Would you enjoy more variety in your culinary career? Find out how to become a freelance chef and explore the potential to earn more income, work in a range of kitchens, or even prepare meals on private yachts in glamourous locations.
Becoming self-employed opens up the opportunity to explore new ideas or specialities, whether that’s in the cuisine you prepare, or the type of work you prefer. And while working as a chef can involve long, gruelling hours in hot and stressful conditions, as a freelancer you’re able to organise your workload and finances to allow time to take care of your health and wellbeing.
- Why become a freelance chef?
- What skills or qualifications does a freelance chef need?
- How much can you earn as a freelance chef?
- Essential equipment for freelance chefs
- Finding clients or starting your own culinary projects
- More resources and support to become a freelance chef
Why become a freelance chef?
There are lots of reasons why people choose to become a freelance chef. Many people begin cooking professionally because they love creativity, and producing food which people enjoy. It’s a physically active role with often unconventional hours, and offers the chance to progress your skills and career.
And a lot of chefs plan to eventually open their own restaurants, gain great reviews and Michelin stars, and potentially become a household name with books and TV shows.
But working in the same kitchen day after day can become monotonous, so freelancing opens up the chance to experience the challenge of preparing a wide range of dishes with different people and methods. Alternatively, while you might enjoy cooking, preparing food for a large number of people over lunch and dinner might be too stressful and demanding, compared to working as a personal chef for private clients in their home. The hours may be the same, but the type of work will be different, with a closer relationship with your client.
Becoming a freelance chef can allow you to set your hours, which allows you to protect time for learning new techniques, taking courses, or working on your own projects. The growth of small kitchens and delivery services has meant new opportunities for chefs to run successful food businesses from their own home, or kitchens in more obscure locations.
What skills or qualifications does a freelance chef need?
You don’t have to study catering to become a chef, but training and qualifications will help you to stand out from other freelancers, and can give you a good grounding in the skills needed. These include qualifications such as a City & Guilds Diploma in Professional Cookery, or a degree in Culinary Arts Management to prepare you for running a kitchen one day, offered at a range of UK universities. Or specialist degrees in patisserie, baking and confectionary if you already know you want to focus on those areas in your career.
Pretty much every course includes work placement to build real-life experience alongside hands-on training, and this is why apprenticeships are a common route in the catering and hospitality industries. To become an apprentice, you just need to be aged 16 or over, and not already be in full-time education when you start.
A major benefit of an apprenticeship is that you’ll be paid to work while gaining hands-on experience, and studying for at least 20% of your working hours. And the level you achieve can be equivalent to qualifications from GSCE level to a Bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Catering courses are offered by a wide variety of providers, so it’s important to check whether it’s relevant, and offered by an organisation which is recognised by the industry and clients. For example, Le Cordon Bleu Grand Diplome is a prestigious culinary qualification in French cuisine, but involves a substantial cost. Industry organisations including the British Culinary Foundation and the Craft Guild of Chefs can help you find the right opportunities.
Whatever route you take into the industry, the most important thing to build is experience. With any freelance role, you’ll be expected to have a good, well-rounded knowledge of a range of techniques and cuisines. Clients will need you to jump straight into work, which could range from creating and pricing menus, to supervising other staff, whilst also being able to prepare whatever types of meal are required.
Many chefs will have five or ten years of experience in kitchens before deciding to switch to freelancing. This helps to build confidence and proven skills in areas including:
- Time management
- Business skills
- Knowledge and qualifications in health and hygiene standards
You should obviously love food and cooking, and that includes keeping up up with the latest trends, techniques and applications by regularly looking at news sites, blogs, social media and more. It’s also useful to have a knowledge of wine and cocktails to help food and drink pairings.
How much can you earn as a freelance chef?
Any guide or estimate of self-employed income will depend on your clients, location, individual skills and experience, and the demand for your services at a particular time. So, any figures given are a broad guide to what may be possible.
The average base salary for an employed chef in the UK is calculated at £25,648 (Indeed),£26,000 (Talent.com), or £27,000 (Totaljobs). Entry-level positions will be lower, with commis chefs often starting between £12,000 and £16,000, compared to sous chefs between £20,000 and £30,000.
Freelance chefs will tend to earn higher rates based on their skills and experience, and because self-employed incomes need to cover holidays, illness, equipment costs and other business expenses. A kitchen can be a potentially dangerous place to work, so if you’re worried about illness and injury, or other costs as a freelancer, it’s worth looking at the benefits and discounts offered by IPSE membership.
So, if you become a freelance chef, there’s definitely the potential to earn a much higher income based on your skills and experience. But if you’re just starting out, obviously you may be hired at a more entry-level rate by smaller clients, and you need to plan your budgets and expectations accordingly.
These estimates are based on the income from working for an employer or clients, but won’t include additional revenue that you might get from also starting your own business, offering courses, writing books, or establishing yourself as a food influencer on social media, for example. Or other perks you might get, such as equipment and supplies.
Essential equipment for freelance chefs
Wherever you’re working, it should be in a kitchen which has most of the equipment you’ll need. But it’s important to own the vital tools of the trade. These include:
- Chefs’ whites: These should be clean and fresh, which not only makes a good impression on clients and new colleagues, but also shows you take hygiene seriously, which is important for any commercial catering.
- Chef knives: Using your own knives means you’ll be familiar and comfortable with using them, allowing you to work more efficiently.
- Knife roll: Safe, convenient and helps you to stay organised in any workplace, making it less likely you’ll leave an expensive and treasured knife behind by mistake.
- Knife sharpener: Not only do sharp knives work better, they also help to reduce injuries.
- Vegetable peeler: Inexpensive, but also easily lost, misplaced or overlooked. So, bringing your own will avoid any issues.
Finding clients or starting your own culinary projects
If you’re choosing self-employment after years in the catering industry, then you will hopefully have an existing network of fellow chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, business owners and other useful contacts for referrals and recommendations. Make sure you let everyone know that you’re starting a freelance career and will be looking for clients, and you never know who might refer work in your direction.
Word-of-mouth is an important way of finding freelance catering jobs, but you can’t always rely on it providing a steady stream of clients. One alternative could be signing up with agencies which may specialise in providing kitchen staff or recruiting private chefs. You’ll also find adverts looking for freelance chefs on general jobs works, along with specialist sites including Caterer.com, and Restaurant Jobs UK. Depending on the type of work you want, other useful sites exist, such as All Cruise Jobs, if you fancy travelling whilst working.
The downside of agencies and job boards is that you’ll be chasing the work that’s available, rather than having interested clients approaching you with offers. That’s why many people recommend freelance chefs put time into marketing themselves, particularly if you’re aiming to secure higher profile projects.
Instagram is a popular choice for many chefs, allowing them to share their latest creations and potentially attract clients as a result. Other options include creating your own website, or starting a profile on other social media. But don’t overlook more traditional marketing tactics, such as business cards, local advertising, or offering to cater relevant events or occasions at cost price to build up your reputation.
And whenever you’ve cooked for someone, make sure to collect reviews and testimonials from satisfied clients. Trust is a major selling point, especially if you’re providing food for an important occasion, or being invited into a home to work as a private chef.
Freelancing can also be a way to open up your schedule and allow you to pursue other food-related opportunities. Creating your own products, offering a takeaway service, or offering courses, books and other items can all boost your potential income. They’re also useful ways to cushion the impact of a lull in client work.
More resources and support to become a freelance chef
- The British Culinary Foundation
- Craft Guild of Chefs
- Le Cordon Bleu
- Restaurant Jobs UK
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And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.