You might be the next Jamie Oliver, or you might just be a good chef who wants to get better. Either way, your talent will be in demand. Rosalind Mullen reports
If you think making the decision to be a chef is the tricky bit, think again. You've still got to work out whether you want to be in fine dining or casual, or to go to college or train on the job - and that's before you consider whether you're likely to be better suited to - or get better opportunities in - pubs, restaurants, hotels or contract catering.
The good news is there's a lot of movement in the market. This is especially true of pubs, where the variety, from locals at one end of the scale to gastropubs at the other, is creating a tempting range of opportunities and challenges for chefs.
This is confirmed by Kirstie Batt, catering director at Blue Arrow, who says true professionals can find challenging and financially rewarding work right on their doorstep. "There's a real need for chefs who can prepare an increasingly complex range of dishes at the top end - and recruiters who can find them," she says. "Pub chains are responding accordingly, and top operators realise that to find and retain talent, they need to provide more space and improved working conditions and package.
"Across the board, the industry is more open to flexible working, which is great news for chefs seeking to balance wider commitments or become self-employed," she adds.
The fine-dining restaurant
Andrew Donovan, 31
What? Senior sous chef
Where? Chapter One restaurant, Farnborough, Kent
You were a head chef and now you're senior sous? Yes, I was head chef at Ebury wine bar in London for eight months, but I always wanted to work in fine dining. I had previously worked at Aubergine and the Greenhouse, but I felt it was a good idea to take the Ebury job because it was an opportunity to learn about crisis management, budgeting and working with a small team. Having done it, I know what's achievable.
So it was a means of rising higher in fine dining? I always wanted to get a rounded experience. I didn't want to be a good cook who was useless with figures. You're a better chef if you have knowledge of costing, purchasing and so on.
Tell us about your job. I've got a brigade of 16 and we tend to do 50 covers at lunch and 80 at dinner. We work 12-14 hours, whereas in most hotels they do 8.5-hour days.
And where are you headed? I want to be a head chef in two to three years' time and fine dining is where I see myself.
Why fine dining? You often get more commitment from your chefs because the hours are longer and there's one goal. I find it more rewarding than knocking out 300-400 dishes. The produce is so much better, too. In a three- or four-star hotel the number-crunchers push you into using suppliers you don't want to use.
The gastropub Ben Martin, 31
What? Head chef
Where? The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, London
Which group? Mitchells & Butlers www.mbplc.com
So you thought you'd be a musician and ended up cooking? I left school at 16 with a few GCSEs and an ambition to get into music, but to cut a long story short, I got into cooking.
I started out as a trainee chef in hotels, but I enjoy the feel of a pub. With open kitchens you get more contact with customers and other staff.
Tell us about this job. I came to the Spaniards in 2004. It's a very busy kitchen, and we cook seasonal British produce and host dinner parties at home. I've increased food sales and help develop various offers within M&B by attending food progression meetings.
Why do you choose to cook in pubs? The fact that pay tends to be lower than in a fine-dining restaurant means the skills are different, so training staff is an interesting challenge. We do about 400 covers at lunchtime with a staff of three, whereas in a restaurant there might be eight chefs producing 40 meals. At the end of a busy session you get a natural high.
What's so good about working for a big company? The opportunities are excellent. Managers and chefs are empowered to act locally and create their own stocking policies, menus, promotions and networks. I've helped to train the chefs and open five successful pubs in north London. I've also worked at the company's renowned White Horse in Parson's Green, where I learnt a great deal about beer and food matching and high-quality pub dining from Mark Dorber and head chef Heidi Flett.
What are your career plans? I want to understand the bigger picture of the pub business. Working for a multimillion-pound plc means I get to do stuff outside this pub and that if I show an interest in a certain area, they will pay for me to go on a training course.
The hotel Jamie Jones, 39
What? Executive chef
Where? Seasons restaurant, Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire www.fourseasons.com/employment
You've worked for Four Seasons for 11 years - why stay so long? I enjoy my job. I started as a sous chef at the Park Lane property and was promoted, then I went to the Maldives to help open the hotel there. I've opened seven hotels around the world and have been executive chef since 1998. You learn as you go. When you're ready for the next stage the company moves you up.
Why do you love it? They don't have standard recipes so you can use local produce and cook locally influenced dishes. I change the menu depending on the country I'm working in and try to cook local cuisine with a twist. You can be creative if you use local produce. We go for the old style of cooking, with stocks and reductions. The team get involved and come up with new dishes according to the seasons. As soon as something is out of season it's off the menu. By changing the menu we keep the team's interest.
We hear you and your brigade helped Highbury College hospitality and catering students prepare a seven-course dinner recently. Yes. It means we can keep an eye on future talent. I believe the industry should be present in colleges and have always visited them. I tend to recruit foodies and not prima donnas.
What's the working atmosphere like in your kitchen? We have a very focused team here - it's fun but quiet and everyone is pushing for the same thing. We work straight nine- to 10-hour shifts, but the brigade will turn up for work at 12 rather than 2pm so they can try out new recipes and things.
What next? I've hit the top of my profession. I've got no desire to be an F&B director because I love cooking and teaching. It's never boring. I guess my ambition would be to open my own place one day.