A Brief Look Back On My Chef Career

Is being a chef worth it? Anyone wanting to become a chef will be pondering this question. On the face of it the rewards seem high.

Team atmosphere, the chance to be creative and the possibility (all be it slight) that we may become famous draws aspiring chefs from all walks of life.

But what about the downsides to being a chef? It’s no secret that it is a career that demands hard work, unsociable long working hours and the odd verbal bashing from the head chef. When everything gets weighed up, is being a chef worth it?

This article is a frank and in depth view based on my 10 year career in the catering industry. During that time I had many highs as well as some extreme lows. By sharing my personal experience I hope it can help others to decide if a career as a chef is the right one for them.

My own experience of catering (spanning almost a decade) leads me to conclude that being chef is worth it. The camaraderie, creativity and pride of being a chef outweighs the negatives. However, as I got older I found the sacrifices got harder to make.

As I’m sure readers where expecting, there is no black and white answer. By sharing my own unique career experiences in an honest and frank way, I hope others can decide for themselves if it is a career they wish to begin, stick with, or avoid.

The Good Parts I Experienced As A Chef

For me the best part of my chef career was when I was young and new. Kitchens attract lots of hungry young chefs looking to stamp their individual mark on the world of gastronomy.

Those chefs with drive and passion find themselves in an environment that highly rewards strong work ethic, creativity and an ability to work well as a team.

It is perhaps the team atmosphere that most drew me towards a career as a chef. When a service is in full flow and the pressure is building, the way in which all the chefs (in my case up to 20 at a time) work together is a great feeling.

The feeling that comes from being part of a team should not be underestimated. It is a vital point as to why chefs are able to endure long working hours and conditions that would be unheard of in other sections of society.

Team atmosphere is not only present in the kitchen but outside of it as well. Once you have proven yourself a reliable member of the team we are welcomed into the fold.

I remember as a commis chef really enjoying the rounds of golf, coffees and even swimming pool excursions we would all embark upon on our split shift breaks.

The night life also plays a huge part. After work we would all get changed and head out for a few drinks and some good laughs. Many a relationship has been formed between chefs and front of house staff on a night out!

When young, this kind of atmosphere is quite intoxicating. Everyone, but especially the younger generation, are looking for a place to belong and a career as a chef provides this by the bucket load.

The people we work with become our friends and we spend so much time together, both at work and outside of work, that there can be a real us-against-them bond formed between chefs and outsiders.

This feeling of belonging is not exclusive to the chefs we work directly with but extends to the wider catering community. 

Being a chef is such a transient trade that before we know it we know chefs and front of house staff that work in pubs and restaurants all over the city. Trade discount is often given by other restaurants as a nice little perk!

I Got To Cook Every Day

It is not just the feeling of belonging. Anyone who loves food and cooking will be able to understand the happiness that comes form being able to do it every single day.

When beginning my career I felt like I was achieving goals on a daily basis. Every day there was something new to learn. As soon as I felt settled or like I had a good grip on the situation, the menu would change, or I would be moved section, and tasked with learning new skills all over again. 

If you enjoy food, the opportunity to create great dishes and experience the best cuisine, doing this for your career becomes a great source of joy.

I have had the opportunity to try a huge selection of 2 Michelin star cuisine whilst doing a trial shift in Micheal Caine’s kitchen. Where else would a person get to experience food at this level completely fro free!?

The world of high class cuisine is opened up to those who would simply not be able to afford it otherwise. Becoming a chef makes it your job to go out and experience great food, what a great excuse to eat the finest cuisine!

Great For The Ambitious

The third main reason I loved being a chef was the endless opportunity for progression. For those willing to push and take control of their own career, there really is no stopping them.

The route to head chef is very clear, with the clearly defined rank structure (see our article kitchen hierarchy explained, linked here)Opens in a new tab.

Getting promoted to chef de partie after spending two years as a commis chef was a special day for me. It was a clear sign that I was now a professional chef. Like all chefs, it wasn’t long until I had my eye on the Sous chef position and knew exactly what I needed to do to get there.

When it became clear that a Sous chef position was not going to become available in the kitchen I was working in, I looked around and quickly found a suitable position to move to at another hotel.

This is one of the great advantages; there are so many chef jobs, and so much movement within the industry, that opportunities are everywhere.

A chef will not find themselves stuck in a position waiting for opportunities as people in other professions may!

So these are the main points that I found to be great. I talked a lot about the early part of my career as this is the part where I was most keen and willing to focus solely on the advantages of the job.

As I progressed into the second half of my career, the negatives and niggles began to play more of a part. All the sacrifices I had been making for such a long time started to weigh down on me and began to take a toll both professionally and in personal life.

