Becoming a Cook: Salary Info & Job Description

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A head cook's median annual salary is around $41,000, but is it worth the training requirements? Get the truth about the descriptions and career prospects to decide if it's the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Cook Career

Cooks typically handle the cooking duties in cafeterias, fast food, short order establishments and restaurants, while head cooks plan menus, supervise other cooks, develop recipes and determine serving presentations. Read the pros and cons to help determine if this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Cook Career
Head cook positions can lead to decent a decent salary (top 90% earned a salary of $73,000 in May 2014)*
Several specialty areas (i.e., gourmet cooking or baking)*
Many entry-level positions don't require formal education*
Opportunities to work in various environments*

Cons of a Cook Career
Entry-level cook positions show average growth (expected to grow ten percent between 2012 and 2022)*
Head cook positions showing slower-than-average change (five percent increase between 2012 and 2022)*
Head cook positions may require extensive training*
Uncomfortable work conditions*
May be subjected to burns, cuts, falls and slips*

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

Career Information

Job Descriptions and Duties

Before you can cook, you have to make sure that all of the day's ingredients are safe to use. Depending on your position, your cooking duties may include roasting, frying, boiling, baking, grilling or broiling food. In order to make sure that dishes come out right, you need to follow explicit recipes detailing how a dish should be cooked, quantity of dish components and which ingredients need to be used.

Some cooks may also be required to serve finished dishes and clean up when the day is over. As a head cook, you are in charge of planning menus, supervising other cooks, developing recipes, keeping the kitchen clean and determining serving presentations.

Career Prospects and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), entry-level cooks are expected to see only an ten percent employment growth, while head cooks may see five percent growth between 2012 and 2022. Entry-level cook positions are expected to increase due to continuous demand for eating meals away from home. Head cook positions are expecting slower growth because many restaurants are looking to cut costs by having entry-level cooks perform head cook duties. The best job opportunities can be found with restaurants and hotels.

The BLS reported hourly wages for a variety of cooks. For example, restaurant cooks made a median hourly wage of about $10.81 in 2014, while cafeteria and institution cooks had a median hourly income of $11.27. In the same year, the BLS reported that the median hourly rate for head cooks was $20.01 or $41,610 per year.

Education and Training Requirements

If you are interested in a career as an entry-level cook, some employers may recommend having some kitchen work experience as a preparer or kitchen helper. Many employers only require entry-level cooks to have a high school education. Many of the skills required are usually earned through a few weeks of on-the-job training. If you are interested in a head cook position, you may need entry-level cook experience and a formal education from a 2- or 4-year program in areas like culinary arts. Head cooks can also earn training through mentorships and the military.

Useful Skills

To be successful in these fields, you need have a good sense of taste and smell to recognize correct cooking. Many employers may also require you to understand how to adhere to dietary needs for those with allergies and medical issues. As an entry-level cook, you may be required to have skills working with various types of kitchen equipment. As head cook, you may be required to know how to compile recipes and demonstrate leadership skills. The following is a list of general traits preferred by employers:

  • Ability to work under extreme pressure
  • Strong teamwork skills
  • Ability to treat all clients appropriately
  • Listening and communication skills

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employment can be found through any employer that owns a kitchen. While most positions can be found in restaurants, some employers also include nursing and private homes. You may also find that some employers prefer previous serving experience. Although this isn't a comprehensive look, the following examples were what a few employers were looking for in April 2012:

  • A health service company in Indiana was looking for a cook able to properly prepare food according to safety standards and make food from scratch.
  • A retirement community in Pennsylvania searched for someone able to compile production logs and food temperature sheets.
  • A resort hotel in New Mexico advertised for someone able to rotate food stock and follow food order slips.
  • A security company in Texas searched for a cook with experience in food production management and cooking for large groups.
  • A senior living facility was looking for a lead cook able to train other cooks and help management in ordering supplies.

How to Make Your Skills Stand Out

As an entry-level cook, you can separate yourself from the competition by completing a culinary arts program at a vocational or independent school. Depending on your level of education, these programs can take from a few months to four years to complete.

The BLS states that if you intend on advancing your career, you may be able find voluntary certification that exemplify your skills and aspirations from the American Culinary Federation (ACF). If you want to improve your chances to become a head cook, apprenticeships can also supplement your education to help develop professional skills under an established head cook. The ACF also offers a varying range of certifications for head cooks.

Get Specialized

When working as an entry-level cook, specializations are determined by your placement on a kitchen line. These specializations are usually titled according to the equipment and types of food you are in charge of preparing. Head cooks often have the most control over their specializations. During your education or training, you can focus on different types of food or culinary styles. The ACF also offers specialized certifications for head cooks focusing on professional cooking, baking and pastries, cooking education, culinary administration and personal cooking.

Alternative Career Paths

If you would like to work outside of the kitchen, you may be interested in a career as a bartender. As a bartender, you are in charge of a taking drink orders, constructing drinks, making sure that each customer is over the legal alcohol age, providing customer service, handling money and making sure that the bar is properly stocked. Most bartender training is completed on-the-job or through bartending classes. Some employers don't have any educational requirements. As of May 2011, the BLS estimated that the median salary of bartenders was $19,000.

As a food service manager, you are tasked with hiring new employees, ensuring health and safety standards, ensuring high-quality customer service, scheduling employees, controlling food portion sizes, firing employees and ordering supplies. To enter a career in this field, you may need to have prior experience in a food-related career or completed education from a related post-secondary program. Positions in this field may decline by three percent between 2010 and 2020 due to a decline in dining establishments. In May 2011, the BLS estimated that food service managers earned a median salary of $48,000.

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