Get the latest hospitality news and inspiration straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Shopping for chefs

Written by:
Written by:

To an employer, freelance chefs may be a necessary evil; to a chef, going freelance may be the most liberating, and lucrative, decision he or she could make. Janet Harmer looks at both sides.

In an ideal world, head chefs would prefer to run their kitchens without relief or freelance chefs, and the disruption and resentment they can cause. In the past, such chefs were taken on to cover sickness or holiday leave, or maybe to fill for short periods while a new permanent appointment was being made. But in reality, many businesses would not be able to operate without them, and freelances are increasingly filling the gaps, often on a long-term basis, where no full-time chef can be recruited.

Very few kitchens today can claim to have a full complement of chefs. Indeed, it is estimated by the Hospitality Training Foundation that there is a shortage of about 15,000 skilled chefs in the UK today. Chefs at chef de partie and demi chef de partie level, in particular, are in short supply.

“The skills shortage seems to have created a whole new breed of chefs who are now able to move from one job to another, giving them both flexibility and generally a better level of pay,” says Roddy Watt, chief executive of recruitment company the Berkeley Scott Group.

While the shortfall of chefs stems largely from the drop in new recruits at catering colleges, coupled with an increase in people leaving the industry altogether, it appears the problem may actually be compounded by the fact that more and more chefs want to continue cooking for a living, but on their own terms.

Choosing to work on a freelance basis allows chefs to work when they want to, and ensures that they will be paid for every hour they work – at a higher rate than they would receive if working in the equivalent position permanently. For many, it allows them to feel that they are being paid their true worth for the very first time in their career.

Current freelance rates range from around £7.50 per hour for a chef de partie to £15 per hour for a head chef. There are also some regional differences, with the highest rates being paid in London and the South-east of England. While the pay may be twice as much as that earned by a permanent chef, it has to be set against the fact that there may be stints of time with no work at all.

“I would recommend it to anyone,” says Denis Lejnieks, who, before becoming a freelance chef 10 years ago, worked as a head chef at a restaurant in Windsor. “I’m surprised that more chefs don’t do it.”

Based in Leicester, Lejnieks has worked all over the UK, mostly as a temporary head chef, but he has also filled in at more junior positions when required. While the pay is a major attraction for many freelance chefs, the variety is also important. For Lejnieks, this has meant doing everything from cooking for a party of eight business people at a country mansion for two weeks, to being involved in the Euro 96 football championships when he helped to cater for 7,000 at London’s Wembley Conference Centre.

For the past three years, he has taken on summer-season contracts for six months in Cornwall. Although he worked an average of 60 hours a week, without a day off, during these contracts, he was content, as he knew that he was well rewarded for the work he did. On average, Lejnieks works for 10 months of the year and has bookings up to April 2003.

As a well-established freelance, Lejnieks gets most of his work by word of mouth, through past clients and by advertising in the classified section of Caterer & Hotelkeeper. Less experienced relief chefs will find work by registering with one or more of the agencies which specialise in relief staff.

However, agencies do tend to get blamed when things don’t work out with a relief chef. Peter Patchett, executive chef at Grayshott Hall, Grayshott, Hampshire, has had to replace freelance chefs who have turned up late or not at all, and those who have been unprofessional in both their work and their appearance. “It is important to me that whoever comes through the door is well groomed, is shaven, has clean hair and clean kit, and a good set of professional tools,” he says. “It is all about having a professional work ethic, and the agencies should ensure that the chefs they are sending out have it.”

The problems Patchett previously experienced with unprofessional agency chefs disappeared once he started using relief staff from Flourish Recruitment. On average, his eight-strong brigade usually has two relief chefs, and at present they include his sous chef, who has been with him for more than a year, and a chef de partie, who arrived three months ago. Both live in staff accommodation, have all their food supplied, and are able to enjoy the use of Grayshott’s leisure and health facilities.

“Being in a remote area, getting good quality staff at the best of times is difficult,” says Patchett. “Taking on a freelance chef is a cost-effective way of getting extra help when business peaks.”

