Essential Soft Skills of a Good Chef: A chef weighs in

To be a good chef, you need hard and soft skills. Cooking is a hard skill as it includes the technical skills you need to cook professionally and work as a chef.

Soft skills in the food industry are about how we conduct ourselves personally, for example, having a high work ethic or being detail oriented and in relationship with others, for example, an ability to work in a team or communicate clearly.

Employees look for both hard and soft job skills. Hence, it is critical to have a culinary skill set and an array of soft skills that will enable you to cope with the demands of a culinary career and thrive as a chef.

Soft skills in culinary can be developed, and how easy or difficult it is to create a particular skill is an individual matter. Still, it can be achieved with courage, time, and persistent effort. Start now and take every opportunity to cultivate your soft skills throughout your culinary training and beyond to advantage yourself in the workplace.

To write this article, we interviewed commis chef D’jhon Leibrandt, who shared helpful tips for developing culinary soft skills from his on-the-job industry training.

The most needed soft skills for being a good chef:

1. A passion for cooking and a drive to excel.

A culinary career is best suited for those genuinely passionate about cooking. It is what they live to do. This is an essential trait of a good chef.

It is this passion to cook and create delicious meals and the satisfaction that comes from a job well-done, be it expressed by the smiles and appreciation of satisfied clients or simply knowing that you have done your best, that drives an excellent chef to do what they do with a good attitude and to keep on excelling in a culinary career.

This passion and drive to do their personal best sustain a chef through the difficult times of working in a culinary environment, often marked by long hours, working under tremendous pressure and time constraints in the fast-paced kitchen environment.

As a culinary student, make sure you do have this passion and that you are not entering a culinary career for the wrong reasons, like wanting to be a celebrity chef, based on what you see on television or social media or because you wrongly thought, it’s an easy career to pursue.

Without this all-out passion, what you do, whether cooking or baking, becomes only a job, something you do because you must.

2. Creativity in designing new dishes and food displays.

A trademark of a good chef is that they are constantly coming up with new creations rather than just replicating old ones.

This means thinking out of the box, experimenting with new recipes and flavours and through trial and error, attaining perfection. A good chef creates not only new dishes but also generates fresh designs in presenting food in aesthetically pleasing ways.

As a culinary student, however, you may often have to experiment and stimulate your culinary creativity at home. This is because there may not be an excess of opportunity to do so at culinary school or in the industry part of your culinary training, working in a restaurant where menus must be adhered to.

3. Discipline, with a high work ethic and detail-oriented.

The ultimate proof of the culinary pudding is in client satisfaction. Every dish in front of a client needs to be of the highest standard in quality and presentation. Therein lies success.

This requires that you are disciplined in your work approach, have high personal expectations of the work you produce, and are meticulous about detail.

To this end, having the discipline, for example,

  • to show up for work each day as not doing so puts pressure on the rest of the kitchen team to cover your role or  
  • to adhere to the same routines to keep your workspace clean and organised.

Having consistently high standards and being precise becomes especially important when you cook from the same menu and the work is repetitive.

Even if you have cooked the same dish 100 times, you must still cook it to perfection and carefully scrutinise it before it leaves the kitchen.

Plating must not look like you slapped something on a plate but must be done with discipline, high standards and attention to detail. Even if you are repeatedly plating the same meal in the same style, it must look like you are plating it for the first time and loving it.  

This paying attention to detail and being precise saves costs. For example, there may be ingredients that need to be mixed with others and can’t be stored again once heated as there’s a risk of it going off. Not measuring correctly could mean that what is not used must be discarded and wasted.

Paying attention to detail can also make your life in the kitchen less stressful: by paying attention and closely watching other chefs, you know, for example, how a particular dish must look if done correctly. That way, you know what to do when you end up on your own and have to do an order.

4. Learn from the good and let go of destructive criticism.

To become an excellent chef, you have to know how to handle criticism as so much of your training is in the kitchen and hands-on, and mistakes are inevitable. If you mess up an order, you will hear about it.

When that criticism is given in a kind, understanding way, that’s wonderful, especially if you tend to be a more sensitive person who doesn’t like it when others raise their voices at you. This, however, is hardly likely to happen all the time.

You have to brace yourself that this criticism could be given in harsh, angry tones, especially when there’s a lot of pressure in the kitchen and of course, it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone knows how to control their emotions.

