There’s a certain mystique towards the world of being a chef that draws people from all walks of life and at any age. It’s true that the majority of chefs start out at a young age, but what’s it like for those that start out later in life?
We may be frustrated in our current desk job and that dream of working in kitchens, getting the chance to be creative is constantly niggling at us.
However, we may be worried that we’ve missed the boat. Is starting a challenging career like being a chef at 30 years old, or even later, too late?
This article aims to take an honest look at the specific challenges faced by older entrants into the trade to help them make the decision whether to follow their passion full time or leave it as a great hobby.
Becoming a chef after 30 is absolutely possible. There are no specific age limits for starting a culinary career and many people choose to enter the profession late in life. However, the learning curve can be very steep as being a chef is not comparable to any other job role.
As readers can see, we can technically become a chef at any age. It is never too late to go to culinary school and start a new career path. Particularly in these modern times the idea of a ‘job for life’ is largely gone and it’s socially acceptable to have many different jobs throughout a person’s lifetime.
I would guess though that most people knew there was no technical age limit. Readers coming here would like to know what it’s actually like to start a chef career later in life, and will they be welcomed into the kitchen?
We will start by looking at the two main issues to be aware of. This is not designed to put people off, but to give a fair insight into the main challenges we will face as late starters.
Then the rest of this article will focus on the best way to go about starting a chef career later on in life. There are a few routes available and some will prove smoother than others. I’ll point out quickly that there is no need to rush out and buy expensive knives! I’ll link to my favourite budget-friendly Victorinox knives here (opens Amazon in new tab)
Get Familiar With The Industry
Anyone looking to become a chef later on in life should familiarise themselves with the catering industry as much as possible. The working conditions are unique and it’s important to be fully prepared for the leap they are considering.
We need to take some time to learn about the working hours, the shift rotations and the days off we are likely to have. The more info we can get the better. This site has lots of great info and I always try to be as balanced as possible and present a fair unbiased view. There are also lots of forums out there where information can be found.
It can be really hard to get the full picture of an industry looking in from the outside. Therefore, connecting with any chefs you may know is a great way to learn. Alternatively, next time we go to a restaurant we can ask to speak to the chef and have a five minute chat.
Sundays are good days to try and speak to chefs. There is a more relaxed atmosphere in the kitchen, and the staff are more likely to have the time, and energy to talk.
However, we go about it, getting a clear idea of the working conditions is vital. If we’ve had a ‘normal’ job and are used to having weekends and evenings off, giving these up may present the biggest challenge.
Working unsociable hours is required by all chefs at all levels. It’s not the kind of job where we put in loads of work for a few years and then reap the rewards later down the road. The long, unsociable hours are a constant throughout our careers.
Attempting to have hobbies outside of work can be very difficult as a chef. Mainly due to the fact we never know which days of we are going to have. Anyone considering a career should be aware that the football club they play for, or that Sunday BBQ tradition with friends, will have to go.
If the hours are not a problem, then what we get in return is a good group of work friends that we see on a regular basis outside of work. Finish a busy shift late on a Saturday; it’s out for a few drinks with everyone!
These long days lead us on to the next important point which is physical stamina.
Be Physically Fit
A chef needs to be physically fit due to the various demands of the job. They will often be on their feet for long hours in the day and the alternating shift patterns can play havoc with sleep routines.
Many people starting their catering careers will be younger. As many of us know a huge advantage of youth is the boundless energy you seem to have!
When I started working in kitchens at around sixteen, working long days and then seeing friends in the evenings was all part of the appeal. A kind of work hard, play hard mentality.
Unfortunately as we get older, many of us discover we do not have the same energy that we once had. I left the catering trade at 26 and was already beginning to find I didn’t have the stamina to cope with the lifestyle that I used to.
In my opinion, anyone starting a chef career later in life needs to be aware that they won’t have the stamina to be able to burn the candle at both ends as their fellow Commis chefs will. Whilst this may not be a problem for some, in other kitchens, it may place them on the fringes of the group, as they don’t partake in as many after-work get-togethers etc.
On the other side of the argument, an advantage of being a late starter is that with some age comes experience. Far less time is spent worrying about every little detail and getting too worked up overwork. This will be an advantage compared with other beginners who maybe take comments and bad days to heart.
