You make a mean soufflé, can chop vegetables at the speed of light and have relatives lining up for your food at family BBQs – but could you handle the heat in a real commercial kitchen? For many of us, to follow in the footsteps of Bill Granger, David Chang or Heston Blumenthal and become a professional chef would be a dream come true. Getting to this level, however, involves lots of study, dedication and training in the culinary arts. But if you have a passion for food and a knack for cooking with a bit of creative flair, you can begin working your way to the top of the food chain.
According to the Australian government's Job Outlook website, 5-year job growth for chefs has been 18.9 per cent, compared to just 6.9 per cent for all occupations. This is great news for anyone looking to become a chef in Australia.
Be warned though – cooking for fun and cooking for a living can be two completely different kettles of fish. Whether you're in your 20s, 30s or 40s, find out what you need to do to become the next MasterChef extraordinaire and get paid for it!
Chef is an abbreviation of the French phrase chef de cuisine, meaning ‘chief’ or ‘head’ of a kitchen. To be a chef you must have professional culinary training. A cook may have little or no professional qualifications. Either way, both are passionate about food and are innovators in the kitchen. However, if you want to work professionally, training is the key.
With most trades out there, the best way to get your certification is to do an apprenticeship through TAFE. TAFE courses are great as they allow you to study and get a qualification while also working and getting paid at the same time. In Australia, it takes four years to complete your training and make the transition from apprentice to chef. This training is made up of working four days a week in a restaurant and one day attending class at TAFE or college. Many apprentice chefs work in the same restaurant for the full four years of their apprenticeships. However, it is commonplace to move from restaurant to restaurant in order to try different styles of cooking and have different mentors.
To qualify to begin your apprenticeship you need to have completed your Year 10 School Certificate. Check with your local TAFE or careers adviser as the requirements may vary for different states and territories. It’s also a good idea to do work experience or part-time work as a kitchen hand in a restaurant first to get a feel for the industry. You don’t want to realise halfway through your apprenticeship that it’s not the career for you!
Culinary schools or specialised colleges are an alternative way to get cooking qualifications. Many of these institutes are highly regarded in the world of culinary arts and have excellent campuses to facilitate your learning. Like TAFE courses, culinary schools also require a combination of practical industry placement and class work. Entry requirements and costs of these courses may vary, so do your research before making your final decision.
As an apprentice chef, you will have a variety of jobs that include anything from assisting with menu planning to preparing and cooking food, to garnishing, cleaning, and ordering food supplies and equipment. You will have a lot to learn as an apprentice, so it's very likely that you will be required to help out with all areas of the kitchen.
It is also during your apprenticeship that you will need to decide what you want to do as a specialty. A commercial kitchen works like a well-oiled machine. It’s a hot and busy workplace, there are customers waiting for their food, things have to be done in a certain time, to a high standard, and there is no room for mistakes. Everyone has a different station and level in the hierarchy of the commercial kitchen. There is a title (most of them are French!) and level of prestige that comes with each position. Check out this glossary of chef terms to help recognise the different positions and decide which one you want to specialise in.
Like a hairdresser needs scissors, a painter needs a paintbrush and a builder needs a hammer, a chef also needs the tools of the trade. Particularly when you’re learning, it’s important to have good quality equipment. Most schools and colleges will require you to have a toolbox with all the basic cooking equipment, which they will either provide for you, or give you the option to purchase from a store they recommend. Most likely you will have to buy from the school, as you would not be able to bring a knife from home.
Additionally, you will also have to purchase a uniform specified by your TAFE or college. This will include a chef jacket, trousers, apron, hat and hair net. You will also need to have comfortable, covered and protected shoes. Make sure you give your college a call and ask what the estimated cost will be for the equipment before you enrol in the class so you can start saving – you don’t want to be hit with a big bill the first week of class!
In Australia, the job prospects for chefs are good. There are currently over 75,000 chefs employed across Australia in many industries including accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, manufacturing and retail trade.
According to the Australian Government’s Job Outlook website the average earnings for a qualified chef before tax is $918 per week. There is also good news for all those looking to start their career in the profession, as it is predicted to experience strong employment growth as the industry continues to expand.
So you’ve decided you want to be a chef - but do you have the right personality for the job? According to the Australian Retailers Association, in order to be a chef you need to be organised, prepared, adaptable, hardworking, disciplined and open to flexible working hours. Other traits required of a chef include: the ability to multitask and work long hours on your feet, high standards, leadership skills and the ability to make decisions in a high-pressure environment.
You also need to be creative. Chefs are the artists of the kitchen, and the empty plate is their blank canvas. They use exotic ingredients to create new, innovative dishes and masterpieces, or add a new twist to old favourites.
But of course the most important characteristic for an aspiring chef is a love and passion for wonderful food!