So you want to become a chef?


Thinking of becoming a chef? The culinary field is one of the fastest growing industries today; however it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Working as a chef is a tough career and it is recommended that you do research into the career before taking the decision.

So how do you decide if it�s the profession for you?

There are many sub sectors that employ chefs, restaurants (and various types at that), hotels, industrial caterers; airline caters and private caterers, to name a few. Whichever industry you finally choose, getting first-hand experience of what it is like to work in a kitchen is highly recommended. I suggest that you contact a local restaurant, hotel or any other business where chefs are employed and ask them if you can spend a week in their kitchen trying it out. This will give you the first-hand experience of what it is really like to be a chef and work in a kitchen.

As with any career there are pro�s and con�s to being a chef. Here are a few:


  • It�s very creative
  • No day is ever the same, you are unlikely to get bored
  • It requires team work, you will always form part of a team
  • It�s exciting, often working under pressure
  • Its motivating to see people appreciate and enjoy the food that you have prepared
  • When qualified, if you are keen and interested, you will almost definitely find a job
  • Chefs are sought internationally, finding work abroad is possible

Possible negatives (note I say negatives, they may only be to some people):

  • It is physically demanding, you spend long hours on your feet in a hot kitchen
  • There can be high pressure at times
  • It is stressful during peak times
  • You will probably work shift work, weekends, public holidays and special days such as Christmas
  • From a religious perspective some kitchens cook with alcohol and pork which may not suit people that are not allowed to handle these ingredients

Types of Culinary Qualifications

In South Africa most schools offer the following culinary qualifications:

  • Certificate in Food Preparation and Cooking
  • Diploma in Culinary Arts
  • Advanced Diploma in Culinary Arts
  • Diploma in Patisserie

What are the reasons for going to a culinary school?

The main reasons for attending a cooking school is to obtain a formal qualification at the end of the programme but there are other benefits which include:

  • Gaining technical skills from skilled teaching staff that have industry experience. These teaching staff have contacts in industry and also possess the technical skills to teach you the correct way of doing things. At school you will also learn the theoretical side, something that you will not learn if you do not attend a school.
  • Networking opportunities arise through industry visits, work opportunities and gatherings as well as other students who will you remain in contact with after you have completed your course as an alumni of the school.
  • Broaden your culinary horizons where the school introduces you to various cuisines and culinary environments.
  • Gain business knowledge such as budgeting, managing staff and cost control, which stands you in good stead when you need to manage a kitchen or even your own business.

Finding the right school

It is a valuable exercise to research various culinary schools because there are many factors to consider when selecting a school. I am going to list them:

Industry perception of the school

Probably the most important factor is the perception of the school by chefs in industry. In other words - what do the chefs working in the industry think of the school. The reason that this is important is because you will one day be looking for a job, if you have attended a school that is highly thought, you are more likely to get a job; the converse applies.


The other most important factor is their accreditation status. Does the school have its accreditation? In South Africa most cooking schools are accredited by City & Guilds and/or CATH SETA but they also must be registered with either UMALUSI or DHE (Department of Higher Education) depending on the level of their qualifications. It is not recommended that you select a school without its accreditations as they may be operating illegally if they have no accreditation.

Practical experience

Practical experience is the next on the list. As part of your course, you will need to have practical experience in a �real� kitchen. Some schools make arrangements for your practical training and some leave it up to you to arrange. Finding a place to do your practical experience can be difficult. Does the school arrange your practical placement for you?

On this point I would like to mention that you may not receive payment for your work when you do your practical placement. Each kitchen has its own staff; taking in a trainee is over and above their normal staffing requirements of the kitchen. Giving you the opportunity to work in the kitchen and be taught skills should be payment enough, see it is a bonus if the kitchen that you�re working for offers to pay you.

School strengths

Schools have their different strengths, some schools offer value additions such as wine courses, others focus on a specific style of cooking, there may be benefits that you receive from this education offered at the school.


Obviously cost is a big factor but it should not be the deciding factor. Rather than pay to attend a school that it not offering accredited qualifications, it is recommended that you first seek an internship or a bursary. Hotel groups, restaurants and industrial catering companies as well as SACA South African Chefs Association offer internships and funded programmes. Please see the link to SACA on our links page.

When selecting your school, check out the pricing. Some schools include everything in the price such as the exam costs, cost of ingredients, uniforms, equipment and text books, some do not. Make a list of each schools prices and what they include or exclude to get a better idea of price. If the cost excludes the add-ons you may find that the school that seems more reasonable turns out the most expensive.

Duration of the course

This is probably the biggest grey area when selecting a school! Some schools offer programmes over 6 months and others over 18 what is the difference?

South African legislation states that a Certificate must be at least 1200 hours and a Diploma at least 2400 hours. These hours are made up of all the learning that you will do, theory, practical, on the job, assignments, writing tests, doing practical�s and exams. We call them notional hours.

Schools must break down their courses into theory (working out of your books in the classroom, doing assignments etc), practical (cooking in the kitchen) and workplace (on the job). For the most, cooking is a practical skill so the more time in the kitchen the better.

Whilst many students are keen to get their qualification and to start working, remember that the longer that you are at school and gaining practical experience the better your skills will be. Employers are not buying qualifications when they employ you they are buying skills. Imagine a 6 month qualification where you spend all day at college versus the same qualification over 12 months spending all day at college. Or a college where you do 80 percent of your time in a classroom studying theory versus another where you do 30 percent theory.

To this end, find out from the school when you do your research, how much time is spent doing theory (in class working in your books and preparing assignments) practical (in the kitchen) and in the workplace (on the job). Once you have worked this out you may find that one school offers a longer qualification but the same time in practical lessons. Remember for cooking the more practical experience you get the better, but you also need the theoretical knowledge to support your skills.

Another interesting thing to find out is if you actually cook or if you are attending demonstrations. A demonstration is where someone demonstrates a skill. This does not mean that you get a change to practice the skill. Schools must provide you with opportunity to practice the skill.

Your other needs

You may have your own set of needs such as doing your course part time, having a payment plan and being on a transport route. Make a list of your requirements and ask these questions when you contact the school for more information.

Can I start my own business after school?

Of course you can. Whilst we will not consider how to start your own business in this article, many people who complete cooking school go on to start their own business, restaurants, bakeries, private catering and even product development. Just remember that starting your own business not only requires cooking skills but essential business skills as well. For this you may want to enrol in a part time entrepreneurial course to supplement your cooking qualification.


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