Hard work is key ingredient
"It has totally changed from the old, classic kitchen rankings to modern kitchens. There are young cooks who are very talented and after their apprenticeship - and maybe five or six years on their own - they may open their own restaurant. It's all possible," says Martin Kniss, executive chef at the Cafe Deco Group.
Typically, restaurants serving Western cuisine are divided into a hot side - serving stews, roasts, and fried and sauteed items - and a cold side, specialising in pastries and desserts, and preparing food such as sandwiches and salads. A sous chef's role is to oversee these departments, reporting to the head chef or executive chef.
Other tasks include helping to design menus, controlling the cost of menu items, rostering and purchasing. They also have to fill in for the executive chef and more junior chefs when needed.
Angelo McDonnell, group executive chef at Igor's Group, says not everyone can become a sous chef. "You need to commit yourself to a lot of hard work and pressure, [plus] being a great cook and having management skills."
In kitchens where ranks are structured, cooks usually begin their careers as commis, working under a chef de partie (station chef) who is in charge of a specific department.
They will rotate across the kitchen's departments, spending about a year in each before being promoted to half-station chef, or a more senior role. Station chefs, with experience across different departments, will be picked to become sous chefs if there is a vacancy for the role. Conrad Hong Kong executive sous chef Kenneth Yuen says the process can take three to five years in smaller restaurants, and longer in larger ones, such as those in hotels.
McDonnell says sous chefs can earn between HK$16,000 and HK$25,000 a month, depending on the restaurant or hotel.
Trade test meets professional standards
- The Vocational Training Council launched a Western cuisine trade test system in 2004. It serves as a professional standard and enables chefs who are trained locally to be recognised overseas.
- There are three levels, in order of increasing seniority: certified cook, trainer chef, and master chef.
- To become a certified cook, candidates must have at least three years of work experience and have previously taken a one-year certificate course at the school. They are then eligible to enrol in the 60-hour preparatory course to become a certified cook, and in a one-day preparatory workshop. The final trade test consists of a one-hour written exam and a six-hour practical test.
People skills are key
- A sous chef not only has to be a good cook, but also needs good people skills to be able to act as the middle man between the head chef and the rest of the kitchen staff.
- It helps if a sous chef is well-travelled - that way, they are more likely to be creative in designing new menu items, and be able to understand how the Western cuisine they prepare is served in the country of origin.