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Cooking for a Living – Pathways to Becoming a Professional Chef

Ireland is currently suffering a shortage of chefs. This has been widely reported in industry news and from numerous restaurateurs. As anyone who has cooked professionally will know, the long hours, low starting pay and tough working conditions in many kitchens is enough to make the faint hearted run for the hills. Being a chef is not an easy job, but can be extremely satisfying and offers so many opportunities.

For those who get it right and go to the top of the profession, becoming a chef requires a passion and a vocation which means sacrificing family time, social life and normal working hours with weekends off, in favour of slaving over a hot stove day and night, when everyone else is out enjoying themselves. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen is a phrase never more true than for those who work in this profession.

It’s easy to look at the big boys and celebrity chefs and think they’ve got it made, but they have done their time working hard and giving up much of what is normal to those in other professions, in order to reach the dizzy heights of stardom and success.

T.J. O’Connor is a Culinary Lecturer in the Department of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism at the Institute of Technology Tralee. T.J.originally trained to be a chef at the college, graduating in 1989. As a young chef, he worked at many restaurants and hotels in his home county of Kerry, and then spent nine years working in Germany and Switzerland. He then returned to education and whilst doing so held the position as head chef in various establishments in Kerry. He has also worked in food product development and has been a consultant for City & Guilds, training industry bakery managers to conduct National Vocational Assessments in the workplace, as well as lecturing in Culinary Arts at Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, now University College Birmingham.

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T.J holds several high level qualifications in the area of culinary arts and recently completed a Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Management. Over the years of his career, he has been involved with a number of professional industry bodies include Euro-Toques.

He is currently actively involved in Taste Kerry, an initiative which highlights local produce and its use on menus in the county and beyond. T.J’s view on how chefs are trained and the reasons for shortages are many and varied.

[pull_quote_center]I see being a chef as a very credible profession and it should be treated as such, but many people would not see it as a career with longevity or credibility. I really feel chef apprenticeships and courses are not being embraced in the way they should be in second level education and I feel cooking should be part of the school curriculum for all young people to highlight the opportunities that are available to them.[/pull_quote_center]

“They should all be getting a taster of learning to cook early on. A programme which is currently doing this is the Apprentice Chef Programme, which is headed up by a colleague of mine at the Institute – Mark Murphy. It is an amazing programme you can see details at www.theapprenticechef.ie. If this programme were to be rolled out on a national level it would go a long way to dealing with the shortage of chefs that we see today, as it provides a great insight into the career and inspires young people to be creative through food,” explains T.J.

T.J. is very excited and passionate about the Tralee IT Springboard Programme, explaining that this is an excellent route for those coming to the cheffing profession via unemployment  or career change. “We currently have 28 people on this course. Some of them have come from the collapse of the construction industry and are looking for a new career. Our students are highly motivated and this is a very positive initiative which gives confidence, provides industry links and the ability to engage in this industry on so many levels,” he says.

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Young people who go into this job at the beginning find it hard to work the hours required. Also, this industry finds it difficult to compete in wages terms compared to other jobs. As it is for many careers, a chef is no different – you don’t start on great pay and you work hard right from day one. So for those who want to be successful, they have to have the commitment and passion to see them through the first tough years.

Unfortunately, as T.J. says, there are lots of reasons you can find as to why being a chef won’t work and not enough reasons why it can.

[pull_quote_center]I have been working in this industry for 28 years now and I have very few regrets. As the saying goes – if you find something that you really like doing you will never work a day in your life.[/pull_quote_center]

The Institute of Technology in Tralee runs a number of programmes for training chefs. A list is below of part time programmes combining opportunities to work and learn – brilliant for employers who see potential in an employee and think he or she can go on to do well in this career with proper training and guidance.

  • The National Traineeship in Professional Cookery, funded by Fáilte Ireland, is a part time two year day release programme for aspiring chefs already in the industry, so they can learn the formal academic training while still working.
  • The Minor Award in Culinary Arts. Is funded by Fáailte Ireland. It takes place over a year, integrating theory with practice as students spend a total of 24 weeks in college, split as three college days and two days working in the industry.
  • The Masters in Culinary Arts is run in conjunction with University College Birmingham and delivers a six week programme over two years, with students paying their own fees.
  • Full time programmes include the Higher Certificate in Culinary Arts, funded by Fáilte Ireland. A two year full time course which grounds students in all culinary technologies, business aspects, nutrition and food science.
  • BA in Culinary Arts is a three year self funded course which provides a direct pathway to working in the industry, covering all practical aspects of culinary arts plus the in depth theoretical knowledge necessary to take up the profession.

As far as advice to budding chefs goes, TJ says: “You need to have passion, commitment and dedication to survive in this profession. Those who are prepared for that will have an excellent and extremely rewarding career in front of them, with the prospect of travelling to anywhere in the world for their work. The more a chef travels and experiences different cuisines, the better a chef he/she becomes. Ireland currently provides so many excellent opportunities for aspiring chefs.”

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