Cooking with the best

13 September 2004
Cooking with the best

Working for well-known chefs has a definite kudos. Not only are you working with people setting the trends, but you get training and insight into how to be successful.

Get yourself into a top-quality kitchen and your CV will immediately take on a shine that should stand you in good stead in later years. In the best kitchens chefs are usually generous with their time and knowledge and treat their staff well - they have to perform to a high standard, so most bosses try their best to keep them happy. Pay is also usually better than average and in many kitchens the chefs get a share of the tips, too.

We've had a chat to four chefs working in some of the country's top establishments about how they got to where they are and what exactly their jobs entail.

Daniel Cox, 22
Job: Sous chef, at Roux Fine Dining's contract at HSBC St James Street, London
Salary: £22,000-£25,000 including overtime

When did you start cooking? My parents paid for me to do a Petit Cordon Bleu course when I was nine years old.

Sounds like you were hooked early then?
Definitely. After school I did three years at Westminster College and then joined the Greenhouse, in London, as a commis chef.

Life was pretty rosy then? Yes - until I broke my ankle in a motorcycle accident and the doctor advised me to spend less time on my feet. I heard about a chance to join Roger Naylor at Roux Fine Dining. I wasn't sure about contract catering but I thought it would be an easy option to get back into cheffing.

Did your view change when you started? Absolutely. It wasn't an easy option and at the time I joined I didn't know who Roger Naylor was, or that he was the son-in-law of Albert Roux. I realised the style of food at Merrill Lynch, where I was working, was absolutely great and just what I wanted to be doing. Roger put me on the sauce section and I did that for two years.

And now? After two-and-a-half years, I was ready to move on. Six months ago I joined head chef Chris Pulfer and we were given this new contract at HSBC to set up and put all the systems and menus in place.

What's an average day like? I get in at 7am and deal with the deliveries and start prepping. We have three sections to run between the two of us. It runs like a restaurant, although clients make their choices the day before. We can serve anything from eight to 70 for lunch. By 3pm we are finished, have some lunch and clean up, do the ordering for the next day before heading home around 4pm. One or two nights a week we stay to do a function - but we do get paid overtime.

Is there a downside? I guess it's that most of the time we're feeding people who are concentrating on business and the food is secondary - it's not like going to a restaurant by choice to sample the food.

Future dreams? I aspire to be a group executive chef like Roger Naylor was. I'm quite good with computers and have other skills and I think I could cope with that. In the short term, I want to work a for few months in a restaurant in Paris to learn more. That's one of the advantages of working with the Roux Brothers - they can get you a placement virtually anywhere.

Paul Rowley, 30
Senior chef de partie, the Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall
Salary range: £20,000-£24,000 including tips

Did you always want to be a chef? No. I studied business and finance at university and worked in accounts but I got really bored with the nine-to-five job. I loved cooking and so I wrote to Rick Stein asking for a job and telling him I'd work hard. To my surprise, he wrote back and said yes - I started as a commis chef six years ago.

So with no experience you got to work with one of the UK's best-known chefs? Yes. I think Rick looks for people who share his philosophy of good-quality, fresh food. He always says he's trying to teach the chef out of us! So not having any experience helped in a way. I made lots of mistakes but I learnt fast and the team took me under their wing. I spent two years here and just loved it - the team, the restaurant, the Cornwall way of life.

What then? I worked for a few months at Ripley's, a Michelin-starred restaurant in St Merryn, near Padstow (owned by Paul Ripley, who used to be Rick's head chef at the Seafood Restaurant) and then I went to work for Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.

Not bad! What was that like? It was fantastic - Heston is extremely good to his staff and really encourages you to order new ingredients and experiment with tastes and flavours. I enjoyed learning about Heston's approach - chemistry of taste and flavours - but it's probably not where I see my cooking going. I see myself doing the simple stuff and I think Rick Stein is the best for that, so I came back about a year ago.

What's your actual job at the Seafood Restaurant? I'm the senior chef de partie in charge of the sauce section. So I prepare all the sauces, cook all the main courses and I'm in charge of the running of the kitchen during service.

