A Day In The Life Of A Chef
Some would have you believe chefs spend all day strolling around the market picking the freshest vegetables. Others believe that a chef’s day consists of heat, stress, and being verbally abused by the Head Chef.
This article uses my experience in kitchens to demonstrate a typical day as a chef so readers can gain the inside line on what really goes on in a professional kitchen.
We will look at the full day in detail below. However, if you just came for the quick answer;
A typical day for a chef begins with serving breakfast for the guests, then moving on to preparing dishes for the lunch and dinner service. After lunch is out the way, we will typically take a break of 2-3 hours, before returning for the dinner rush.
|7am – 10am||Cook and serve breakfasts for the guests.|
|10am – 12pm||Prepare the food for the lunch and evening services.|
|12pm – 2pm||Lunch service, whilst also continuing to prepare for the evening guests|
|2pm – 5pm||Break|
|5pm – 7pm||Return to work and set up the kitchen ready for the dinner guests. Do any final prep work|
|7pm – 10.30pm||Dinner service|
|10.30pm – 11pm||Clean down knives and kitchen before finishing for the day|
So that’s the break down of how a chef spends a typical day day!
There are lots of levels of chef (see our article, kitchen hierarchy explained, here). Each chefs duties will be slightly different depending on the role or ‘rank’ within the kitchen.
When we say a typical chef, for the purposes of this article, we shall use a Chef de Partie (qualified chef who has some responsibility) working in an average size brigade (5-10 chefs) in a hotel restaurant.
We feel that this will give the basic guide that most readers are looking for!
What Does A Chef Do During A Breakfast Shift?
A Chef will begin their breakfast shift at around 7 o’clock (possibly earlier if the hotel has a lot of guests who are staying there on business). The first thing they must do is turn on all the ovens, hobs and fryers that they need.
Fingers crossed they have prepared some of the food the evening before, such as cutting up the mushrooms and tomatoes. This makes for an easier start to the day. The main aim of breakfast service is that it goes as smoothly as possible to set you up well for the day.
In a small hotel, the breakfasts will be cooked to order, whereas in a larger one it may be a buffet style.
The breakfast chef will also often be responsible for getting the bread started so that it has time to prove and be baked before the split shift break.
It’s fair to say that most chefs consider the breakfast shift more of a chore than something they look forward to. The various chefs will do it on a rota system, with only one or two needed each morning to do the service.
Any spare time is spent getting on with the prep work that is needed for the day. After the breakfast service is finished (usually around 10am). The chef will clean down and move onto the preparation part of the day.
What Do Chefs Do In The Morning?
Around 9 or 10am, the chef on the breakfast shift is joined by the other chefs who have come into work. They are not there to help with the breakfast service though! Unless the breakfast chef is having a real nightmare and they have to ask their friends nicely to help them!
Our example chef cleans down the work area, packs away all the breakfast prep, and sets themselves up for the main part of the day.
A chef will look at the menu that the Head Chef has prepared and note down any parts of the menu that their section is responsible for. Chances are they have had input into the menu so this is not a complete surprise in the morning.
From around 10am to 12pm is the time when a chef is most productive at being able to prepare the food for the evening menu. For example, if a chef is on the fish section, they may spend this time filleting the fish that have arrived that morning.
As an example using this dish: Pan Seared Fillet of Sea Bass, topped with a lemon sole mouse, served with sautéed potatoes and spinach.
As a chef on the fish section, I would know that I need to fillet the sea bass, and prepare the lemon sole mouse. The Potato and spinach prep will be done by the veg section and not something I need to be concerned about
There is quite a relaxed chatty mood to this time in the morning, as everyone is feeling refreshed and there is no pressure at this stage (unless they have a lot of prep to do, in which case it is head down and work as fast as you can!)
This calm prep time is often rudely interrupted by the start of the lunch service!
What Do Chefs Do During Lunch Service?
Lunch service is usually not as busy as evening service but can be difficult to juggle non the less. A chef must deal with any orders that require their attention whilst simultaneously still carrying on with their prep work for the evening menu.
The kitchen will be set up with the Head Chef taking position at the Pass, but service is conducted in a much more relaxed manor. However, if the lunch service is busy it can catch everyone by surprise!
This is where pressure can begin to show! Cooking the lunch menu is usually straight forward consisting of simple dishes. However, if a chef is getting a lot of lunch orders coming in, that they need to cook, this obviously takes them away from the prep work they are trying to do for that evening.