That’s the main issues to be aware of. Now we can look at how to overcome some of these disadvantages.
What Type Of Restaurant Kitchen Is Best For Older chefs
Older chefs may find that starting their career in a smaller kitchen brigade is a lot more beneficial. Kitchens of 5 chefs or less will usually provide a lot more support to the newcomers and there is less of a boisterous atmosphere.
Larger kitchens, in higher-end restaurants, may consist of 10 or more Commis chefs. There is a lot of competition among the chefs as everyone is looking to prove themselves and move up the section ladder.
This competition can lead to an aggressive work environment that is probably best described as boisterous. An older chef is less likely to have the patience for this kind of horseplay.
Smaller kitchens make it easier to be part of the whole team. The Head chef is likely to have a lot more time to teach. New chefs are also given greater responsibility early on, as there are less higher qualified chefs to take all the best jobs!
To illustrate my point, I once witnessed in a large kitchen a new commis chef take a whole morning picking stalks from spinach leaves. In a smaller kitchen this type of work wouldn’t get done (and therefor not given to a newcomer) as there simply isn’t time.
A commis is much more likely to be given responsibilities such as cooking during service as they are more valuable in a smaller kitchen.
The other advantage of a smaller brigade is that although you are the bottom-ranked chef, you are only the bottom of say 5 others. Being the lowest-ranked chef in a kitchen of 30 people can be rough. I’m not sure how many over 30s would have the patience for some of the tasks they will be given.
Should Older Chefs Go To College First
Someone looking to change careers may consider doing a part-time catering course. This can be a great introduction to the world of professional cookery and gives the student time to decide if they want to make the career switch, whilst maintaining the financial safety of their current role.
Studying catering part-time will give a person a sense of the industry they are considering entering. However, this does have its limitations and it is important to combine this with experience in a real kitchen. We can also learn a lot about kitchen life through chef autobiographies, my favourite is still Gordon Ramsay’s linked to on Amazon here
An advantage of learning this way is that the lecturers have time to teach. They are patient and willing to take their time demonstrating the correct way to do things, something which not all chefs in the real world are prepared to do!
A catering qualification is a help but not a pre-requisite for getting a job in a kitchen. It will teach the basics but does not fully prepare for the real-world experience (in the same way all education establishments can never truly prepare students for what the job will be like)
The biggest pitfall to be aware of here is the unrealistic number of chefs to diners. The evening service that colleges do, to the paying customers (usually supportive parents or fellow teachers), is a far more laid back affair than will ever be found in a real kitchen.
This is great for a gentle introduction into the flow of a service and helps students build confidence.
Taking an online food hygiene course can be beneficial to put on our C.Vs. They are recognised in the industry, and it shows we are serious about beginning a chef career. The one I recommend I will link here as it is by the recognised training body.
Take A Part Time Kitchen Job
Taking a part-time job in a kitchen may be the best way to get a real feel for how a kitchen operates, without having to go all-in and quit our current day job. Saturdays are the busiest day to be a chef, so many kitchens would gladly have a helping hand and are usually willing to pay a small amount as well.
If a reader is now thinking, but I don’t want to give up my Saturday off! That may be an indication that a chef career may not be the best fit for them. Saying goodbye to a partner on a sunny Saturday to go to work is all part of the job; unfortunately.
This is my number one piece of advice when anyone talks to me about wanting to start a chef career, at any age of life; take a part-time job to see if you enjoy it!
I try to give as fair a description of the trade on this site as possible but there really is no substitute for real-world experience.
Some people find they enter a kitchen and are immediately hooked. The adrenaline and the team atmosphere is great and they can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
Others enter a kitchen and realise pretty quickly it is not for them. From personal experience, many beginner chefs that enter having spent two years in culinary school leave the trade again pretty quickly as it was not the way they had envisioned it. A lesson that could have been learnt a lot earlier on.
Spending some time working in a kitchen and gaining experience gives us a great insight into if the career is the correct fit for us. Quitting our day jobs and going all-in on a new kitchen career may sound exotic but the reality can be quite different.
There is no reason what so ever why an older person cannot begin a very successful chef career. Take the leap and work a few days in a kitchen to gain experience. If we then decide it’s not for us, at least we’ve had a great experience and collected a few new stories to tell!