Q & A… Life as a Chef
Keaton has been a chef for the past ten years since he finished culinary school in South Africa where he grew up. Since moving to the UK four years ago, he has worked as a freelance chef. He talked to us about his experiences – the good, the bad and the fun.
What made you decide to be a chef?
Well, my father always had a passion for cooking, so when I was young, I would always be in the kitchen with him, helping out and cleaning the dishes. He had also owned a restaurant when I was younger and always wanted to be a chef, but his life went a different way. So, my dad gave me the choice to leave school at 15/16 and go to culinary school in South Africa where I grew up, which I did, and loved every moment of it!
What sort of skills do you need?
Organisation skills are key. You need to be able to remain calm under pressure and always be motivated, otherwise it does affect your food. You also have to be a team player, and if you want to progress, you should have good leadership skills.
What sort of career paths are there? How can you start a career as a chef & where could it take you?
You could definitely just stay working in kitchens and work your way up the ladder. Or you could go into the management side of running kitchens, such as rotas, designing menus and ordering stock. You could also go into restaurant or hotel management, as you need to know all areas of the business. You also could move into menu planning and dietitian meal prep. Then, there’s always the option of owning your own business. Once you are established and experienced, you can also work for start-up businesses and help set up efficient kitchens, menus and costing.
What do you enjoy the most?
My favourite aspect of the job is the creative side, as there are no limits to what can be done and boundaries are being broken on a daily basis. I’ve always had a passion for food and trying crazy flavour combinations!
Do you have any examples?
When I was starting out, I really enjoyed playing with flavours and trying new things. I made a point of eating things I would not normally choose, so I could get new flavours to work with.
I have always enjoyed the sweet and savoury element so, for example, I have made a venison loin with roasted polenta, mangetout and a white chocolate sauce – and that might sound strange, but it wasn’t at all. Another example of chocolate on meat is Mexican mole, which is dark chocolate and chilli, which pairs well with beef or chicken.
Another combination that people may not realise is actually quite common, is adding something sweet to your gravy, not excessively so that you taste it, but the subtle undertone is there – I normally use strawberry jam or red currant jelly.
I once worked in a kitchen where we used to vacuum-seal our fillet and then put it in a dishwasher (the dishwasher was used only for this purpose!); the hot water jets would sous vide the meat and make it tender. We did other weird things like cooking lamb shanks in an electric blanket for 16 hours, and using liquid nitrogen (which is -196 degrees Celsius) to make ice cream. When it comes to food, I guess there are no limits to what you can do!
What are the hardest parts of your job?
The hardest parts would definitely be the long hours, and missing out on a lot of the social aspect of life and spending time with family and friends. The other thing is that, particularly in the summer, kitchens can get extremely hot!!
Why did you decide to go freelance? Do you enjoy it?
I decided to go freelance as a chef as I found when I moved to the U.K., especially in the countryside, that chefs are made to work long hours, often with little pay.
A big advantage of being freelance is that I get to work with such a variety of chefs and venues; you pick up things from everywhere you go, so you never stop learning. I guess also you never get bored, because there’s always a change of scenery.
It also means that you are your own boss, so if you want time off or can’t work, you can just turn down shifts.
I do enjoy being freelance but, as with everything, it has its ups and downs. I have recently been looking at going down a different path, but I feel I will always be drawn back.
What is the strangest or funniest experience you’ve had as a chef?
The funniest experience I ever had in the kitchen, would hands down be when a chef I worked with was having an argument with our kitchen porter (the dishwasher), so the chef went and filled the dishwasher with soap, and when the kitchen porter turned it on, the whole wash up area started to fill with bubbles and looked like a foam party! It wasn’t fun to clean up though, as we all had to help, but was worth it!
Thank you Keaton!
Find out more about creative careers:
Creating your own opportunities as a creative graduate
A proactive approach to building skills and experience for your career