From trainee to celebrity: What's it like being a chef?

Lingjiie Tu (left) and Mengtong Yang at a chocolate workshop at Wellington's Le Cordon Bleu, where they are studying for ...
Monique Ford

Lingjiie Tu (left) and Mengtong Yang at a chocolate workshop at Wellington's Le Cordon Bleu, where they are studying for the advanced diploma in cookery.

The cooking world is seen as a dramatic, demanding but glamorous theatre. We talk to all corners of the industry to get an insight of what it's really like, and the skills you need to succeed. 

THE STUDENT 

After quitting her accountancy job, Lingjie Tu left China and enrolled in an 18-month patisserie diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in Wellington.    

Lingjiie Tu sits proudly by her chocolate workshop creation.
Monique Ford

Lingjiie Tu sits proudly by her chocolate workshop creation.

The days, which start at 6am, are intense, long, and can be stressful. "Oh I know [a cooking career] can be hard," she says knowingly. 

"It's made my time management better, I'm more efficient. I'm learning a lot, and just completed a four-day chocolate workshop."  

Incredibly motivated and driven, Tu takes on extra-curricular projects besides her regular studies, such as participating in sugar sculpture competitions.  

Students Lingjiie Tu (left) and Mengtong Yang at Le Cordon Bleu's Wellington school.
Monique Ford

Students Lingjiie Tu (left) and Mengtong Yang at Le Cordon Bleu's Wellington school.

READ MORE:
*Craft spirits on the rise in New Zealand
*Cafe chat: Celebrity chef Josh Emett brings Madam Woo to Christchurch
*Le Cordon Bleu course a challenge

 

"I can spend six hours creating one flower, then sometimes I ask myself 'why do I do this? Why am I making life so hard for myself'!". 

Tutor Mark Sycamore at Ara Institute of Canterbury encourages students to embrace the downsides of a career in the kitchen.
Ara Institute of Canterbury

Tutor Mark Sycamore at Ara Institute of Canterbury encourages students to embrace the downsides of a career in the kitchen.

She laughs, saying it's worth it and is happy to be studying something that gives her, and others, so much joy.

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Tu's passion for baking started about six years ago, after making a birthday cake for her aunt who had taken care of her after she moved to Qingyuan. Sharing her creations with friends and colleagues led her on the path she is now. 

"I want to take up work in Wellington, and then move to France where some of the best patisseries are, before returning to China." 

Mark Sycamore passes on his cooking expertise to a student at the Ara Institute in Christchurch.
Ara Institute of Canterbury

Mark Sycamore passes on his cooking expertise to a student at the Ara Institute in Christchurch.

THE TEACHER 

"Never give up; pay attention to details; push yourself and don't rely on others to do that for you. Be humble – but confident," are some of the words of wisdom that cookery tutor Mark Sycamore passes on to his students. ​A former executive chef at the (now defunct) Christchurch restaurant Tequila Mockingbird, he is now teaching at the Ara Institute of Canterbury. After gaining his City and Guilds NVQ in his native England, he emigrated to New Zealand and worked in Christchurch, Auckland, and Queenstown. A desire to continue the mentoring cycle he benefited from lead him to teach others. 

"Whilst I was still working in the industry I tried to give my young chefs as many opportunities as possible to develop their skills and knowledge, and also expose themselves to the wider industry in the hope of making good contacts." 

Chefs wanting to make a business from their skills need to be more than outstanding cooks, says Josh Emett.
Supplied

Chefs wanting to make a business from their skills need to be more than outstanding cooks, says Josh Emett.

In can be an exciting world full of opportunity. Representing New Zealand in the Culinary Olympics, Sycamore's team competed against 2000 chefs from more than 40 countries, bringing back a silver and two bronze medals in 2016 from Germany. International travel and adventure is a perk, and "the hospitality community is close knit", he explains. "You create many friendships around the world, and the skills learnt can enable you to travel the world and always know that you can get a job almost as soon as you step off the plane".   

"It is also an industry that gives you instant rewards. There is no better feeling than having a customer say how much they loved your food, especially after a long 12-hour shift in a hot kitchen.

"It is also a very creative industry with so many different areas to explore and develop your passions."

New Zealand chef Josh Emett in the kitchen of his Queenstown restaurant, Rata.
John Edens

New Zealand chef Josh Emett in the kitchen of his Queenstown restaurant, Rata.

There are of course drawbacks - most of which are well known in the public consciousness, like long hours and low pay. Being a chef also means having  resilience. Sycamore actively encourages reframing those negatives: working long weekends isn't a chore if you're doing something you love, and having a day off while everyone else is at work means empty shops and car parks to enjoy. 

For anyone thinking of entering the industry, enticed by the likes of Ramsey, Oliver, and Blumenthal, they "need to understand that the industry isn't as glamorous as TV makes it out to be. It will be long hours, with probably low pay".

"The first few years in the industry will be on close to minimum wage and that can make it hard to attract chefs and it can also make it hard to hold on to them... and is very repetitive having to complete the same tasks day after day." 

THE HIGH-PROFILE RESTAURATEUR 

 Kiwi celebrity chef Josh Emett, like most, loves what he does but success comes at a price. While working in Australia and London, 90 hour weeks were expected.

"Whether you stay or [leave this] career path, the reality is what's going to keep you there is the sacrifices you're willing to make," he says. "The hours, the daily grind... I missed everything, I missed my [own] birthdays. Forget Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve. 

"I've spent so much of my life working seven days a week, but to be honest didn't really care - I would work anything to be good at what I was doing. That's the focus that got me through."

Also, the chef's role is a complex one, it's not just about cooking anymore. Mentoring, working well with your staff, and listening are all skills the contemporary cook needs, especially if they want to set up their own business, as one can not rely on one's own talent alone. Things have evolved dramatically since Emett's own student days. 

"Everything's changed. The whole essence of it. Thirty years ago no one wanted to see the chef behind closed doors. These days people go to a restaurant and if the chef's not there they get upset.

"People want to engage in them cooking and talk about it and be fully engaged with that part of the whole experience, and that changes your whole job." 

 

 - Stuff

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