We already celebrate Mother’s and Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Boss’s Day, Milk Tart Day, Shiraz Day… so why not have International Chef’s Day? Why would we diarise 20 October in the honour of chefs? Perhaps because, even though they entertain us with their culinary delights, being a chef entails so much more than preparing a good plate of food.
What distinguishes chefs from talented cooks? When we watch TV shows such as MasterChef, we often see people with other professions or even students present creative and delicious meals that are quite restaurant-worthy, but they can’t call themselves chefs. More than finding joy in cooking or having flair with flavour, chefs choose food as their career. The same can be said for restaurant cooks, but the real differentiating factor is that chefs have a formal qualification in food. They usually have a more senior position in the kitchen and would earn more than the cooks.
What types of chefs do we find in a typical restaurant kitchen? Culinarylabschool shares these handy definitions.
- Chef de Partie (Station Chefs) run individual stations within a kitchen and prepare the specific dishes and sauces or sides. Some examples of stations include sauce, butcher, fish, roast, fry, grill, pantry, pastry, vegetable… A station chef may create recipes based on their speciality and under the direction of the head chef or sous chef.
- Sous Chef is the deputy chef who is the direct supervisor of the kitchen. They oversee food preparation, supervising the day-to-day cooking and filling the role of head chef if there is not one present or need to fill in.
- Chef de Cuisine is the head chef. Head chefs are the individuals running the kitchen on the day to day – assuming manager duties, supervising staff, making purchases and working with the restaurant manager to create new menus and recipes.
- Executive Chef is the top chef who manages kitchens based on operations, cost, managing multiple locations, and the business side of the kitchen. They don’t traditionally cook on the day-to-day but they certainly could in a pinch. Executive chefs have climbed through the ranks for years to earn this position.
This job title requires a wide set of skills. Over the years with our restaurants at the estate, I’ve learned that a good chef is about much more than a menu and a plate. Managing a diverse team, being a chef can be quite the HR job. Then there is the challenging finances and logistics of a restaurant environment, knowledge of ingredients, relationships with suppliers and finding the time to be inspired and creative with new dishes.
In order to be all of this, a chef needs a variety of proficiencies. I’ve added a few of my thoughts to the detailed list by the Chef Academy of London.
- Passion: A great chef has to be passionate about food and cooking and genuinely enjoy the whole process of procuring, preparing, cooking and serving food.
- Stamina: An essential quality in a challenging commercial kitchen with long hours in less than enjoyable conditions – hot, greasy, high pressure – and usually at times when the rest of the world is enjoying an evening out or a weekend off.
- Leadership skills: It’s the chef’s responsibility to give direction, guide, coach and monitor the team to ensure a smooth operation.
- Creativity: Taken for granted, the chef’s creativity is clear from the menu and it is what differentiate one restaurant from the next. Creativity is also essential when you have to think on your feet. Perhaps an ingredient is not available, an element of the dish got burnt…
- Flexibility & Multitasking: If the chef has to peel potatoes in a crisis, so be it, but the chef has to manage everything from procurement to inventory to service to ensure a seamless experience. Specific skills might be required depending on the style of restaurant. On a wine estate, for instance, chefs are often required to be knowledgeable about wine and to keep food and wine matching in mind. (Read more about chefs and wine knowledge). More than ever before, guests also have specific dietary requirements and preferences, demanding flexibility from the menu and the kitchen.
- The face of the restaurant: From a marketing and PR perspective, chefs today, have another task on their list. They have to be able to chat to media, smile and cook for the camera and whether they do it themselves or via a PR team, for many chefs social media has become an important extension of their duties.
- Organization: An essential quality in a successful kitchen. Every aspect of the job must be planned – from optimising staff to the traffic flow and layout of the kitchen and of course, food preparation and plating.
- Business sense: A keen sense of business is necessary if you want to run a profitable organization – producing quality dishes while being cost effective and with minimal wastage is of the essence.
- Commitment to quality: This has to go without saying. Even in the most rustic environment or casual restaurant, the chef must be committed to quality using only the freshest and best quality ingredients and the best techniques to produce tasty dishes.
- Handle criticism: Taste is a very personal experience. My favourite wine might do nothing for you. The same applies to food. While being humble and apologetic in the instance of a real mistake or issue, there might also be critique without a valid reason. Even then, chefs have to take it for what it is and still analyse the feedback and see if there’s any merit to the remark – something that might not be easy, given the time and creativity that went into the dish.
Working through these points, I realised what we really ask from chefs! Of course, not all restaurant environments are the same. Some chefs have a small operation with a limited team, others run commercial kitchens, but possibly with the help of a HR and Finance department. Regardless, a great chef is the main reason behind a wonderful restaurant experience – from ambience to service to food. I guess, they really do deserve a special day!