David has been a chef for the best part of two decades. Here’s his story.
What do you like about working as a chef?
I love food. Ever since my mum taught me how to cook as a child, I’ve been in love with being in the kitchen. And as a chef, I do that every day. I experiment with new dishes, I help put together menus, I see the joy on people’s faces when they eat what I make.
For me, this is the dream job. It’s what I wanted to be as a kid. It’s creative, no two days are the same, each kitchen is different. What’s not to like? OK, the hours are long and it’s not exactly an easy working environment, but I do a job that makes people happy.
I could never imagine myself doing an office job or something like that, it just seems so formal and constrained. Here, every day is unique. I’ve been in this game for years, and I’ve never once thought about changing jobs.
What happens in a typical day working as a chef?
There isn’t really a “typical” day as no two days are the same. It also depends on where you work. Generally, though, the main tasks are preparing the days service, making sure the orders are in, checking that all your team are ready for service, followed by the service itself. Some are ridiculously busy, others are surprisingly quiet. You just never know what you’re walking into unless you’re placed working in a nursing home or university kitchen where you tend to get a good idea of how busy it’s going to be.
Nothing beats the buzz of a busy service though. You’ve been in the kitchen preparing and getting everything, overcoming the challenges of broken equipment or unexpected delivery issues and then bam, you’re in service! It’s stressful, it can be the most exciting feeling in the world. I feel sorry for people who never get to experience it, I honestly do.
What qualities would you say makes a great chef?
The most obvious thing is you need to be a good cook. You need to love food and be passionate about keeping yourself up to date with all things food related. I’d say the best chefs are also perfectionists and great team leaders.
Apart from that, I’d say you need to be able to work under a tonne of pressure, be able to deal with stress and keep a cool head even when everything seems to be going to s***, and because we normally work long shifts, you need ridiculously good stamina.
What are the biggest challenges you face in a typical week at work?
We work nights, we work weekends, we work bank holidays. This is not a job where you can expect to have a normal social life. Your whole life revolves around the kitchen. For many chefs, this can have a negative effect on their personal life. But it’s all part and parcel of the job. You have to really love it, but almost everyone I meet in kitchens, does. Those that don’t have the passion for it, don’t tend to last long.
One major annoyance is suppliers delivering wrong orders, or not delivering at all. It’s a nightmare when you’re trying to prep for a busy service and you don’t have the right ingredients. This is often where we get creative, but it’s also a pain. Also, being on your feet all day, being in a hot sweaty environment, working 60 hours a week, front of house messing orders up. It sounds awful, but honestly, it’s where I feel most at home. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are the hours like?
It depends on what sort of kitchen you’re working in. If you’re at a restaurant that stays open until 12, you’re working long hours, including weekends, and you’re not getting much sleep. If you work in a hotel, the hours can be even more unsociable. I’ve heard of people doing over 70 hours a week. Industrial catering and working in nursing homes, hospitals or colleges tend to have more sociable hours, however but then you’re compromising on how much control and creativity you can bring to the food. Whatever your preference, if you do contract work, you can pick and choose.
What types of establishments do you tend to work at e.g. cafes, hotels, gastropubs or other?
Mainly hotels, gastropubs and restaurants, though I did a bit of work in staff canteens earlier on in my career. I prefer working in restaurants and gastropubs as they are usually the places where you can get really creative. It’s also where you get the best kitchen environments, they’re hectic but really sociable and you meet your best pals working in those places. As I get on a bit, I might reassess, but for now, it’s restaurants and gastropubs for me.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into your line of work?
Make sure this is what you really want to do. This is not an easy job, so you should think carefully before starting out. It’s a job that will consume your life. But if you love cooking, and you love food, there’s no better job, so go ahead and do it. You won’t regret it.
You’ll need to get the proper training to start with, and when you’re in your first kitchen, be a sponge – learning as much as you can from the chefs around you. Never think you know everything once you’re out of college. Be prepared to work hard, be prepared to get shouted at, but don’t take it personally and be ready for the constant banter. But most of all, enjoy it!
Why have you chosen to work as a temp in this line of work?
I’ve got two young daughters, so it suits me to have the flexibility. I understand that working late all of the time isn’t great for them. It also gives me the freedom to choose where I work. Working as a temp chef, I get to experiment with a lot of different cuisines, flavours and ingredients, which is great. I’ve also found that the pay is better working as a temp than it would be working full-time. Not sure why that is exactly, but it’s definitely been the case with me.