Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food preparation at restaurants and other places where food is served.
What they do
Chefs and head cooks direct kitchen staff and handle any food-related concerns.
Chefs and head cooks typically do the following:
- Check the freshness of food and ingredients
- Supervise and coordinate activities of cooks and other food preparation workers
- Develop recipes and determine how to present dishes
- Plan menus and ensure the quality of meals
- Inspect supplies, equipment, and work areas for cleanliness and functionality
- Hire, train, and supervise cooks and other food preparation workers
- Order and maintain an inventory of food and supplies
- Monitor sanitation practices and follow kitchen safety standards
Chefs and head cooks use a variety of kitchen and cooking equipment, including step-in coolers, high-quality knives, meat slicers, and grinders. They also have access to large quantities of meats, spices, and produce. Some chefs use scheduling and purchasing software to help them in their administrative tasks.
Chefs who run their own restaurant or catering business are often busy with kitchen and office work. Some chefs use social media to promote their business by advertising new menu items or addressing customer reviews.
The following are examples of types of chefs and head cooks:
Executive chefs, head cooks, and chefs de cuisine are responsible primarily for overseeing the operation of a kitchen. They coordinate the work of sous chefs and other cooks, who prepare most of the meals. Executive chefs also have many duties beyond the kitchen. They design the menu, review food and beverage purchases, and often train cooks and other food preparation workers. Some executive chefs primarily handle administrative tasks and may spend less time in the kitchen.
Sous chefs are a kitchen’s second-in-command. They supervise the restaurant’s cooks, prepare meals, and report results to the head chefs. In the absence of the head chef, sous chefs run the kitchen.
Private household chefs typically work full time for one client, such as a corporate executive, university president, or diplomat, who regularly entertains as part of his or her official duties.
Chefs and head cooks work in restaurants, hotels, private households, and other food service establishments. All of the cooking and food preparation areas in these facilities must be kept clean and sanitary. Chefs and head cooks usually stand for long periods and work in a fast-paced environment.
Some self-employed chefs run their own restaurants or catering businesses and their work can be more stressful. For example, outside the kitchen, they often spend many hours managing all aspects of the business to ensure that bills and salaries are paid and that the business is profitable.
How to become a Chef and/or Head Cook
Most chefs and head cooks learn their skills through work experience. Others receive training at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or 4-year college. A small number learn through apprenticeship programs or in the Armed Forces.
Although postsecondary education is not required for chefs and head cooks, many attend programs at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 4-year colleges. Candidates are typically required to have a high school diploma or equivalent to enter these programs.
Students in culinary programs spend most of their time in kitchens, practicing their cooking skills. Programs cover all aspects of kitchen work, including menu planning, food sanitation procedures, and purchasing and inventory methods. Most training programs also require students to gain experience in a commercial kitchen through an internship or apprenticeship program.
Most chefs and head cooks start by working in other positions, such as line cooks, learning cooking skills from the chefs they work for. Many spend years working in kitchens before gaining enough experience to be promoted to chef or head cook positions.
Some chefs and head cooks train on the job, where they learn the same skills as in a formal education program. Some train in mentorship programs, where they work under the direction of an experienced chef. Executive chefs, head cooks, and sous chefs who work in upscale restaurants often have many years of training and experience.
Chefs and head cooks also may learn through apprenticeship programs sponsored by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, or trade unions. Some of these apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeship programs generally last 2 years and combine instruction and on-the-job training. Apprentices typically receive about 2,000 hours of both instruction and paid on-the-job training per year. Courses typically cover food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. Apprentices spend the rest of their training learning practical skills in a commercial kitchen under a chef’s supervision.
The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 academic training programs at postsecondary schools and sponsors apprenticeships around the country. The basic qualifications required for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:
- Minimum age of 17
- High school education or equivalent
Although not required, certification can show competence and lead to advancement and higher pay. The American Culinary Federation certifies personal chefs, in addition to various levels of chefs, such as certified sous chefs or certified executive chefs. Certification standards are based primarily on work-related experience and formal training. Minimum work experience for certification can range from about 6 months to 5 years, depending on the level of certification.
The median annual wage for chefs and head cooks was $51,530 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,370, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $86,990.
Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 6 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
Income growth will result in greater demand for high-quality dishes at a variety of dining venues. As a result, more restaurants and other dining places are expected to open to satisfy consumer desire for dining out.
Similar Job Titles
Banquet Chef; Certified Executive Chef (CEC); Chef; Chef, Instructor; Cook; Corporate Executive Chef; Executive Chef (Ex Chef); Executive Sous Chef; Head Cook; Line Cook, Certified Personal Chef (CPC), Personal Chef, Private Chef
Baker, Industrial Production Manager, Food Service Manager, First-Line Supervisor of Food Preparation and Serving Workers, First-Line Supervisor of Housekeeping and Janitorial Workers, First-Line Supervisors of Helpers/Laborers/Material Movers
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Culinary Federation
- American Personal and Private Chef Association
- United States Personal Chef Association
- Women Chefs and Restaurateurs
- Chaine Des Rotisseurs
- James Beard Foundation
- National Association for Catering and Events
- Retail Bakers Association
- World Association of Chefs Societies
Magazines and Publications
- KTCHN Rebel Magazine
- Art Culinaire Magazine
- Food and Beverage Magazine
- Chef Publishing
- The Art of Eating Magazine
- Food and Wine Magazine
- Cooks Illustrated Magazine
Some people think the words "chef" and "cook" mean the same thing, but in the restaurant world, there's a big difference. Chefs are more highly skilled and better trained than most cooks, and have more responsibility for designing the meals that make a restaurant's reputation. But it's not just about the food. This job requires good organizational and management skills. Sometimes called a head cook, the chef supervises the entire kitchen staff and keeps track of supplies and schedules. A chef should have a highly refined and inventive sense of taste. He or she creates the menu items and often prices them too. Advancing in this field may depend as much on limiting food costs and supervising less-skilled workers, as it does on creating a memorable menu. To keep things running smoothly in a hot, noisy kitchen, chefs need to be expert multi-taskers. The work is fast-paced and a missed detail can result in time lost and wasted food, not to mention an unhappy customer. Chefs are on their feet for hours at a time, often working evenings, weekends and holidays. While many cooks learn skills on the job, chefs and head cooks usually hold degrees in the culinary arts from a recognized cooking school. Many employers look for safe food handling certificates as well. Chefs advance by moving to new jobs and learning new skills, sometimes opening their own restaurants. And while only a few ever get their own cooking show, they're always delighted to accept your compliments.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org