I’ve met quite a few successful chefs and restaurant owners over the years, and whenever I ask them about their career, they all start with the same thing. “No two days are alike, you never know what you’re going to get.” It’s no surprise, because catering and hospitality is a career that has variation at its center right from the word go, and remains exciting and full of opportunities throughout your working life.
The variation starts from day one. We all know the traditional story. Ask a chef when they first fell in love with cooking and they’ll tell you about the smells which used to come from their family kitchen, or how they baked with their grandmother on Saturday mornings. But that’s not the only way to get into a career in professional cooking. Some award-winning chefs made it well into their teenage years before they ever realised they wanted to cook. For every chef that was born with an urge to pick up an apron, there is one whose route began with a different part-time job in a bar, restaurant or hotel, before they coincidentally found themselves in the kitchen and realised they had a knack for it.
The same goes for training. Some chefs learn their way without ever receiving any formal qualifications. Instead, they gain experience in the kitchen and their skills and responsibilities build up gradually. These people can start by washing the dishes and a few years later find themselves cooking for hundreds of people a week. Others prefer to go the educational route, and there is no shortage of Further and Higher Education Colleges which offer Catering and Hospitality Courses for people at all levels, from beginners onwards.
Either way, training is everything, and this is a career where the learning never stops. One of the chefs I’ve been lucky enough to talk to is Neven Maguire, who is a former winner of the Irish Restaurant Awards ‘Best Celebrity Chef’, and also won ‘Best Ulster Restaurant’ four years in a row. He’s even appeared on radio and television across the UK and Ireland.
Never told me that chefs need excellent training to get started and then have to remain open to learning new things throughout their career. He said,
“It’s a great career, and a profession that changes so much. We have great produce all over Ireland, as well as some amazing chefs, so there’s lots of opportunities out there. Training as a chef is crucial. The fact that chefs can study at colleges full time or part time means that they can make their own decisions on certain things, but I always say to young chefs: get your qualifications first, then, when you’ve finished, you can do whatever feels right for you.”
In the catering industry, change and development never stops. New avenues open up as you improve your skills and gain experience, while social trends and food fads dictate the world you’re working in.
The benefits and ambitions are varied too. Some chefs dream of being their own boss and having their name above the door of a restaurant. Some live for the opportunity to do something new every day, to create, and to see their ideas come alive on a plate. Some love nothing more than the feeling that comes with feeding a room full of people and knowing that they’re leaving happy.
Of course none of this comes easy. The other thing every chef I’ve ever met has told me is that you have to make countless sacrifices, because no success comes without hard work and long hours. A life in catering isn’t the easiest life out there, but if you’ve got the appetite for it, it is certainly one of the most satisfying careers.