Sous chef is perhaps the most misunderstood position within the kitchen hierarchy. To those looking in on the industry the use of French words, and the various opinions on exactly what each role entails, can be confusing to say the least.
With that in mind, this article draws together everything we need to know about Sous chefs, including what a Sous chef is, a Sous chef’s role within the kitchen and how long it takes to become a Sous chef.
I worked for several years as a sous chef in a busy hotel kitchen. This article is as a result of my up and down experiences in this challenging position!
A Sous Chef is the second in command of the kitchen. They work closely alongside the Head Chef to ensure that the day to day running is as smooth as possible. In the Head Chef’s absence, it is the Sous Chef who takes control of the kitchen.
The word ‘Sous” translates from French to ‘under’. This makes a lot more sense when we discover that the Sous chef is second in command, the Sous chef is ‘under’ the Head chef.
Often, people mistakenly believe that Sous chef means, soup chef or sauce chef, this is not the case and any sous chef will be quick to correct them!
Now we can take a look at what this role involves on a day to day basis.
What Is The Role Of A Sous Chef?
This can vary significantly depending on the type of head chef they are working under. Some head chefs take a very hands-on approach, whilst others take more of an administrative back seat approach.
The role of a Sous chef is to support the Head chef in the day to day running of the kitchen. This is similar to the way an assistant manager supports the manager in other types of businesses.
The head chef will write the menus and then communicate their ideas with the sous chef. The sous chef is then responsible for putting these ideas into reality, and communicating with the section leaders (the Chef De Parties).
Sous chefs are in the kitchen working alongside the rest of the brigade. During a lunch or dinner service they will be on the stoves cooking, and due to their senior position they will often take the higher pressure sections, such as meat or fish.
This ‘on the ground approach’ makes them very well respected by the rest of the brigade. In fact we often see instances where the sous chef gains more respect form the others than the head chef!
Not an ideal situation for the whole team, but an issue that does appear non the less.
As sous chefs are in the kitchen, pepping and cooking everyday, they are a large part of the camaraderie that exists within the brigade.
If I may use an armed forces analogy; if the head chef is an officer that gives the orders, a sous chef is the sergeant on the ground that ensures these orders are carried out.
Sous chefs can have a fearsome reputation. In many kitchens it is the sous chefs who shout and issue the orders, if things aren’t going to plan. This frees the head chef up to communicate with the front of house staff and concentrate on plating up.
Many restaurants are open 7 days a week and rely on a rota system for their staff. In these cases, on the two days off a week which the head chef has, the sous chef will take responsibility and be the acting head chef for those two days.
Due to how closely the sous and head chef must work together it is vital that they get on well, and have the same vision for the cuisine. We often see instances that when a head chef moves to a new restaurant they will take the sous chef with them.
Great partnerships can be formed and the correct head chef can be a valuable mentor to a sous chef that’s looking to make the next step up the career ladder.
In terms of the type of prep or cooking work that they do, a sous chef will often take the more important jobs. For example, if there are fillets of beef to prep the sous will often do these, you will not find them on the veg section peeling potatoes!
The sous chef is also a point of call for the other chefs. When they need guidance on how a dish should be cooked they will speak to them to get some direction.
Sous chefs can also act like the captain of a football team; they provide feedback from the brigade to the head chef. If there are issues with the brigade as a whole, the sous chef will be the diplomatic link between the head chef and the rest of the team.
Is There Only Ever One Sous Chef?
As we can see from the role outlined above, the many tasks a sous chef has to perform are vast and therefor some kitchens need more than one sous chef.
Larger kitchens will often employ several Sous Chefs to help share the work load. In these instances, roles such as Senior Sous Chef, and Junior Sous chef are often created.
Promotion to positions such as Junior Sous chef are a great way to reward Chef de Parties which are doing a great job and that we don’t want to lose to another kitchen. This is especially useful if the sous chef isn’t going anywhere for a while and we want to keep the Chef de Partie motivated.
