Perhaps the most important question facing anyone looking to begin a career as a chef is, what is a commis chef? It’s vital that we understand the commis chef role, as this is the position which all new kitchen recruits will have to begin at.
I worked as a commis chef for several years whilst starting out and this has given me real life taste for the challenges faced by those beginning their own chef journey!
We’ll take a look at the range of tasks a commis chef will be given within a kitchen, and some tips for how to progress as quickly as possible!
A Commis chef is the beginner chef within a kitchen brigade. This is a starting position that all chefs, regardless of whether they have a qualification or not, must undertake in order to learn the basics and gain experience.
This is a video from our Youtube channel explaining all you need to know
Starting roles within kitchen brigades can be a little tricky to navigate as they are often given slightly different names, so we will look at how to tell the subtle differences between the various definitions.
What is the Role of a Commis Chef?
The role of a Commis chef is to assist the chef de partie, by carrying out any cooking or food preparation tasks necessary. Commis chefs are also expected to learn and gain experience, so they can begin to work independently.
As this is a beginner position, the role of a commis chef can be very varied and it is important we have a flexible and keen to attitude towards learning.
To explain this further we need to quickly touch on the fact that kitchens are broken down into sections. These sections are usually along the lines of veg, meat, fish, larder, pastry etc
In charge of each section will be a chef de partie. On each section in order to help the chef de partie will be one or more commis chefs.
Smaller kitchens may not follow this exact system, or the sections will be less clearly defined, but the premise is still the same; the commis chef is there to help with any perpetration and cooking tasks given to them by any of the other chefs
A commis chef will report to, and assist, the sous chef or head chef if required, but on a day to day basis it is the chef de partie who is their immediate supervisor.
What Type of Jobs Will a Commis Chef be Given?
During the preparation part of the day a commis chef may be given tasks which include:
- Peeling and chopping vegetables
- Filleting fish
- Trimming and preparing meat
- Preparing dishes such as mash potato, risotto, braised vegetables
- Cooking any children’s meals or sandwich orders which come in
The section that a commis chef is placed on will have the greatest impact on the type of work they are given.
Most newcomers will be placed on the veg section for 2 main reasons:
- It is a very busy section with a lot of labour intensive work, such as battening bags of carrots. This is great for learning knife skills.
- The cost of the produce are relatively cheap. If we make a mistake and cut the potatoes the wrong way, it is not the end of the world, they can be turned into mash and we start the process again. On the other hand if we were to make a mistake trimming a fillet steak this can be very costly.
Whilst the veg section is a great place to start and gain the knife skills (and speed) necessary for our chef career, it can be a difficult section to be on.
It is very busy due to the volume of work that needs to be done and can also be a little tricky to stay motivated.
When people dream of becoming a chef they have an idea of being on the stoves during service cooking all sorts of great dishes. When they find themselves peeling and chopping potatoes for hours it can be a bit disheartening.
However! We must remember that this is where every chef starts and the skills being gained here are vital to progress. It’s important we work to the best of our ability and prove we are destined to progress!
As we progress we shall be moved around the kitchen to different sections where we again get to learn huge amounts.
The chef will always take time to show a commis how to do something, then via the process of repetition, they learn and become a better all round chef.
As an example if we are placed on the fish section we may be given the accompanying sauces to make, the side dishes to create, or filleting and deboning the fish.
These type of tasks are more interesting than chopping the veg and we begin to feel like we are on our way to being a qualified chef!
Are Commis Chefs Qualified?
The word commis can cause confusion for some people as there is no definitive answer, it really depends on what the kitchen is looking for.
A Commis chef can be a person who has been to college to achieve a culinary qualification, and is now gaining the required experience in a real life kitchen. Commis chef can also refer to someone who is working in a kitchen full time whilst doing a qualification in their spare time.
We can see where the confusion comes; a commis chef can be qualified – but they don’t have to be!
If a potential chef chooses to go to college full time for a year or two to study catering, they will still have to start at the commis chef level!
No matter the qualification we receive, if we would like to be a chef we must start at commis chef level to gain experience in a real life kitchen.
The main reason everyone must start at this level is that nothing can really prepare someone for what an actual kitchen is like to work in. Colleges and online courses do a good job of preparing students, but as with all jobs there is no match for real world experience!
So now readers may be wandering how we know which jobs to apply for if commis can mean qualified or unqualified? With this in mind I’ll break down the different names that these beginner roles fall under.
What are the Names Given to Beginner Chefs?
When applying for our first chef job it can be a little confusing knowing what all the different roles mean.
Beginner chefs are often referred to as, apprentice chef, trainee chef, trainee commis chef, or commis chef. There are a few subtle differences between the options which we should be aware of.
- Apprentice chef describes a person who is working in a kitchen full time whilst also completing a cooking qualification alongside. This is achieved by completing the qualification in their own time, or by being allowed time off from work to attend college.
- Trainee chef, trainee commis chef and commis chef all mean a person who is a beginner and looking to gain experience in a kitchen. They may or may not be already qualified and it is up to each individual employer to stipulate the kind of candidate they require.
One employer may view a trainee commis as someone who has a qualification but no experience. Another employer may view someone with a qualification but no experience as a commis.
The only real way to determine what a potential employer is looking for is by reading the job description. The good news is this opens up a whole range of different search terms we should be looking for!
As a personal example I was unqualified when I applied for a Commis chef role. After an interview with the head chef, he agreed to take me on as a commis chef. I was then allowed to complete my qualification alongside working in his kitchen, via visits from an NVQ assessor and studying in my own time.
There really are so many opportunities for beginner chefs, we just need to make sure we are reading the job description and applying. For example: If you don’t have any experience, and the commis chef advert doesn’t specify they want experience, then apply!
How Much do Commis Chefs Get Paid?
The type of cuisine being produced has a large effect on the wages, as does the size of the kitchen brigade and the level of experience a commis chef has.
More experienced commis chefs are likely to be able to command higher wages. There is also the subject of tips and staff accommodation to factor in.
I wrote a whole article in which I researched average chefs wages across the UK for all positions which can be found here.
To Sum Up
As we can see, the role of the commis chef within a kitchen is hugely varied. The level of Commis chef can be a difficult place to be as we are the lowest ranked member of the team and are sometimes given tasks which are less than exciting.
However, by persevering and working hard we will quickly gain respect (see how to gain kitchen respect article here) and we will be welcomed into the team.
Despite public perception and media portrayals, kitchens are often incredibly fun places to work with warm and friendly people. As a commis we get to experience real kitchen life for the firsts time, all chefs will look back fondly on their time in this role, even if possibly through rose tinted glasses!