One thing chef after chef will tell you is that you must develop a thick skin toward criticism. This means realising that:

  • You are not alone. Every chef receives criticism. It’s part of the growth process.
  • Your job is to take the criticism, learn and grow from it: If you made a mistake, understand what you did wrong, fix it and learn from it.
  • Constructive feedback is meant for your growth. You may not always see it that way and be defensive. Try not to. Rather than want to explain yourself, it’s often easier to be humble and teachable and say, “yes, chef, I’m listening”, while they give feedback on how best to do a task.
  • If you made a mistake, say, “Ok, I’m sorry.” Try not to dwell on the error but learn to move and do better next time, commis chef D’jhon says.
  • When criticism is delivered harshly, try to isolate the style from the helpful information the message contains that can help you grow.
  • Learning to control your emotions can buffer against harsh criticism. You can’t control how someone behaves, but you can know not to go crazy because they are going crazy.
  • The culinary industry is one where you must learn to control your emotions, especially as a lower-ranking chef, where respect for the chef hierarchy is essential.
  • You never walk away when an executive or sous chef gives you feedback or criticism. You need to learn to keep quiet and listen; when you speak, it is, “yes, chef.” While this may seem unfair, it helps you learn to control your emotions, breathe deeply, calm yourself, take the feedback, grow from it and move on.
  • When receiving mean-spirited criticism, be realistic and remind yourself that it will happen to everyone. Take a deep breath, let it go, and move forward.

5. Facilitating, mediating, and resolving conflict.

As a culinary student, especially when completing your industry training, learning to resolve disputes at this stage of your career will advantage you now as a commis chef and later as a more senior or head chef if this is your aspiration.

The head chef of a kitchen often acts in a go-between role between management and staff. In keeping an establishment successful, management may, for example, need a team to work longer hours or take on extra catering projects, and as head chef, you may have to deal with this in a way that does not negate the needs and morale of staff.

The ability to facilitate and mediate in managing these sensitive and critical relationships is made easier when you know how to act in this capacity.

As a culinary student, start now and if you have a conflict with someone, resolve it early, before it becomes a big thing, is something D’jhon has learnt, from his experience in industry training.

This is especially important if the other person is a permanent staff member and you are not. It is essential to resolve such conflicts not only to the benefit of the individuals involved but for the effective functioning of the team.

Try to avoid conflict as much as possible, he says, by not allowing yourself to be dragged into the rows of others and, in the end, siding with one party against the other. Instead, if you can, hear the story from each party’s point of view and then try to play a mediatory role.

If an issue needs immediate resolution, go to the most senior chef you report to and ask for their involvement to help resolve it. If it is something that can wait, rather deal with it face-to-face, after hours, when it is quieter. A good thing, from his experience, says D’jhon, is to apologise upfront for your part, as this immediately sets the stage for a more peaceful resolution.

6. Organising, planning, and managing time.

Time management skills are critical for client satisfaction as meals need to be served in a reasonable time from the time of placing the order. This is especially important when several clients at a table have ordered different courses, which must arrive at a similar time.

Good time management includes planning and organising well. A chef has many roles and responsibilities in managing a kitchen, from menu planning and preparing dishes to dealing with staff matters. It takes planning, organising, and coordinating activities to run a kitchen smoothly.

From our commis chef’s experience, it is precisely the importance of planning, being organised and having scheduled times for everything that helps you to be an influential chef. He advises that to improve your skills in this area, keenly watch and learn the best practices of the permanent staff and follow their example.

In doing so, you learn:

  • To be diligent in using the set times allocated before breakfast, lunch or dinner service to prepare everything needed so that the next service phase runs smoothly and you are not under undue pressure.
  • What is required to prepare for the next service must take priority. If you were busy with anything else, leave that off until your priorities have been attended to and then return afterwards.

A good chef develops a careful and systematic approach to work. For example, in getting ready to receive and serve orders, you must allocate time to get your workspace ready.

Service is the time allocated for preparing and accepting orders. It involves clearing and cleaning your area, organising everything you need, including butter, salt and pepper, switching stoves and ovens to the correct settings and temperature, and placing things like your sauces into saucepans.

Planning and organising also involve practical steps like:

  • Always have a dishcloth handy, so you do not touch hot things, which could lead to you being unable to cook and fulfil your role in the kitchen because you are injured.
  • If you are working in hot kitchen, which is where the work pressure is most significant, preparing cooked meals, take that extra initiative to familiarise yourself with the menu and make a mental note of where everything is in the kitchen so that if you have to do an order, you know where to get what you need, instead of having to ask and take someone out of their work.

7. Learn to problem-solve and take prompt action.

As a chef, various situations are likely to arise daily, like missing an ingredient, supplies not arriving, a disgruntled client, or someone not pitching for work due to some emergency, where you must think on your feet to find a solution, make a quick decision and promptly act on it.

D’jhon recalls an incident where the previous shift forgot to prepare carrot ribbons. With the sous chef, it was necessary to devise a quick, alternative way to do so.

If you’ve messed up and made twenty carrots the wrong way, you can problem solve and deal with your mistake by making carrot puree that can be used for another dish.

Furthermore, you can also learn from this mistake, and the next time, cut one carrot and check that it is correct before proceeding.

The more you practice this skill, the better you get at it. If you make a mistake, learn from it so you can do better when similar problems arise again.

