It's creative, it's fashionable - and it even seems to be recession-proof. So, put your career on the right track by becoming a chef. Rosalind Mullen reports.
If you're not sure whether being a chef is right for you, here's the clincher. According to research conducted by the Learning and Skills Council and government sources, being a chef falls into the top 10 recession-proof jobs in the UK.
In the current climate, this is good to know. In addition, Sector Skills Council People 1st has identified that skilled chefs in particular are in demand. This means that if you make sure you have either college qualifications or on-the-job training in a good kitchen, you can look forward to a rewarding career.
So, if you haven't already done so, you need to look at the opportunities offered by each sector and get planning. The most obvious sectors are hotels and top-end high street restaurants, which usually have huge brigades and a glamorous profile. But our case studies below may prompt you to consider some more unusual options. Pubs, for instance, offer a great opportunity because while many now serve "gastro" fare, they are also high-volume and competitive, responding to eating trends quickly. Another option is contract catering, which offers a good career structure and more sociable hours.
Those of you who are ambitious shouldn't limit yourselves to becoming head chef. Nowadays, you should be looking ahead to the role of executive chef or, if you work for a company with multiple units, you could be thinking about moving into management and operations.
While those roles may seem a long way from the stove, the reality is that head chefs already spend much more time in front of the computer managing gross profits or stock control, so an operations role is less of a transition. The fast pace of kitchens also makes chefs ideal sales people - many work for specialist recruitment consultants, for instance.
Last, but not least, remember that being a chef is no longer a male domain. For evidence, look to Angela Hartnett, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Murano restaurant, who this year was awarded the Chef of the Year Catey. Other female role models include Thomasina Miers, chef-founder of the Wahaca chain; Helena Puolakka, executive chef at Skylon on London's Southbank; and Clare Smyth, head chef at Gordon Ramsay.
So, you see, not only does being a chef offer a great career structure, but if you're good you'll be in demand - oh, and nowadays you get paid pretty well, too.
THE PUB CHEF
Who? Corin Earland, 29
What? Senior head chef
Where? The Almanack, Kenilworth
Which company?Peach Pubs
Where did it all begin?
I started as a washer-up in a hotel at the age of 15 and when I finished school I moved up to being a commis chef in charge of the vegetables. The hotel was eventually taken over by a big company and became more formulaic, so I moved to Le Petit Blanc in Cheltenham and spent three-and-a-half years there. Then I went off and ran a pub with a friend.
How did you get involved with Peach?
I knew Peach founder Lee Cash from when he was deputy manager at Le Petit Blanc, so after he'd opened his first two Peach Pubs I decided to join him. I've been a chef with Peach for more than five years, starting out at the One Elm in Stratford before landing at the Fishes near Oxford, where I was head chef. In my three years there we got into the Michelin Pub Guide. The Almanack is my third Peach pub.
Tell us about it
I opened the Almanack in October last year as a trainee manager in order to get some front-of-house experience. Then, in January, I travelled in the French Alps for four months and came back to negotiate this new role as senior head chef.
What does the job entail?
We have 10 Peach pubs at the moment but I'll be working on new openings, making sure the menu pricing is correct and so on. As it's all new I'm working long hours in the kitchen, but my aim is to develop it into an operational role.
Describe your pub
The Almanack is a modern British gastropub, but for the first time Peach has gone into a space and designed it, rather than taking over an existing pub. It's got a 60s-70s throwback feel. On the menu we have a roast of the day, which we cook before service. The sheer volume of service means we do prepare a lot of food beforehand - such as risotto - but the rest we cook fresh.
And we gather you take ingredients seriously?
Yes. We'll change our menus seasonally and are hard-line on animal welfare. All our chicken, eggs and pork are free-range. We do not use foie gras. Our Aberdeenshire beef is Scotch Beef Club accredited and our chefs regularly visit the farmers. We buy British wherever we can to keep food miles down, and, where we need to import ingredients, we minimise air-freight.
What sort of volumes are you cooking for?
There's a brigade of six and we do eight shifts each a week. We don't work longer hours than chefs anywhere else, but in pubs there is a high turnover of covers. We provide food throughout the day, from breakfast onwards. Some days we've taken £1,000 before midday. Last week we took £15,000 on food. I'm recruiting at the moment and have had applications from a couple of chefs at two-rosette restaurants used to serving about 60 covers a night and they're dazzled that we can be serving 160 covers on a Saturday night.
