Chef Career: Salary & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a chef? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a chef is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Chef

As a chef, you'll play a supervisory role in a professional kitchen, ensuring that all food is cooked and served promptly. You'll want to look at the pros and cons of becoming a chef to help you decide if it's a good career choice for you.

Pros of Becoming a Chef
Creativity is encouraged*
Many places to work (restaurants, hotels, retirement communities, country clubs)*
Can work in most geographic areas*
Formal training not mandatory*

Cons of Becoming a Chef
Slower-than-average employment growth (5% from 2012-2022)*
Keen competition for top-paying jobs*
Can be dangerous (burns, cuts, slips)*
High stress at times*
Work long hours and on weekends, holidays*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Someone in charge of a food service operation often is called a head chef or an executive chef. The chef supervises the hiring and training of staff, develops budgets for food and supplies and ensures that food service runs smoothly. The chef develops recipes and, depending on the size of the operation, may cook dishes or teach other cooks how to prepare them. Chefs also make sure employees adhere to food safety and sanitation regulations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says about half of all chefs are employed at restaurants that offer table service. Restaurant kitchens can be hot and hectic, and there's a risk of burns and cuts as well as falls on slippery floors. Chefs often put in long hours and may work on holidays or weekends.

Career Prospects and Salary

In 2014, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for a chef or head cook was $41,610, with half the chefs making between $30,630 and $56,820. The BLS expected slower-than-average job growth of 5% for chefs and head cooks from 2012-2022. Head cooks and chefs with many years of experience were anticipated to have the best opportunities. Casinos, upscale establishments and hotels offer better pay, generating more competition for these positions. Individuals with business skills and creativity have the best prospects.

Career Specializations

Instead of leading the kitchen as an executive chef, individuals may become sous chefs. This person supports executive or head chefs and runs the show in their absence. Additional specialties include personal and private household chefs, who work in private homes or for specific clients.

What Are the Requirements?

The BLS states that many restaurant workers advance to the job of chef through hard work and on-the-job training, but most have some training through a school or an apprenticeship. Programs should be approved by the American Culinary Federation (ACF), which accredits over 200 postsecondary training programs. ACF also operates several apprenticeship programs that train aspiring chefs through a combination of classroom studies and on-the-job training. These programs take 1-3 years to complete.

Formal training to become a chef can be found through a 2-year associate's degree program in culinary arts or a 4-year bachelor's degree program in culinary arts or hospitality management. Some institutions offer accelerated programs that shave off a few months for students with industry experience. In a degree program, you'll learn about sanitation, cost control and maybe even go abroad to study the cuisine of another culture. You'll spend much of your time in hands-on training.

Useful Skills

In addition to being a good, innovative cook, a successful chef must have leadership abilities, per the BLS. You'll also need solid communication skills. Additionally, time management and business skills are useful in this industry as are a sense of taste and smell.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Job postings for chefs show the diversity of workplaces in this field. While cooking experience is what will get you a job as a chef, according to most job postings, employers also specify that they want someone with at least a 2-year diploma from an accredited culinary program. Here is a sampling of what some real employers were looking for from open job listings in March 2012:

  • A long-term care facility in Michigan sought a chef to cook and prepare one meal a day and prep for the next meal. The chef should be experienced in breakfast, lunch and a la carte cooking, and the posting said someone with therapeutic diet experience would get top consideration.
  • In Colorado, a retreat and conference center was seeking a chef with a 2-year degree and two years of experience. The employer required someone familiar with sustainable food practices and creating menus for special diets. Teaching and public speaking experience were desired.
  • An executive search firm in Dallas was looking for a corporate chef familiar with Latin and Mexican cuisine who could handle a job in research and development with a restaurant company. The company preferred bilingual applicants with a culinary degree.
  • A mental health hospital in Philadelphia needed a chef to help with menu development for the hospital cafeteria. The chef's duties would include hiring and training personnel, controlling labor costs, ordering food and supplies, as well as assisting on the line during busy periods and special events. Requirements included a bachelor's degree, five years of chef experience and ACF certification.

How to Beat the Competition

Becoming a chef doesn't have a set education requirement, but getting a degree or formal training can make your skills stand out to employers according to job postings and the BLS. Although good cooking is the main prerequisite for success as a chef, you'll also need strong business skills to excel as a manager. Enrolling in business electives during your program may help prepare you. Some job postings also mention computer knowledge as useful for chefs and could make you stand out.

Earn Professional Certification

Certification demonstrates competence and may lead to promotions and high-paying positions, according to the BLS. Whether or not you choose to obtain formal training, you can seek credentials from the ACF, which certifies chefs at several levels based on education and experience. The ACF bestows its highest designation, Certified Master Chef, only after an 8-day examination of skills and knowledge. Certification is also available for culinary administrators and culinary educators.

Alternative Career Paths

Baker

If you enjoy the creativity of cooking, but your tastes run towards the sweet side of cuisine, perhaps working as a baker would be a good career option for you. Many culinary programs offer bachelor's and associate's degrees in baking and pastry; others integrate these subjects into the basic culinary program. You'll learn to make breads, pasta, desserts, cakes, pies, and even culinary showpieces of chocolate or sugar. You can also get on-the-job training while working at a bakery shop or a manufacturer of baked goods, but these jobs pay less than that of a restaurant pastry chef.

The BLS predicted that jobs for bakers were estimated to grow slowly from 2010-2020, with only a two percent increase in the number of positions. The organization reported that the median wage for bakers in food processing operations was just over $23,000 as of May 2011.

Butcher

You might consider becoming a butcher if you want to get down to the basics of food preparation in a field that requires only on-the-job training. The BLS says it usually takes 1-2 years to become fully proficient in cutting meat into pieces to sell at retail. You may also learn to make sausage and cure meats. Butchers can work in huge meat processing plants, grocery stores or smaller butcher shops. The work can be uncomfortable and hazardous, working in cold meat lockers with sharp power tools. The BLS said there should be an eight percent growth in jobs for butchers and meat cutters from 2010-2020. The median annual salary for a butcher was more than $28,000 in May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Johns Hopkins University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Regulatory Science
      • Master of Science in Regulatory Science
    Certificate
      • MS in Food Safety Regulation
      • MS in Food Safety Regulation
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • AASBA in Food/Hotel Management
      • AASBA in Food/Hotel Management
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Penn Foster Career School

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Career Diploma - Caterer
      • Certificate - Gourmet Cooking
      • Career Diploma - Guest Service Agent
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • High School with Culinary Arts Professional Pathway
    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
  • Campus Locations:
    5. CDI College

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Diploma in Personal Support Worker
  • Valdosta, GA

    Wiregrass Georgia Technical College

  • Fishersville, VA

    Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center

  • Wheeling, WV

    West Virginia Northern Community College

Featured Schools

Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Science in Regulatory Science
  • MS in Food Safety Regulation

What is your highest level of education?

Kaplan University

  • AASBA in Food/Hotel Management

Which subject are you interested in?

Penn Foster Career School

  • Career Diploma - Caterer
  • Certificate - Gourmet Cooking
  • Career Diploma - Guest Service Agent

What is your highest level of education?

Penn Foster High School

  • High School with Culinary Arts Professional Pathway
  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

What is your age?

CDI College

  • Diploma in Personal Support Worker

What year did you graduate high school?

Wiregrass Georgia Technical College

Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center

West Virginia Northern Community College