How To Become A Chef

Posted May 3, 2016, by Vivien Luu

Always wanted to become a chef, but not 100% sure where to start? From what course you should study to how long an apprenticeship takes, we answer all your questions about how to become a qualified chef and how to succeed in Australia’s exciting food scene! 

So you’ve decided you want to become a professional chef, but you have no idea where to start. All you know is you have a food dream and you want to make it happen!

Whether your heart’s set on opening Sydney’s hottest banh mi truck, you dream of pushing molecular gastronomy to new heights or want to work at Noma under the masterful René Redzepi, becoming a chef requires 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.

Here are the steps you need to take to become a chef in Australia:

Step 1. Do work experience in a kitchen

Get a taste for the life of a chef and see if it suits you

Get yourself into a kitchen ASAP.

Why? Because as legendary chef, Jacques Pépin, says you need to make sure you ‘get into cooking for the right reasons.’

In an interview with Munchies, Pépin says that his one piece of advice to young chefs is to first work in a restaurant. It doesn’t matter what you do, it could be working as a dishwasher, waiter or cook but the point is to ‘ get the taste and essence of that thing that may seem glorious from the outside.’

‘After [you’ve] been at it for a couple of months, [you’ll] realise whether it’s the love of [your] life or something [you] don’t want to do at all. If it gratifies you, it makes you happy to cook for people, and it fills up your life, then go ahead.’

So before you dive headfirst into becoming a chef, get a job as a kitchen hand or do some work experience to get a feel for it. As most chefs will tell you cooking for fun and cooking for a living are two completely different beasts. Working in the hospitality industry means long hours, working most if not all weekends and even public holidays. You’ll essentially be working any time your family and friends are off the clock, so it’s important to get a feel for what sort of impact this will have on your work/life balance.

Here are some other questions you might want answered whilst you decide whether being a chef is the right career for you.

What are the work conditions like for chefs?

Commercial kitchens are fast-paced and high-pressure work environments. Once service starts and the orders roll in, things happen very quickly and there’s little margin for error. It demands a lot of energy and focus, so spend some time in a commercial kitchen to make sure this is the sort of workplace you’ll thrive in.

Thankfully most chefs agree that the ‘militant-style’ kitchen has largely disappeared, but commercial kitchens do have a hierarchy and clear chain of command that you’ll need to follow. If you struggle with authority, a kitchen might not be the best place for you.

How much do chefs make?

This depends on how much where you work and your level of seniority in a kitchen. According to the latest stats from PayScale, this is the salary range for chefs in Australia:

  • Kitchen Chef: $36,916 – $57,885
  • Sous Chef: $42,638 – $64,184
  • Head Chef: $45,120 – $77,122
  • Executive Chef: $48,246 – $108,804

What does it take to succeed as a chef?

Seasoned chefs all agree that if you want to succeed you need a strong work ethic and an almost obsessive love for food. Here’s some advice from the world’s leading chefs:

  • ‘You need to immerse yourself totally in the world of food; everything else takes a back seat’ — Tom Colicchio, Topchef host and James Beard winner
  • ‘You’re better off peeling potatoes at a great kitchen than working saucier at a really mediocre place’ — David Chang, owner of Momofuko
  • ‘In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food… you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad’ — Jiro Ono, sushi master and Japanese national treasure

Step 2. Apply for an apprenticeship with a TAFE or private college

You’ll need to be professionally trained through a chef’s apprenticeship

Technically there aren’t any specific qualifications you need to hold to work as a chef (Heston Blumenthal for instance is completely self-taught!), however as a trades-based profession in Australia, it is common for chefs to complete an apprenticeship and gain a vocational qualification such as a Certificate III in Commercial Cookery (SIT30813) or higher at the end of their training.

There are different qualifications and apprenticeship opportunities depending on what type of chef you want to become:

Here are answers to all the questions you might have about completing an apprenticeship.

How do you qualify for a chef apprenticeship?

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.

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.

