With the highest ever rate of new restaurant openings (179!) in the capital recently recorded in the 25th edition of Harden’s London Restaurants, there are lots of opportunities for aspiring chefs. But what does it really take to make it to head chef? Is it only skills or your attitude as well? We asked a range of chefs from our network who are currently running kitchens to dish out their top tips for getting to the top. In no particular order, here are the best responses we received!
“Learn how to manage yourself before you try to manage others”
Since one of the duties of becoming a head chef is learning how to manage a tight ship in the kitchen environment, you will need to master these skills yourself first. You can do this by listening to the direction of your current head chef or kitchen manager and keep on top of things, without having to be told. This will show to others that you’re capable of thinking under pressure, which is a very important aspect of becoming a leader.
This should be the main reason for you to become a chef. The most important element of your career as a chef is to generously share your abundant love for food with your customers, guests and colleagues, and give them the opportunity to explore new cuisines, flavours and experiences.
Being a chef is really hard work and if you don’t have true passion for the art of cooking, you’ll not make it. Every day your food is being analysed and judged, and you have to be consistent in your performance. Be open-minded and keep on learning. Above all don’t accept mediocrity in yourself or your team. Instill a love of cooking in every corner of the kitchen.
“Take time and energy to learn the basics”
Be disciplined and enthusiastic about your work. Gain experience working under people who can inspire you and help to develop your talent. Also, use your creativity and love of food to create delicious dishes.
Respect the food you work with and respect the people you work with. A fancy title or business card does not get you respect. You need to earn it, and you can earn respect from the team by displaying your knowledge and giving them the respect they deserve.
“Remember this isn’t a TV show”
As much as you may crave those 15 minutes of fame, it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever become a famous TV star in this industry. Always remember why you are in this business and this alone will provide other opportunities that fulfill and inspire you as you progress in your career.
“Be prepared to work harder than you ever have before”
Becoming a chef is not easy. On top of all there is to learn you will encounter painful guest comments, angry sous chefs, crazy pastry chefs, burned arms and cut fingers. The only way you will get to the top is through hard work and dedication. There is no easy road or short cut to becoming a great head chef.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment”
Being a chef allows you to experiment with an unlimited amount of flavours and textures. Through experimentation we’re able to have fun as well as learn which elements work best together.
Be the hardest working member of the team at all times. The mind-set alone will push you to work harder. It’s all about the grafting. Service is not for the faint hearted. We work long hours, miss holidays and don’t get much sleep. Keep grafting and you’ll reach your goals.
“Remember, everyone has bad days”
Don’t let a bad service get you down; pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. No matter how hard it gets, never give up. Keep focused on the end result and visualise what you want. If you give up you’ll never get there.
“Give yourself time”
Becoming a head chef doesn’t happen overnight and you cannot rush it. In order to become a solid head chef you need to go through a variety of situations and steps in different positions, such as working in a free standing restaurant, having hotel experience and so forth. To be a solid head chef it doesn’t just involve the kitchen. It’s also about hiring and training staff, guiding and inspiring people and being involved in public relations. Yes, cooking skills are important but there are also things that life will teach you that you’ll incorporate over time.
“Focus on your work, not the titles”
If you produce results beyond expectations, promotions and titles will follow. There can be too much focus on achieving the next level, when the main goal for your career should be improving your skills and furthering yourself by embracing new opportunities.
“Success is connected to action”
Successful people keep moving, keep trying and in turn keep learning. Always remember that, as a chef, you’re as good as your last meal. Make people remember you for everything that you do well and continuously push the boundaries to make your dishes better.
“Surround yourself with the top people in the industry”
Learn as much as you can from them, no matter how hard it may seem at the time. When you’re young, you will probably think you know it all, but as a voice of experience let me tell you that you don’t and never will. That’s the reason I still love being a chef after 20 years.
“The industry will change many times through your career”
There will be many different food fashions and styles that will come and go. You need to always keep up with the times and make sure you check out what other top professionals are doing by reading their books and eating in their restaurants. Don’t be scared to reinvent yourself as long as it comes from the passion you have inside.
The kitchen is a like a military field, so you need to be disciplined and highly organised in every
aspect; from food preparation to delivery, your focus should be on your operation and food at all times. While it’s important to dedicate time to studying your surroundings and keeping up with cooking trends and seasonality, try to avoid putting too much of your efforts and time into monitoring your competition.
A great head chef should constantly evolve. It’s vital to keep creating new flavours and dishes while staying true to the character and identity of your cuisine of choice.
Go out as much as you can, read books and magazines, watch TV shows, and go to food markets. Inform yourself, but also question the type of food you grew up with and be inquisitive.
“Choose who you are working for”
Try to look at the best kitchen in your neighbourhood first, and progressively aim to work for great chefs along with outstanding restaurants and hotels. You need strong foundations before you start working for the ‘best of the best’. Be bold, but know your limitations and don’t bite off more than you can chew. And above all, be a good observer, have an open mind and ask question and never be afraid to say ‘show me’.
“Go the extra mile”
Great chefs work long hours perfecting their craft, whether it’s actual cooking, reading or checking out new restaurants. We never seem to stop looking, learning and observing. So for sure this is not a 9-5 job. It’s a real passion and from the minute you wake up till it’s time to sleep, you are always thinking about food, what goes with what, what’s new and what do you love to cook. To get ahead you really do have to go the extra mile and for great chefs going the extra mile is the norm. You have to work extremely hard if you want to be a successful chef, and unlike cooking shows, things can get intense and no scenes will be cut.
A lot of young chefs have the right talent and drive, which is wonderful, but experience is the key and it only comes with time. Experience comes with moving around, working with different chefs, and learning different repertoires. You know you’re ready to run the kitchen when someone is looking for you and your talent.
“Let people come to you”
Stay focused. Self-discipline is integral and it plays a key role in your endeavours in becoming a head chef. You must learn all the dynamics of the industry and maintain nerves of steel. Keep an open mind and take all criticism constructively, because everyone is going to have an opinion. Stay true to what you believe, but never undermine your guests’ expectations because your standard for yourself should be higher than that.
“Practice makes perfect”
Don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative. If it tastes bad, start over. If the presentation is off, redo it. Make mistakes and learn from them. Your creativity shines when you practice.
“Always stay calm”
Professional kitchens are extremely high stress environments, especially during service and it takes discipline and nerves of steel to not freak out. When someone in my kitchen is nervous, it makes me nervous in their ability and performance. Even when service is at its peak, project a calm exterior; this will show that you have confidence in your abilities and can successfully finish the service.
“Don’t pretend you know more than you do”
There’s a lot of talk in the kitchen between chefs who let their egos get way out ahead of their actual skills and knowledge. Don’t listen to it and be confident in what you know (and don’t!). Keep your head down, ensure your section and mise-en-place is always ready and be consistent.