8. Continuously learn and develop.

To be a good chef, see learning as a life-long thing you do throughout your culinary career. There are many opportunities for this after culinary school and beyond, like

  • Doing additional short specialist courses.
  • Keeping abreast of the latest global food trends.
  • Following and learning from prominent chefs through social media.
  • Researching, for example, food cuisine in various countries.
  • Travelling locally or abroad to work with and learn from other chefs about local and world cuisines.

Of course, you can continue to learn on the job as there will always be something new to learn. As a culinary student, develop this attitude early on in your career.

From his experience, D’jhon advises not to be scared to ask questions if you are unsure or anxious about doing something for the first time.

As a student chef, if you have an order to tackle by yourself, you may even be able to ask the sculler for some assistance. Although they wash the dishes, they have been there a lot longer than you and may even be aspiring to be a chef themselves. From their experience in the kitchen, they, for example, know the dishes and how they are plated.

He also advises not to avoid tackling a task because you are scared to do so. If you don’t tackle it, you won’t learn. Ultimately, you will be required to do things you don’t want to.

D’jhon recalls a story told by his sous chef. It involved a dish the sous chef avoided tackling in his early training days for fear of being unable to do it. One day, working in hot kitchen, he found himself being the only one available to do this dish and was unable to.

The important thing is being flexible, open-minded, and willing to learn from anyone in the culinary world who has something invaluable you can grow from, no matter their rank or position in the kitchen.

9. Communicate clearly, listen, and respond effectively.

For kitchen operations to function effectively, chefs need good communication skills.

A good chef, for one, needs to give clear, concise instructions and ensure that they have been understood to avoid unnecessary errors in the kitchen operation.

You don’t want to, says D’jhon, have cut up 20 carrots only to find out that you did the wrong thing because you did not listen and correctly understand the instruction. Not only does this waste time but resources as well. You need to understand the task and why you are doing it.

It is especially when the kitchen is busy, and instructions are shouted out from one end of the kitchen to the other that you must ask when unsure of the instructions given. You need to acknowledge that you have heard and understood your task by saying, “yes, chef,” rather than just nodding.

Chefs in leadership roles, like executive chefs, need good communication skills to manage an establishment and the kitchen staff.

In this capacity, they need a solid ability to listen attentively to what is being said and, in turn, respond appropriately not only to make people feel like they have been heard or to show empathy, especially when dealing with staff but also to resolve conflict.

10. Lead and manage people towards optimal performance.

A chef heading up a kitchen has diverse roles in managing people; being a good chef entails mastering these as the success of a good chef is tied in with the success and achievements of his team. The more efficient they are, the more efficient he is.

Most important is leading by example in attitude and behaviour. Showing optimism, working hard with passion, being resilient and maintaining a calm composure under high pressure, especially when high volumes of clients need to be satisfied, inspires and motivates a kitchen team to do the same.

A good chef has learned how to promote team cohesion, motivate staff by acknowledging their efforts and achievements, and give positive and helpful feedback for growth. They are invested in upskilling their team and are astute in identifying learning gaps.

Of course, there are also the stricter aspects of leading a team, like ensuring that roles and responsibilities are executed, being firm and taking disciplinary action when needed.

D’jhon suggests that if you aspire to a leadership role in your culinary career, do what you can towards that role, like developing a solid voice for shouting out orders, so everyone knows what needs to be done.

Developing a leadership role is especially possible if you are fortunate to do your industry training or start your work career in a smaller kitchen establishment with a minor staff component.

If you happen to work in such a setting, take advantage by being willing and eager to work in hot kitchen as much as possible. Here the pressure is most significant, and as a result, you may be given more responsibilities and opportunities for growth.

If you work hard and prove yourself, you may find yourself working alongside your sous and executive chef or doing an order yourself. In such a setup, everyone is on the same level, not regarding position and skill but regarding cooking or getting the job done well. This means that even as an intern commis chef, you may ask a permanent chef to get a sauce ready or an ingredient you need if you are doing an order.

11. Developing resilience and handling stress.

Working in a busy kitchen can be challenging: standing and working for long hours in a hot kitchen and working extra time during peak periods. The pace at which orders must be processed is fast, and clients must be kept satisfied, making it a highly pressured, stress-conducive environment.

According to D’jhon little things could stress one, like working on a busy night, not being able to find an ingredient, and becoming anxious because of the pressure to get the vital ingredient, whilst others are shouting for it as they need it for an order they are doing.

Find ways to make this easier for yourself and lessen your anxiety. He suggests that learning your menu and doing so lets you know what goes into a dish, where to find it, what you have to prepare, and how to do so.

In addition, this is to spend loads of time observing other chefs and how they do things so that if you suddenly have to step up and do a task, you are somewhat ready for it.

Being a good chef means growing your ability to bounce back from personal and work-related challenges that could be emotionally draining and stressful. This means finding practical ways of dealing with emotions of anger and frustration or periods of great stress.

Cultivating skills like deep breathing, relaxation, remaining calm under pressure, taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and pursuing activities that make you happy are essential if you want to be a good chef.

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