What does the future hold? There are so many opportunities here. If I work hard, I may be promoted to sous chef by the end of the season. In addition, because we close over Christmas I can go off and do a stage in London or somewhere in Italy. Our executive chef, Roy Brett, does everything he can to help us set up stages - I've already done one with Paul Kitching at Juniper in Altrincham, Cheshire, and I spent a day at Fifteen, in London, with Jamie Oliver.

What's the best thing about the job? The team of chefs I work with. We're all friends and we live in a staff house together and when we're working a split shift we can go to the beach and relax before coming back to work.

What's the worse thing about it? Being on the beach on a hot, sunny day in the morning and having to come in to work later that day!

What about the hours? It's good here - we work one split shift per week and four straights either early or late.

Oswald Caruana, 24
Chef de partie, Andrew Fairlie Restaurant, Gleneagles hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire
Salary range: £13,000-£15,000 including tips

Tell us how you started cooking?
I didn't do all that well at school, so I got a job as a kitchen helper in a small hotel in my native Malta. The chefs there encouraged me to do my City and Guilds, so I did the two-year course at the International Tourism Studies College in Malta.

When did you first come to the UK? About five years ago, I did a year at the Victoria and Albert Hotel in Manchester as a placement for my course. While I was in the UK I also did a stage at the Lanesborough hotel in London and was even offered a job there, but I had to return to Malta because of my visa.

How did you get to know about Andrew Fairlie? I was working at Mange Tout, a top restaurant in Malta run by Victor Borg. The sommelier, Johnnie Fenech had done his college placement at Gleneagles. He knew of Andrew Fairlie, so we wrote to him and we both got a week's stage during our holiday from Mange Tout last autumn.

And you got the job after that? I had to go back to Malta for a while, but now Malta is in the European Union, it's possible for me to work here. I e-mailed Andrew and he had an opening in the kitchen, so I started in February 2004.

What's your role in the kitchen? I'm chef de partie on garnish, so I help out doing some of the hot starters and preparing all the garnishes for the main courses.

What do you like about it? Everything! The kitchen runs really well and the food is great. There is pressure all the time but there is a good atmosphere in the kitchen, so it's enjoyable to work there. There's no shouting or throwing of pots or knives.

Do you have advice for other aspiring chefs? Work hard - use your holiday as an opportunity do a stage somewhere, learn something different - it's how I got my lucky break.

Development chefs
One option for chefs who have worked in quality restaurants - think three or four AA rosettes - is to join a large food supply company. These are the companies that supply ready meals to the large supermarket chains.

"Working in food development is really challenging. It requires good cooking skills and a sense of what will work commercially. And chefs need to be able to communicate their ideas verbally, not just through the food they produce," says Michael Staniland, director at Focus Management Consultants, which recruits chefs for the food supply companies.

Major companies include Geest, Northern Foods, Kerry Foods and Hazlewood Foods, all of whom supply the likes of Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Tesco.

According to Staniland, the ideal recruit is at sous chef or head chef level with a prestigious restaurant pedigree. Food suppliers like to boast about the CVs of their teams, so where you've worked is important.

Staniland warns it can be a shock for those head chefs used to being in charge to suddenly become one of a team of, say, 10 people, rather than its leader. And in some big companies, as many as 150 staff will all focus on new products across different ranges. Chefs are joined by food technologists and process technologists who are responsible for taking standard recipes and making them work in a factory setting.

At the moment, employers are looking for chefs who have hands-on experience of the cuisine they're preparing, Staniland says. The public palate is becoming more knowledgeable as people travel and experience different cuisines first-hand. As a result, the supermarket chains want their own-brand products to be as close to the real thing as possible.

Starting salary as one of a team of development chefs is a minimum of £25,000 a year. The job is five-days-a-week working office hours and may involve travelling to new countries to experience authentic food and gather ideas for new product launches. An experienced development chef can earn up to £45,000 and an executive chef running a whole development team can earn £60,000. Another option is to become a product development manager taking a more strategic role.

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