This next section will be a look at the more disadvantageous parts of being a chef. 

As always my aim is to be honest and present a balanced view so others can make an informed decision!

The Negative Aspects Of My Chef Career

From my personal experience, by far the biggest negative to being a chef was the working hours. Both in terms of the number of hours worked each week, and the unsociable times in which those hours are worked. 

At the start of my career the long hours and weekend / holiday working was a disadvantage I was willing to overlook.

However, as I progressed and got older the realisation that I was missing out on so much life outside of work began to take a real toll.

I personally missed so many birthday parties, wedding events, bank holiday weekends, holidays with mates, you name it and I missed it!

I spoke at length about the camaraderie and friendship to being a chef. However, the downside to this is that friendships and relationships outside of catering take a back seat.

For years I neglected friendships due to working hours to the point where people stopped inviting me as they knew my response would be, “sorry I can’t – I’m working.”

Of course, some chefs burn the candle at both ends and work hard to maintain their relationships outside of work, but in my opinion relationships outside of catering sliding away is a pattern we see a lot of within the industry.

I do not know of many happily married older chefs that are still working in the kitchen on a daily basis. Ultimately the time comes when partners are no longer willing to have no one to go to events with etc, and the ultimatum is given.

Christmas and other public holidays are worked, usually for no additional money. Depending on your personal circumstances, this could be a blessing or a curse!

For me, I found working Xmas, Boxing day, Easter etc really tough. Although there is a great atmosphere at work, there was always the nagging guilt of leaving loved ones behind at home.

I Found Chef Wages To Be Poor

I touched on it briefly earlier and I will expand on it now. The second biggest negative to being a chef I found are the wages.

The salary is not terrible (see our article how much do chefs earn, linked here)Opens in a new tab. However, when we take it as an hourly wage, based on the actual number of hours worked, the salary is very poor compared to other careers.

A skilled career such as cheffing, that requires an awful lot of hard work should pay a high wage. Unfortunately for chefs this generally not the case.

There are some exceptions. I have chef friends who manage to find work that pays a high hourly wage. Couple this with the high number of hours worked each week and the wages can add up to be quite substantial.

This hourly arrangement seems to be the exception and not the rule, although the situation does seem to be improving. More kitchens are recognising the need to compensate their staff hourly. 

In my career, apart for at the very end, I was always on salary. This meant that no matter how many hours I worked in a week, I was always paid the same wage.

I had a horrible realisation when as a chef de partie I worked out my hourly rate to be less than minimum wage! (Monthly salary divided by actual number of hours worked that month)

Now I am older I often joke that if I had been paid for all the hours I worked as a chef I would be retired by now!

Whilst money is not the be-all-and-end-all it is an important part of having an overall happy life. Sometimes I felt being poorly paid meant I wasn’t valued and the hard work I was putting in was perhaps being taken for granted.

I Never Got A Company Car As A Chef!

The third and final big negative I found to being a chef was the lack of what I would call traditional job benefits.

Whilst my friends who where off doing ‘normal jobs’ where getting company vehicles, good pension plans and extra holiday days. As a chef I was receiving none of these!

Again in the early days this wasn’t a problem; I loved the kitchen atmosphere so much I felt, that in fact, it was those friends who where missing out.

However, as I got older and started to realise more and more the benefits that people enjoy in other careers, it became harder to ignore this aspect of chef life.

Seeing friends who worked less hours but also enjoyed weekends off and greater disposable income contributed to my decision to move on from my chef career.

To Sum Up – Is Being A Chef Worth It?

I have tried to present my opinion of my own chef career as honestly as possible in an attempt to answer this question. Obviously everyone is different and being a chef can take different avenues.

If I where to start my career again I would try and do things differently, such as use my cooking skills to travel more, or possibly open my own catering vehicle.

Overall, my opinion is that being a chef is worth it! I had some great experiences, the confidence and life skills it taught me will never be forgotten and I am still close friends with some of my original kitchen colleagues today.

Perhaps the main reason I believe being a chef is worth it is that I am a big believer in the idea that ‘it is better to regret something you try than to regret not trying’

Anyone out-there considering a career may be better giving it a go and finding out for themselves if they like it or not?

The era of choosing a career path and sticking to it forever is gone. Working as a chef and then changing careers later on if you desire is a perfectly acceptable career decision to make. If you have a desire to become a chef than what do you have to loose by giving it a go??

Dave Nicholas

Having spent around 10 years working as a qualified chef in high end restaurants, my mission is to use this experience to help others as they begin their career in catering!

Recent Posts