Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food preparation at restaurants and other places where food is served. They direct kitchen staff and handle any food-related concerns.
Chefs and head cooks typically do the following:
- Check freshness of food and ingredients
- Supervise and coordinate activities of cooks and other food preparation workers
- Develop recipes and determine how to present the food
- Plan menus and ensure uniform serving sizes and 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 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.
Some chefs run their own restaurant or catering business. These chefs are often busy with kitchen and office work and have little time to interact with diners.
The following are examples of types of chefs and head cooks:
Executive chefs, head cooks, and chefs de cuisine are primarily responsible 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 held about 115,400 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most chefs and head cooks in 2012 were as follows:
|Restaurants and other eating places||46%|
|Special food services||10|
|Other amusement and recreation industries||6|
Chefs and head cooks work in restaurants, hotels, private households, and other food service facilities, all of which must be kept clean and sanitary. Chefs and head cooks usually stand for long periods and work in a fast-paced environment.
About 13 percent of chefs and head cooks were self-employed in 2012. Because some self-employed chefs run their own restaurant or catering business, their work can be additionally stressful. For example, outside the kitchen, they often spend long hours managing all aspects of the business, to ensure that bills and salaries are paid and that the business is profitable.
Injuries and Illnesses
Kitchens are usually crowded and filled with potential dangers, such as hot ovens and slippery floors. As a result, chefs and head cooks have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. The most common hazards are slips, falls, cuts, and burns, but these injuries are seldom serious. To reduce these risks, workers often wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeve cotton shirts and non-slip shoes.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time, including early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Many executive chefs work 12-hour days, because they oversee the delivery of food supplies early in the day and use the afternoon to prepare special menu items.
Most chefs and head cooks learn their skills through work experience. Others receive training at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or a 4-year college. A small number learn through apprenticeship programs or in the armed forces.
A growing number of chefs and head cooks receive formal training at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 4-year colleges.
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.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Most chefs and head cooks start working in other positions, such as line cooks, learning cooking skills from the chefs they work for. Many spend years working in kitchens before learning enough to get 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 fine-dining restaurants often have many years of training and experience.
Some chefs and head cooks learn through apprenticeship programs sponsored by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeship programs generally last about 2 years and combine instructions and on-the-job training. Apprentices must complete at least 1,000 hours of both instructions and paid on-the-job training. Courses typically cover food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. Apprentices spend the rest of the 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 post-secondary schools and sponsors apprenticeships around the country. The basic qualifications to enter an apprenticeship program are as follows:
- Minimum age of 17
- High school education or equivalent
- Drug free
Some chefs and head cooks receive formal training in the armed forces or from individual hotel or restaurant chains.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
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. Certification standards are based primarily on work-related experience and formal training. Minimum work experience for certification can range from 6 months to 5 years, depending on the level of certification.
Business skills. Executive chefs and chefs who run their own restaurant should understand the restaurant business. They should be skilled at administrative tasks, such as accounting and personnel management, and be able to manage a restaurant efficiently and profitably.
Communication skills. Because the pace in the kitchen can be hectic during peak dining hours, chefs must be able to communicate their orders clearly and effectively to staff.
Creativity. Chefs and head cooks must be creative in order to develop and prepare interesting and innovative recipes. They should be able to use various ingredients to create appealing meals for their customers.
Dexterity. Chefs and head cooks need excellent manual dexterity, including proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.
Leadership skills. Chefs and head cooks must have the ability to motivate kitchen staff and develop constructive and cooperative working relationships with them.
Sense of taste and smell. Chefs and head cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell, to inspect food quality and to design meals that their customers enjoy.
Time-management skills. Chefs and head cooks must efficiently manage their time and the time of their staff. They must ensure that meals are prepared and that customers are served on time, especially during busy hours.
The median annual wage for chefs and head cooks was $42,480 in May 2012. 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 $24,530, and the top 10 percent earned more than $74,120.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for chefs and head cooks in the top four industries employing these workers were as follows:
|Other amusement and recreation industries||47,490|
|Special food services||42,960|
|Restaurants and other eating places||39,790|
About 13 percent of chefs and head cooks were self-employed in 2012. Some self-employed chefs run their own restaurant or catering business.
The level of pay for chefs and head cooks varies greatly by region and employer. Pay is usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs work, as well as in major metropolitan and resort areas.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time and often work early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Many executive chefs and chefs who run their own business work 12-hour days, because they oversee the delivery of food products early in the day and use the afternoon to prepare special menu items.
Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 5 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.
Population and income growth are expected to result in greater demand for high-quality dishes at a variety of dining venues, including many upscale establishments.
However, employment growth should be limited, as many restaurants, in an effort to lower costs, choose to hire cooks or other food service workers to perform the work normally done by higher-paid chefs and head cooks.
Job opportunities should be best for chefs and head cooks with several years of work experience. The majority of job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The fast pace, long hours, and high energy levels required for these jobs often lead to a high rate of turnover.
There will be strong competition for jobs at upscale restaurants, hotels, and casinos, where the pay is typically highest. Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and creativity should have the best job prospects.