You bake flawless macarons, can dice and julienne 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 some, to follow in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver, David Chang, Nigella Lawson or Heston Blumenthal and become a professional chef would be a dream come true. Getting to this level involves lots of study, dedication and training in the culinary arts. If you have a passion for food and a knack for cooking with a bit of creative flair, then you could become an apprentice chef and begin working your way to the top of the food chain. But be warned – cooking for fun and cooking for a living can be two completely different kettles of fish. Find out what you need to do to become the next MasterChef extraordinaire and get paid for it!
What makes a chef?
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.
TAFE courses and culinary school – the apprentice chef
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. Courses that are a good starting point include the Certificate II in Kitchen Operations or the Certificate III in Commercial Cookery which will familiarise you with how a commercial kitchen runs, help you develop basic culinary skills, and get you across all-important WHS protocols.
In Australia, it generally take four years to complete your training and make the transition from apprentice to fully qualified 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 learn new techniques and styles of cooking, further develop your repertoire, and learn from a range of different mentors. To qualify to begin your apprenticeship you need to have completed Year 10. 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.
Pastry, personal, executive – what type of chef could you be?
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. As an apprentice chef you will have a lot to learn so 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.
When it comes to specialities, you can study a Certificate III in Patisserie focus on desserts and become a pastry chef, or complete a Certificate III in Retail Baking (Combined) course and become a baker. Both professions fall under the the 2015 National Skills Needs List, meaning that if you decide to pursue work as a baker or pastry chef, you could be eligible to receive additional support from the government.
Aprons, knives and puffy hats – the tools of a chef
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!
Job vacancies, employment prospects and salaries – will I get a job as a chef?
According to the government’s Job Outlook data, the job prospects for chefs are high with an expected 50,000 more jobs to be created in Australia from 2014 – 2019. There are currently over 89,000 chefs employed across Australia in many industries including accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, manufacturing and retail trade. Compared to other occupations, chefs are paid slightly below the average weekly wage of $1,152, taking home approximately $950 a week. On the bright side, those looking to start their career in the profession as it is predicted to experience strong employment growth as the industry continues to expand.
Artwork on a plate – can you handle the heat?
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, 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, you must possess high standards and demonstrate leadership skills and decision-making 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!
Keen to launch your culinary career and become a chef wunderkind? Check out our range of on-campus and online hospitality courses!
This article first appeared on Career FAQs.