One of the most sustainable roles in the food service industry is a Plant-Based Chef, and it is a job that is growing in demand. Working in this position, you will develop delicious meat-free meals that attract the growing flexitarian consumer as much as vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans. It’s a role that allows you to explore creative new ways of assembling and combining delicious meat- and dairy-free meals, to help people enjoy eating more plant-based foods.
Lauren Lovatt is a Plant-Based Chef and founder of East London-based cooking school and consultancy group, Plant Academy. Other accomplishments under her belt include her recipe book – ‘Mind Food” – which promotes plant-based foods that are good for your mental health, and being a guest chef at major festivals including Glastonbury, Rock Oyster and Wilderness.
“Being a Plant-Based chef at this pivotal time in the industry is more exciting than ever,” says Lauren. “With the plant-based food scene booming and most restaurants needing to add plant-based dishes to their menus, the industry is looking out for plant aware cooks to bring ideas to the table. As plant-based chefs, we are here to share ideas and resources on making plants the star of the show and this knowledge can have a ripple effect in the kitchen.”
“Just by adding more plants to menus we are making kitchens greener. We are asking the questions about the ingredients we are using and inspiring others to bring biodiversity to the plate, which is important for the food industry at the minute.”
What are the job responsibilities?
What this job requires of you will depend on your exact role, but some of the main responsibilities will include:
- Preparing a variety of plant-based ingredients for dishes
- Running or being a part of a service, which depending on the restaurant, could last anywhere from a few hours to all day or night
- Having essential cooking knowledge around techniques like chopping and dicing, or blanching and roasting
- Knowing how to safely handle your ingredients according to national food hygiene standards (food hygiene checks are carried out on a regular basis by local authorities so it’s important to be prepared)
- Being able to manage the portion size of foods, and making sure it is presentable
- Troubleshooting issues during a service and co-ordinating with service staff and other kitchen staff
- Knowing how to respond to instructions, often under time pressure
- Training other chefs and managing the quality of the dishes being prepared
- Maintaining an up-to-date stock inventory and making sure the correct amount of food is in stock
- Unpacking and storing stock
- Developing menus and menu design, ensuring they abide nutritional standards and allergen description requirements
- Making and developing dishes within a budget
Who might your employers be?
In the UK, employers of plant-based chefs can range from large restaurant chains, Michelin Star restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafés, to schools, universities, contract caterers, the armed forces and the NHS.
As you make the decision to enter this role, it is worth bearing in mind that you may need to start your career working with a variety of dishes that aren’t necessarily all going to be plant-based. As you gain experience and hone your skills, you should soon find it easier to work in a plant-based organisation, or somewhere where plant-based options are needed. If you’re lucky enough however, you may be able to begin cooking meat-free dishes at a junior level, as the number of chef jobs requiring experience with vegan food is rising at the moment.
What qualifications do you need?
While you don’t need a degree to enter this position, having some sort of culinary qualification is useful to help you develop essential skills for cooking well in the kitchen. Some employers look for expertise in certain areas, such as specific chopping methods, proficiency in making classic sauces, or a high-quality baking ability.
There are many professional cooking courses across the country which offer standard full-time diplomas in Culinary Arts such as Ashburton Chef Academy near Exeter, London-based Leith’s School of Food and Wine, or the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu, which has a branch in the capital, which has trained many famous chefs including Mary Berry, Yotam Ottolenghi, Peggy Porschen and Julia Child.
Taking a professional cooking course is one of the best ways to finesse your skills in plant-based cooking, and you can even specialise in a course dedicated to this cuisine if you wish. As well as offering more classic cooking qualifications, Le Cordon Bleu also teaches a Diploma in Plant-Based Culinary Arts and has also launched an online plant-based patisserie course in the last couple of years.
Leith’s also offers a Plant-Based Essential Cooking Certificate. This evening course teaches you everything you need to know about cooking top-tier professional plant-based dishes. It is designed to work for people who are looking to learn more about cooking plant-based food, but who also need to work a 9 to 5 job or pursue any other commitments.
The Vegan Chef School also offers a range of quick courses based around vegan cooking. The in-person Vegan Chef Diploma based in the capital takes just 12 weeks to complete, while the Online Vegan Chef Diploma lasts between 12 and 26 weeks, depending on if you want to take an intensive or more part-time approach.
Outside of London, Demuths in Bath teaches its own Vegan Diploma which lasts six weeks and is tailored to suit professional and non-professional chefs alike. The syllabus is aligned with the national qualifications offered by catering colleges, and despite not being a formal qualification, it is well respected.
If you are looking to hone certain skills before branching out into a full course, shorter classes with a plant-based focus are also available. Leeds Cookery School offers a range of half-day classes which focus on things like knife skills, plant-based Thai food, plant-based Chinese food, plant-based food from Northern India, and plant-based baking.
