A CHEF has encouraged youngsters looking for work in the catering industry to get real life experience to back up their qualifications.

Mark Henry, 31, is now head chef at an Essex pub.

He admits it can be a long path to running a kitchen.

He began working as a pot washer at a hotel in Falmouth, Cornwall, aged just 14, and discovered his passion for cooking there.

He says: “It was something I always wanted to do, and after getting my first job washing dishes, I knew from working there I wanted to be a chef.

“I began going into the kitchen doing some prep work, starting at the bottom, then doing starters and desserts.”

At 16 Mark went to college and studied cooking for two years, qualifying with an NVQ at levels two and three. He urges would-be chefs to enrol on a similar course today to develop practical skills, learning in a kitchen at college, but to also keep a part-time job to get “real life” experience.

Mark, who is married with two children, says: “At college I learnt different skills in all areas, from knife skills to vegetable preparation, sauces and soups.

“It is definitely something I would recommend for people wanting to be a chef.

“Go to college, but get yourself a part-time job in the real world.”

Even today as a head chef of the Brewers Arms, in Brightlingsea, north Essex, Mark is still washing plates as part of the job, and reminds people considering cooking as a career that it isn’t all cordon bleu.

He says: “You have to be dedicated, especially in a smaller kitchen, as you are dishing up nice meals one minute and then doing the dishes the next.

“It isn’t all like a TV celebrity chef who may spend a whole day on one dish.

“It is full-on. Some days can be long, especially when you have big bookings, and you have to put the hours in.

“It is the evenings as well, you often start or go back into the kitchen at 5pm when most people finish their job and you can’t go to the pub with your mates all the time.

“You have to have a love for cooking, but it goes a lot further and you also need to know about health and safety, checking your stock, and ordering the right amounts in.”

Mark is now overseeing a teenager who is training in his kitchen, and is due to go to the Colchester Institute in September for a cookery course, bringing him round full circle.

Mark says: “Overall if it’s what you want to do, then you do it. When you have done 100 meals and everyone loved it, it is very rewarding.”