‘[Being a chef] is a different type of tiring. The job has affected my physical and mental health at times... To be successful in this industry you need a very thick skin, the ability to work fast and hard and take in information at the same time. It’s not for wallflowers this industry.’
Job: Head Chef.
Typical hours worked: 45.
Profile: Melissa is a white female in her 30s who works full-time in London. She is married and is hoping to start a family soon.
My first career choice was mental health nursing, but when my university course didn’t work out, I thought, ‘Damn, I need to get a job and enter the real world. What do I like doing?’ My mum was an ex-school dinner lady and a great cook. She’d taught me lots of things, so I figured, ‘I’m not too bad at cooking. I love eating. Let’s go and have a crack at being a chef.’
I started working in a pub and was Head Chef of a team of one – me! Thought I had made it. I was like, ‘Brilliant. Walked straight into my first Head Chef job.’ Then I realised that no, operating a microwave and getting flustered if I get more than two or three orders at one time is not being a chef.
My love affair with the industry really started when I moved to a Commis Chef role – that’s the most junior grade in the industry – at a hotel. I then blagged myself into a few roles that were maybe a little bit above me, but that accelerated my learning. I’ve been in the industry 15 years, and I’ve been a Head Chef for eight years, which is fairly good going.
My working day
I’ve just started a new role as Head Chef at a high-end restaurant in a busy department store. My role is less about cooking and prepping and more about managing the kitchen, including admin, but I also stand on the pass to vet everything. On a Saturday, we can cater for up to 500 people and everything that goes out has to be an incredibly high standard. There’s a lot of pressure in the job. Having said that, I genuinely do feel like this is the best place I’ve worked at in a very long time.
Typically, when you start a new job in this industry, you just get thrown in at the deep end. I think the feeling is, ‘You have got the experience. You’ll make it work somehow.’ It’s not just about running a kitchen – the fundamentals of kitchen management are the same the world over – but every new company you go into, you need to be doing it their way. What’s good is that I haven’t been brought in to fix anything this time around, which is what has usually happened.
My new job is very different to anywhere I’ve ever worked in the industry before. The hours are good. We start at around 9am or 10am and finish around 7pm or 8pm, in line with the store’s opening hours. I have a contract for a 45-hour week across five days, and they also pretty much demand that you take a break. In my previous role, I was doing 60 to 80 hours a week and working on my days off as well.
Although a lot of companies these days are trying to appear more ‘pink and fluffy’ and like they’re trying to encourage the taking of breaks, does that generally happen? No. No, it doesn’t. At the moment, I’m not even taking the full breaks because it just feels a bit alien to me. Honestly, working those reduced hours, and only five days a week, feels like a bit of a holiday. I’m home for dinner most nights, which for a chef is an absolute dream.
I’ve got a work phone, which is another perk that I haven’t had in several other jobs, so I can differentiate between home and work life. At my last job, I wasn’t given one, so I was constantly being harassed on my personal number on my days off, and I had no work–life balance there. People here seem to have a very healthy view that anything that they want to say can wait until you are back in the business.
I had my wisdom teeth out and was back in the kitchen half an hour later. Unless your head is falling off, it is seen as a badge of honour to carry on working.
Every day there will be new problems, new challenges. That’s the beauty of my job. I get to do so many different things. As a Head Chef as well, you have got a bit more flexibility. You are not just one of the junior chefs who is stuck on a section prepping and cooking all day. If I get bored, I can have a little wander around the store. That puts me in a better headspace to come back and deal with whatever is going on in my kitchen. As long as I get done the daily and weekly and monthly tasks I need to do, it’s up to me how I do it.
Where I feel I make a difference is to my team. I’ve always gone out of my way to help junior staff, even with their personal lives. I treat the team a bit like my extended family because we spend more hours with each other than we do with our own families.