Lauren strongly recommends taking classes in the early stages of your career. “If you can take a course to support your career, do it,” she says. “When I was starting out I had six different jobs, and took every course I could find to get me to where I wanted to be. Our classes at Plant Academy [are a great introduction to] plant-based food, connect you with the industry and are self-paced online – a great reference for the new chef!”
Besides cooking schools, several universities also offer courses. In 2021, the University of West London launched a new BSc (Hon) degree in Future Food and Culinary Management, which prioritises teaching a cohort of future chefs how to cook more sustainably. Part of the course explores how to develop exciting plant-based menus, as well as understanding how to follow new eating trends that don’t negatively impact the planet. Westminster Kingsway College, whose alumni includes Jamie Oliver, also offers a range of courses including the Grand Escoffier course, which gives you the basic understanding of where food comes from, and teaches ethical sourcing, sustainability in the kitchen, and eating in season.
There are also Higher National Degree (HND) diplomas on offer in professional cooking for hospitality or catering, which are suitable for people who have just finished school, mature students, people who are already employed but are looking to switch careers or looking to start their own business. A lot of these courses are available part-time or full-time.
Some institutions in the UK which teach HND courses in cooking or hospitality management include:
- Barking & Dagenham College in East London
- West Herts College in Watford
- University of Highlands and Islands in Inverness
- Neath Port Talbot College in South Wales
A benefit of taking a degree or foundational qualification is that they often include a placement, allowing you to develop real-life skills which you can take with you into your first job.
Before starting work in any environment where you’ll be handling food, you will also need to complete the CIEH Foundation Certificate in Food Hygiene which needs to be renewed every three years. These are usually offered by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
Training to become a chef is no easy feat, says Lauren, but it’s worth it if you have a passion for it: “Be prepared to do the hard work when you’re just getting started and don’t expect something for nothing, but think outside the box with the brands or concepts that you work with and see how you can add value to them to up level your work experience.
“Stay true to your values and share ideas, but also be ready to learn and follow the lead. As new chefs we can often think we have all the answers but be open to learning and take time to master the basics.”
What is the salary like?
A chef’s salary depends on the level of expertise, the location, and type of establishment you are working for.
Salaries will be fairly low for early-career postitions like Kitchen Porters or Kitchen Assistants, which can earn you anything from £10 to £30 an hour, depending on the location and your level of experience. After this you should be able to find work as a Junior (or Commis) Chef for an annual salary of £12,000 to £16,000. This can then increase with experience to the level of a Sous Chef, which will earn you around £20,000 to £30,000. A Head Chef position salary can range between £25,000 and £55,000.
Where will you be working?
Chefs are hired by a range of employers which include:
- Restaurants and cafés
- Catering companies in schools or universities
- Contract Caterers (making food for large scale events such as festivals or weddings)
- Hospitals (the NHS or private institutions)
- The armed forces
- Brands and food companies
What is the career progression like?
There is a lot of room for progression in this role, with most chefs working in a variety of different environments. The standard line of progression for a chef starts at a Trainee or Junior Chef level, leading to a Chef de Partie/Section Chef, then Sous Chef, and finally Head Chef – but again, this depends on the type of place you are working for.
After gaining substantial experience in the industry (and ideally nearing the level of Head Chef), you could think about applying to roles such as General Manager of a restaurant, Executive Chef, Private Chef, Chef Manager, Food Writer or Food and Drinks Director at an events space or hotel. You could even start your own food or drinks business.
“As a Plant-Based Chef your opportunities are endless, and don’t stop at working in kitchens,” says Lauren. “These skills can lead you to work with brands, travel the world, teach and share your expertise. Career progression is limitless, but it requires creativity from chefs themselves.”
Further education through a Masters or Undergraduate degree (if you haven’t studied for one already), will also give you the chance to use your passions for food to expand your career horizons.
Is there a demand for this job?
In 2018, a Vegan Chef was said to be the top emerging job in the UK by job searching platform Adzuna, showing that it is a role many employers are on the hunt for.
As Lauren explains: “There is currently more demand than ever in the food and drinks industry for Plant-Based Chefs, especially in restaurants. Talking with many businesses at the moment, I have noticed how hard it is to recruit chefs, and I personally believe that any business with plant-based dishes on the menu needs the help of a Plant-Based Chef to make those dishes/menus shine.”
“We need to be more aware of what we serve on our plates in the messages we share through menus, it’s a crucial moment for conscious cooks to be a major part of the industry and be part of transforming our food system.”
“My advice to aspiring Plant-Based Chefs is now is your moment to do it! There are so many jobs out there with great concepts and now is a time you can really find good opportunities within the industry.”
For more jobs in the food industry, visit Food Matters Live’s Preparing for a career in food