Being a chef should be more of a destination rather than a default career– so what needs to change?

Updated: May 5


You don’t get to be a lawyer or a teacher by mistake – you have to make a positive choice to train and qualify. So why, over the last 6 months of listening to many chefs and others in the hospitality industry, do so many tell me that they came into this industry as a default.


It seems to me that the image of hospitality and cheffing particular is in desperate need of a makeover! By this I don’t mean creating an alternative reality, but by telling it like it really is.


What does it take to be a chef?


Well, there is the cooking part. We work with education specialists in the catering industry and it is clear that a lot of time and effort is, quite rightly, put into developing good kitchen and chef skills. However, the role of the modern chef is much more than this, and creating great food takes a lot more than cooking ability. To quote David steel, Director of food at Houston and Hawks:


‘Some of the best chefs I’ve worked with have not been the best cooks, but they have been the best people’


In the modern kitchen chefs need to be great leaders, team members, mentors and to have a grasp of food related legal requirements. They also need to be digitally and mathematically savvy to drive efficiency and have finger the pulse of food and eating trends. Many Head Chefs we have talked to estimate that 50% of their job is non- cooking. So, if they are not cooking, what are chefs actually doing?


Tell it like it is


There are many roles within the kitchen brigade, but if you aspire to be a Head Chef you may spend up to 50% of your time in non-cooking activities so you need a whole range of key non-cooking skills to be successful.


You need to be a great team leader, with the skills to bring out the best possible performance in brigade members. You also want to be able to define career paths for your brigade members. It is far more cost effective to keep and develop the people you have rather than recruit from the external market. People stay with a business if they feel they are respected, developed and listened to. So, you need great listening skills. This may be counter to some of the more sensationalist chef material we see in the media but as one chef we spoke to says:


‘Shouting at people achieves nothing, listening helps’


Great chefs also let people develop by giving them ownership, responsibility and accountability, but are always be there to support them if they need it.


You also need to understand health and safety and food standard rules, be able to work with digital systems effectively and have the ability to trace food provenance for accountability and in some cases environmental impact concerns.


We have calculated it costs up to £22,000 a year when you lose a chef, far better to keep and develop those that you have. However, if you need to recruit, let’s make sure we have the most diverse options we can by effectively describing what chef-life can really be like.


Chefs are key people managers


We fail if we underestimate the critical leadership and management skills required of all chefs. For far too long chefs have been trained to cook and left to struggle with the personal skills development that will help and support them in and their future success. It is a testament to the grit, hard work and natural leadership ability of many chefs that there are great examples of successful kitchens, but imagine what we can if we do if we can:

  • Express the critical leadership, technical, digital and compliance skills that are needed to become a successful chef

  • Create clarity around the role of a chef and it’s leadership management potential

  • Ensure chefs are included in the post pandemic demand for more consideration when it comes to how we work

  • Expose all of this to a post pandemic society looking for new and different challenges who want the opportunity to show how they can impact society and the environment in a positive way

Being a chef must be a destination career, it has all the ingredients that people seek; great practical skills, leadership and management opportunities, and environmental and social impact. We need to show we are committed to developing ALL of these aspects in the chefs both today and tomorrow and we need to shout about it so that people hear us, we can do this if we work together and speak as one industry for good.


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