*This graph shows Melissa’s score alongside the UK mean (average) for the 7 dimensions of our Good Work Index. Our CIPD Good Work Index interactive graphic offers further insight on the job quality of different occupations. You can see how your occupation compares to others in our index interactive tool here
Pay and benefits
The basic salary that I’m on now is average for a Head Chef. In London it’s around £45,000 to £50,000 a year. With hospitality, you get your basic salary and then you get non-contractual tips or service charge, which is divvied up between the staff, depending on grades.
In this job I also get paid overtime, something I’ve never come across before – normally those 80-hour weeks, you get nothing for it. I’ve also got an excellent pension scheme here. The overriding feeling I have after three weeks with the company is that they genuinely care about their people and that makes all the difference in the world.
Health and wellbeing
Mentally, the job is exhausting. I used to look at the Head Chef and think, ‘Bloody hell. Your job is so easy.’ But it is a different type of tiring. The job has affected my physical health and my mental health at times. Physical health, it’s caused stomach ulcers. Stress, poor diet, late nights and just general run downness. It’s affected my joints from being on my feet all hours of the day, humping things around, lifting things, heavy things. We slog ourselves to death.
When you’re ill in this industry, it’s outrageous. I have been to work fully sick with a whooping cough, pneumonia. I had my wisdom teeth out and was back in the kitchen half an hour later. Unless your head is falling off, it is seen as a badge of honour to carry on working. There’s great occupational health here though, which again I’ve never heard of in this industry.
Relationships at work
In every single kitchen I’ve ever worked in before, when the Operations Manager or the Executive Chef has come to visit, everyone is walking on eggshells. Here we just feel like they are just another chef. We’ve all got a common goal, which is to turn out great food. They just talk to you like a human being, like an adult, which is just so refreshing. I can’t speak highly enough of the management here – my manager is amazing. We have weekly catch-ups which I’ve never had in 15 years in this industry. He gives me a chance to vent, to say what’s good, to say what’s bad. It’s just fantastic. The pastoral care here for staff is amazing.
I’ve had so many difficult managers to deal with in my career. One was absolutely mad – swearing and shouting so much that one time I was genuinely scared for my safety. Sexism in the industry is rife. Sometimes it will be less pronounced, some places it’s as clear as a smack in the face. Even here, I’m referred to by my male colleagues as ‘Darling’, when normally a Head Chef is referred to as ‘Chef’. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s still there, and it still irritates.
Voice and representation
I had a really bad experience with my previous employer whom I’m taking to a tribunal. They got rid of me when I complained that the working environment in the restaurant was toxic because of the management. The front-of-house team always seemed to have a real big problem with the fact that I was a female Head Chef. I got chewed up and spat out, despite having worked really hard during COVID to help keep the place going. When I made my complaint, I got a vibe off the guy I was talking to about his behaviour, and literally on my next day off I went home and joined the union. Thank God I did, because they have been hugely helpful.
It’s different here. One of the managers is always in here making sure I’ve got what I need. He sat down yesterday and said to me, ‘Right, tell me, what’s annoying you? What’s good? What’s bad?’ Normally speaking, you get chucked into a role, forgotten about, and you are just left to get on with it. But here, from what I can see, there is an awful lot of requests for staff feedback. In the meetings, my manager is at pains to say, ‘If anything ever goes wrong, if you are ever anything less than satisfied, please, please tell me.’ I do feel confident that if I wasn’t happy with something I would be listened to and I would be helped.
To be successful in this industry you need a very thick skin, the ability to work fast and hard and take in information at the same time. It’s not for wallflowers this industry. You are with some very aggressive males, and as a female you need to be assertive and stand your ground.
Forty percent of the time, you will think, ‘What the bloody hell am I doing in this industry?’ Sixty percent of the time, you will be like, ‘This is the best job in the world.’
Being a chef is stamped through me like Brighton rock. The trade-off for me has been work–life balance without a shadow of a doubt. Since I’ve become a Head Chef, I know I’ve become something of a workaholic. Birthdays, Christmas, family gatherings, anniversaries have all taken a back seat because I wanted to get on in this industry so much. I thought you needed to slog yourself silly and work all the hours God sends just to get anywhere. But now I’m starting to see there is another way to get on in this industry and to have a very healthy work–life balance.