The result is that it can get to the end of lunch service (around 2pm) and the chef not only has to clear down from the busy lunch, but they find they still have lots of prep work that needs to be done before the evening service begins!
Situations like this happen regularly. These are the reasons why chefs are known for working long hours. Faced with this situation the chef has two choices;
- Option 1: They can leave for their break at 2pm as planned and hope that they can get the work done when they come back in the evening.
- Option 2: They can work later into their break time (or miss their break altogether) in order to get it all done and know they are prepared for evening service.
It is a brave chef who chooses option 1! If they are not able to get all the prep work done before service starts they are in for a very tough service indeed!
Not having enough food prepared is the single biggest reason why a chef would have a very busy and stressful service. They are trying to cook dishes whilst also prepping at the same time.
From our example earlier, imagine it’s a busy service and half way through the chef realises they haven’t got enough sea bass filleted. They have to start trying to fillet them whilst cooking for the service. Almost impossible!
A chef will only choose option 1 a few times before they realise, or the Head Chef points out, what a bad idea it is.
Thankfully in our example, our chef has had an easy lunch service and got all their prep work done for the day. This means they can leave the kitchen at 2pm to go on their break.
What Do Chefs Do On Their Break?
The split shift break time is a great time for chefs to bond and is a large part of the camaraderie that exists within the team. Chefs will typically go for coffee, play computer games or even go for a quick round of golf if the weather allows.
It can be difficult for some chefs (particularly newer ones) to mentally switch off during break time. It is tempting to run through the various tasks that need doing, and play out in your mind what could go wrong. This is similar to many careers, where a lunch break can be spent running through all the tasks in your mind.
Most chefs find as they get more experienced, they worry less about the evening service and the midday break is a great chance to unwind.
Some choose to sleep during this break but I have always found myself a little too cranky when I wake up!
Around 5pm, it is time to return to the kitchen to get set up for the evening service.
What Does A Chef Do During Dinner Service?
When arriving back in the kitchen at around 5pm, a chef will start to get everything ready before the dinner service starts. This involves getting the food they have prepared earlier into easy to reach places, laying out their knives and chopping boards, and stock piling any pans they may need.
There can be a bit of a rush to get the pans required. The quickest chefs tend to get the most non-stick ones! A Commis may find they secure a great non-stick pan, until another chef pulls rank on them and they have to give it up!
Around 7pm the diner service starts. This is the busiest part of the day and what all the prep work has been leading towards. The Head chef will take position at the pass. They will call out the orders as they are delivered into the kitchen. Each chef will listen out for their specific elements and respond as required.
For Example, if the Head Chef called out; “Check On: 2 sea bass, 1 beef fillet, 1 risotto.”
Our example chef, on the fish section, would respond “yes chef.” This indicates they have heard the 2 sea bass on order. Our chef would not be concerned by the beef or the risotto, as these dishes come from different sections. A common method is to place 2 sea bass on the chopping board ready for seasoning. This reminds the chef he has two on order and is a great way to keep track of orders during a busy service.
When the Head Chef calls, “away – 2 sea bass” our chef will take the cooked fish up to the front (the pass) to be plated up.
Diner service goes relatively smoothly when a chef has enough prepped food. Problems arise when they run out and have to start prepping food to order. This makes a chef very busy and results in a tough night in the kitchen.
After the last customer has received their meal it is time to clean the kitchen down.
Do Chefs Clean The Kitchen Themselves?
A chef will always tidy their own fridges, clean their own knives and wipe down their own section after service. If the kitchen has Kitchen Porters (K.Ps) they will usually clean all the dishes and scrub the floors after everyone has left.
Occasionally the Head Chef will declare a ‘deep clean’ is needed and all the chefs will be responsible for thoroughly cleaning the kitchen, including scrubbing the floors, after service has finished.
Once all is clean (usually around 11 pm) all that remains is to write a to do list for the next day, pack your knives away and go to get change.
Chefs do not wear their chef whites outside of work so will always have changing facilities near to the kitchen.
After a long day, many chefs go to the restaurant bar to have a drink and unwind. These drinks allow for some great chats and quite often lead to full nights out for the chefs lucky enough to have the next day off!
To Sum Up
As readers will be able to see from a typical chef day, there is not much time left for rest and relaxation. This type of day is the norm in the industry, and the main reason why being a chef is considered a lifestyle rather than a job.
Some people love this lifestyle and can’t imagine anything different whereas some find it difficult to juggle a work/life balance and decide being a chef is not the career for them.
I hope this example day has given readers a realistic insight into a chef’s typical working day!