While some agencies claim to have about 5,000 relief chefs on their books, Flourish Recruitment says it has only 150, whom they regard as reliable and use regularly. Director Bernadette Howarth understands the frustration of clients who have problems with unprofessional relief chefs and believes that it is the responsibility of agencies to reference-check every chef they place in a contract.

“Our clients want chefs who are responsible, arrive in a set of clean whites, and don’t drink or use their mobile phones while on duty,” she says. “If anyone is unreliable, we place them on a blacklist and never use them again. If every agency had a blacklist which they were willing to share with every other agency, then we could go some way towards tidying up the poor standards that can operate in the industry.”

Mash Relief Chefs, based in Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, also reference-checks and interviews chefs before sending them out to clients. Not only does it provide chefs to plug the gaps in brigades with vacancies, it also provides chefs on a consultancy basis.

“We have a network of 30 to 40 chefs and know them all very well, and when asked we can send one or two, or a whole team of chefs, in to teach new skills and improve standards of food,” says managing director Lee Bailey.

“As well as consistency, the other important attribute that we are looking for from our chefs is the ability to be able to fit into any team and work with people of varying calibres in a variety of circumstances, whether it be a nursing home or a big hotel.”

One chef who knows what it is like both to employ relief chefs and to work as one is Gary Smith, formerly head chef at the Hilton hotel, Bromsgrove, Hereford & Worcester. Although he is looking for a new permanent head chef position, he wanted to take time to find the right job, and working as a freelance chef himself for the past seven months has enabled him to do that. He is currently working on a six-week contract, coincidentally also for Hilton, as head chef at the Hilton hotel, Leicester.

“When I was in Bromsgrove,” he says, “I employed a relief chef de partie for 15 months because it was just impossible to get a permanent chef de partie. You can understand why a young chef chooses to work this way. A chef de partie in a permanent position may get paid £13,000 per year, which is equivalent to £250 a week no matter how many hours he works, whereas a relief chef de partie earning £8 an hour will get £320 for a 40-hour week.”

While Smith is enjoying being paid for every hour he works, he does look forward to resuming his permanent career. “The problem today,” he says, “is that many young people are not career-minded, they are money-driven.”

Working as a freelance chef

Until recently, a freelance chef who moved between different kitchens could classify himself as a self-employed person, under Schedule D status with the Inland Revenue. This entitled him to invoice directly to the client, or via an agency, charging an hourly rate from which he would be responsible for paying his own income tax and national insurance contributions. All expenses he endured in relation to his work – such as travel, equipment and uniform costs – could be offset against his tax liabilities.

However, since April 2000 when IR35, a new directive from the Inland Revenue, came into force, it has become more difficult for freelance chefs to achieve Schedule D status, particularly if they gain work through an agency. Now, unless the agency is given proof of a chef’s self-employment status – usually in form of a letter from the Inland Revenue – it should treat the person as a PAYE employee and payment to them, although still on an hourly basis, should be made via the agency’s payroll, with income tax and national insurance deducted at source. A chef finding work himself has a stronger claim to self-employed status, although the Inland Revenue may make inquiries about anyone who is working in a long-term contract for one client.

In reality, the implementation and understanding of IR35 within the industry appears to be very hit-and-miss. While some agencies, such as South West Chef Service, adhere to it 100% and will use only chefs who will be paid through their payroll, many other agencies have a mix of self-employed and payroll chefs on their books. There are also some agencies that appear totally ignorant of IR35.

Anyone considering work as a relief chef should first seek the advice of a reputable chartered accountant, either by personal recommendation or by contacting the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales or, in Scotland, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.


Berkeley Scott Group
01483 414141

Flourish Recruitment
0870 220 1418

Mash Relief Chefs
01642 807323

South West Chef Service
01761 412332

Paul Powell of Cambridge
01353 777991

Warburton’s Chefs
01892 861073

Craig Meadowcroft
01942 894903

Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales
0207 920 8400

Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland
0131-347 0100

Start the discussion

Sign in to comment or register new account

Start the working day with

The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign up now for:

  • The latest exclusives from across the industry
  • Innovations, new openings, business news and practical advice
  • The latest product innovations and supplier offers
Sign up for free