What equipment do you need to complete your apprenticeship?

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 purchase the folllowing equipment:

  • Chef’s knives
  • Chef’s whites or a uniform specified by your TAFE or college. This may include a chef jacket, trousers, apron, hat and hair net
  • 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!

Step 3. Work as a chef apprentice while you gain your qualification

In Australia it takes about 3 years to train as a chef apprentice

In Australia, it takes approximately 3 years to complete your training and make the transition from apprentice to qualified chef. This training is usually 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 three years of their apprenticeships. However, it is commonplace to move from restaurant to restaurant to gain more experience cooking in different environments and to gain exposure to different cuisines, styles of cooking and flavour profiles.

What does a chef apprentice do?

As an apprentice chef, you will have a variety of jobs that may include:

  • Assisting with menu planning
  • Ordering food supplies and equipment
  • Preparing and cooking food
  • Plating and garnishing
  • Cleaning

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.

Do you get paid for being a chef apprentice?

Yes, as a chef apprentice in Australia you will earn an apprentice’s wage. Chef apprenticeships usually last 3 years and the hourly pay rate increases as you progress through your apprenticeship. It also varies according to factors such your age, where you work, and what award you’re contracted under.

For instance, according to Australia’s Fairwork Pay Calculator, a first year apprentice who is under 21 years of age and working full-time will earn $11.34 per hour, and $430.82 per week under the Restaurant Industry Award 2010 (MA000119).

Penalties for working on weekends, public holidays and late at night (after 10pm-midnight) and early in the morning (midnight to 7am) also apply.

Step 4. Gain your qualification and specialise

Once you graduate it’s completely up to you where you take your career!

After three years as an apprentice, you’ll graduate with a nationally recognised certificate or diploma and be ready to work as a qualified professional chef!

Where you take your career next is entirely up to you. Maybe you’re keen to explore the future of sustainable, or perhaps you want to specialise in Asian cuisine and learn the art of pulled noodles – whatever it is, the end of your apprenticeship marks an opportunity to hone your craft!

Step 5. Find work as a chef

Australia is experiencing a major skill shortage in chefs

Once you’ve graduated, you might decide to stay at the restaurant you’ve been training at or apply for positions elsewhere. If you decide to move on, job hunting as a chef will involve:

  • Finding a job in a kitchen that aligns with your career goals
  • Putting together a chef’s resume and cover letter that highlights your skills and experience
  • Attending interviews and impressing the head chef

You’ll be happy to hear that Australia is currently experiencing a major shortage of chefs nationwide which should make your job hunt a little easier.

What are career prospects like for chefs?

According to a 2015 report conducted by Deloitte Access Economics on behalf of Austrade, more than 38,000 chefs will be needed in Australia between 2015-2020, meaning your career prospects as a chef are strong.

Chefs are also needed across a number of different industries and workplaces, so don’t limit yourself to finding work in a restaurant or café. Chefs are needed in both the private and public sector from hospitals and boarding schools to hotels and even research and development.

Step 6. Work your way up the ladder

Work your way up the ladder from line cook to executive chef

Now the real work begins. Like any other career, as a chef you’ll need to work your way up the ladder from being a station chef or line cook to becoming a sous chef, head chef, and eventually an executive chef.

While there’s no one way to achieve success as a chef, to grow it’s recommended that you:

  • Find a chef you trust and admire to be your mentor
  • Keep up to date with the latest food trends
  • Experiment with different cooking techniques, ingredients and styles of cooking
  • Learn new flavour profiles from around the world
  • Train with different types of chefs in different kitchens
  • Travel and draw inspiration from everything around you

Can’t wait to get out there as a chef? Make your culinary dreams come true with a course in hospitality! Enquire today.

Vivien Luu
Vivien Luu

Viv is a writer who enjoys researching and writing about creativity, how the human mind works, and neuro processes. She values creativity above all else and admires people who pursue their career dreams, no matter the sacrifice. In her spare time, she binges on HBO shows and epic fantasy novels.

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