There really is no limit to the number of sous chefs we can have in our kitchen, but ultimately it is decided on by size of the brigade and available talent.
When there are multiple positions, a senior sous chef is selected so everyone knows who is ultimately in charge in the head chef’s absence!
As we can see the position of sous chef is high up the hierarchy and achieving this position does not happen overnight.
How Long Does It Take To Become A Sous Chef?
A wide range of experience is needed to be able to perform the task of being head chef’s second in command, therefor the time it takes ultimately depends on the level of cuisine being served.
To become a Sous chef takes around 5 years in a reasonable catering environment. This allows for 2 years as a Commis Chef and then 3 years as a Chef De Partie, in preparation for the role. The standard of cuisine being produced will have the greatest impact on this time scale.
The standard of cuisine is so important to the time taken. The higher the standard, the longer it is going to take to learn our craft.
- If we are a commis chef, and then a chef de partie at a Michelin star restaurant, it is very reasonable that we could become a sous chef at a non-Michelin star restaurant in a relatively short time frame.
- In contrast, if we aspire to be a sous chef at a three Michelin star restaurant, this is obviously going to require far more talent, hard work and experience, therefor the time scale will be much longer!
We often find chefs have to take a step down the cuisine ladder in order to get a chance to prove themselves as a sous chef before stepping back up.
In a similar way to a football player having to go on loan to a lower league club in order to gain match experience before stepping back up again.
Many chefs hope to get to the level of sous chef as quickly as possible because they believe this is where the pay starts to noticeably increase.
How Much Do Sous Chefs Earn?
Once again the standard of the cuisine plays a huge factor in the wages a sous chef is going to be able to command; however as a rough guide I did some research.
The average wage for a Sous chef in the UK is £27,650. However, there are lots of other factors to take into consideration such as tips and staff accommodation.
I wrote a whole article where I discuss the wages of the various chef roles in detail, which I will link to here.
The wage increase from Chef De Partie level certainly helps, but this is not always the driving factor for a hungry chef wanting to become a sous chef.
Is A Sous Chef Well Respected?
As touched on earlier, sous chef is a big step up the ladder. We are no longer one of the many chefs which are running sections we are now the second in command of the entire kitchen.
The sous chef is very well respected, so much so that they sometimes get more respect from the brigade than the head chef does. The sous chef is in the trenches with the rest of the chefs and is often looked up to.
Some head chefs take a more back seat approach from the day to day kitchen running.
With the business side of the restaurant to take care of, such as meeting with suppliers, stock inventory, writing menus and keeping an eye on profit and loss, these can take up an awful lot of a head chef’s time.
We then can have a situation where a head chef has to spend a large portion of their day outside of the kitchen.
This can sometimes lead to feelings of frustration from the other chefs. Like all work places it is a classic feeling of ‘what is he doing in the office all day’ even though in most cases this feeling is highly unfair.
In these instances the sous chef becomes the acting head chef. They are the one alongside the rest of the team, working through their breaks and finishing late, ensuring that all the dishes are produced on time and to a high standard.
Some may argue that sous chef is in fact the best position in the kitchen. In this position we get to cook all day, only have one superior above us and do not have to overly concern ourselves with the paperwork side of the kitchen.
Sous chef position is also one of the first times that a chef can have a real impact on the cuisine being produced. Of course the head chef has the final say, but the sous will help create the menu and bring plenty of ideas to the table.
To Sum Up
Overall, the main reason the position of sous chef is so sought after is that it represents we are only one step away from our dream of becoming a head chef. This role is a vital stepping stone that if done correctly will set us up for a very successful career.
A great sous chef and head chef team are unstoppable. It is a relationship they both hugely benefit from.
The sous chef has the head chef as a mentor to show them all the necessary skills beyond cooking that they will need when they make the step up to head chef.
The head chef gets a great support in the kitchen, that can take the day to day burden from their shoulders and ensure the general smooth running.