at-home training options making it realistic for anyone who wants to pursue the path.