Any plans for the future?
I am so involved with this at the moment - and Peach ties you in with the long-term bonus (whereby managers get a share of the profits for hitting targets and having a happy team) - so I could still be here in 10 years' time. It's a good working atmosphere and they invest in staff and training.
PEACH IN A KERNEL
- An independent Midlands-based company with 10 gastropubs
- If you're at management level, you can become an equity partner by investing some of your own money or by earning it through the profit-share scheme
- Training is provided, but to come in as a head chef you will need to have classical training and be able to develop your own menus.
THE CONTRACT CATERING CHEF
Who? Mark Anderson, 38
Where? Southampton City College
What's your story?
I've been with Pabulum for five years and two years ago I was promoted from chef to chef-manager.
Why did you choose a contract caterer?
Most of my cooking career has been in hotels and restaurants but I got fed up with the hours and split shifts. I was working from 9am-2.30pm, then back at 5pm for evening service, which was no good with a small family. Cooking in the education sector, I work just Monday to Friday from 7am-4pm.
What's your training background?
I studied for three years for City & Guilds 706 1 and 2 and I also gained an NVQ 3 specialising in pâtisserie.
Tell us about your job
There are two of us in the kitchen. Every day we cook for about 60 covers in the nursery, provide hospitality for up to 400 people and prepare food for a small Costa outlet. We also prepare a hot food counter for the students - there are 1,000 of them but they don't all eat here. Breakfast is 8-11am and lunch is midday to 2.30pm.
What about your menu?
We run a daily menu to stay with the seasons and to take advantage of good deals with suppliers. It also means we can be creative. In education catering you are driven by cost. As long as I make my gross profit, however, I have no restraints.
Do you work in the college holidays?
Yes. My contract is for 52 weeks, but the rest of the team get school holidays. During the holidays there are training courses and there is still hospitality and the nursery to feed, but it is quieter.
Is there career progression?
Absolutely. The next step for me is to become catering manager. I have been a chef-manager for three years and have learnt about accounts, costings, labour and how to run a unit. As catering manager I would be in a bigger unit in a more supervisory role, but there would be elements of what I do now. This company recognises and trains people who show initiative and an interest. For example, our general assistant is being supported in taking an NVQ 2 in food production.
Aren't you tempted to go back into hotels or restaurants?
No - I enjoy the work-life balance here, and I wouldn't want to work for a big contract caterer either. At Pabulum, I have found a small player where I talk to the operations manager. You are not just a face in the crowd, so if an opportunity comes along managers are more likely to put you forward for it.
PABULUM IN A NUTSHELL
- Part of the Quarr Group with an annual turnover of £40m
- Provides catering in schools, colleges and business and industry
- Accreditation of the British Hospitality Association's Excellence Through People Award, which means it is committed to annual appraisals, internal training and new NVQ opportunities
Are you new to cheffing? The AA and Galvin at Windows launched an amateur cooking competition on 21 September. Who knows, it might kickstart a beautiful career. Registration closes on 30 October.
For more information, or to take part, log on to: www.theaa.com/cooking-competition
Apprenticeships equip you with real-life experience and on-the-job training that usually takes 12 to 24 months. Most apprentices are aged 16 to 19, but the scheme is open to those up to 25.
VRQ for Chefs (Vocationally Related Qualifications)
This relatively new chef's qualification has been developed by key bodies within the industry, including People 1st. VRQs are designed to teach the core skills and knowledge that chefs need in the industry and are available to both part-time and full-time learners at college.
Suitable for a wide range of learners, BTECs are work-related qualifications. Offered by colleges, universities and employers, they can range from entry level to post-graduate qualifications and are taken either part-time or full-time.
NVQ (National Vocational Qualification)
NVQs (or SVQs in Scotland) are work-related, competence-based qualifications. They can be taken full- or part-time by students with a work placement that enables them to develop the appropriate skills. There are no age limits and no special entry requirements. NVQs are usually achieved through training and on-the-job-assessment.
The UK Skills Passport is a web-based resource, developed by People 1st, that records your skills, qualifications and experience online. Each person's passport acts as a career "road map", listing training opportunities and a database of qualifications available, alongside details of best practice employers and job vacancies.