Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods. This may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.

Duties

Cooks typically do the following:

  • Check the freshness of food and ingredients before cooking
  • Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
  • Bake, roast, grill, broil, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Garnish, arrange, and serve food
  • Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware
  • Cook, hold, and store food or food ingredients

Large restaurants and food service establishments often have varied menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.

Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example. Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers.

Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.

The responsibilities of cooks vary with the place at which they work, the size of the facility, and the complexity and level of service offered. 

The following are examples of types of cooks:

Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, according to preset menus. Because meals are usually prepared in advance, cooks seldom take special orders.

Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies, set menu prices, and plan the daily menu.

Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.

Fast-food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served. For more information on workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.

Private household cooks and personal chefs plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client’s tastes and dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other social events. Private household cooks typically work for one full-time client. Some private household cooks and personal chefs are self-employed or employed by a private cooking company, regularly making meals for clients.

Work Environment

Cooks held about 2.1 million jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most cooks in 2012 were as follows:  

Restaurants and other eating places 68%
Health care and social assistance 8
Elementary and secondary schools 6

Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, and other establishments where food is served. Some work in private homes.

Cooks usually must stand for long periods and work under pressure in a fast-paced environment. Although most cooks work indoors in kitchens, some may work outdoors at food stands, at catered events, or in mobile food trucks.                              

Injuries and Illnesses

Kitchens are usually crowded and filled with dangerous things, such as hot ovens or slippery floors. As a result, institution and cafeteria, restaurant, and short-order cooks have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. The most common hazards are slips, falls, cuts, and burns, but the injuries are seldom serious. To reduce the risks, cooks wear protective coats, aprons, or nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most cooks work full time. Work shifts often include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias usually are more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.

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Short-term on-the-job training and work-related experience are the most common ways to become a cook. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.

Education

Independent and vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and college degree programs provide training for aspiring cooks. Programs generally last from a few months to 2 years. Some programs offer training in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.

Training

Most cooks learn their skills through short-term on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Training generally starts with learning kitchen basics and workplace safety and continues with handling and cooking food.

Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions sponsor such programs for cooks, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 17
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Pass substance abuse screening

Some hotels, a number of restaurants, and the Armed Forces have their own training programs.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.

Advancement

The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs as proficient in different skill levels. For cooks seeking certification and advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare more complex dishes. Those who learn new cooking skills and who accept greater responsibility often advance. Some cooks may train or supervise kitchen staff who have fewer cooking skills.

Some may become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.

Important Qualities

Comprehension. Cooks must be able to understand customers’ orders and follow recipes in order to prepare dishes correctly.

Customer-service skills. Restaurant and short-order cooks must be able to deal with customers’ complaints and special requests.

Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to know the proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Physical stamina. The work of a cook can be physically tiring because cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.

Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.

Teamwork. Cooks often prepare only part of a dish. They must coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time.

Education and Training

Short-term on-the-job training and work-related experience are the most common ways to become a cook. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.

Education

Independent and vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and college degree programs provide training for aspiring cooks. Programs generally last from a few months to 2 years. Some programs offer training in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.

Training

Most cooks learn their skills through short-term on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Training generally starts with learning kitchen basics and workplace safety and continues with handling and cooking food.

Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions sponsor such programs for cooks, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 17
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Pass substance abuse screening

Some hotels, a number of restaurants, and the Armed Forces have their own training programs.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.

Advancement

The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs as proficient in different skill levels. For cooks seeking certification and advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare more complex dishes. Those who learn new cooking skills and who accept greater responsibility often advance. Some cooks may train or supervise kitchen staff who have fewer cooking skills.

Some may become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.

Important Qualities

Comprehension. Cooks must be able to understand customers’ orders and follow recipes in order to prepare dishes correctly.

Customer-service skills. Restaurant and short-order cooks must be able to deal with customers’ complaints and special requests.

Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to know the proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Physical stamina. The work of a cook can be physically tiring because cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.

Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.

Teamwork. Cooks often prepare only part of a dish. They must coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time.

Pay

The median hourly wage for cooks was $9.88 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 $8.00 per hour, and the top 10 percent earned more than $14.68 per hour.

In May 2012, median hourly wages for cooks were as follows:

  • $11.29 for cooks, private household
  • $10.99 for cooks, institution and cafeteria
  • $10.59 for cooks, restaurant
  • $9.48 for cooks, short order
  • $8.85 for cooks, fast food
  • $11.18 for cooks, all other

Earnings of cooks vary greatly by region and type of employer. Earnings usually are highest in fine-dining restaurants and luxury hotels, which are often located in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias usually are more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Individual growth rates will vary by specialty.

People will continue to eat out, buy takeout meals, or have food delivered. In response, more restaurants will open and cafeterias, catering services, and nontraditional food-service operations, such as those found inside grocery stores, will serve more prepared food dishes. These circumstances will increase demand for cooks.

Employment growth for cooks also should increase as, in an effort to lower costs, many restaurants choose to hire cooks instead of chefs and head cooks, who often have higher wages.

Job Prospects

Overall job opportunities are expected to be good as a result of employment growth and the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. Cooks with training and related work experience will have the best job prospects.

Those who can prepare more complex dishes will have the best job opportunities at restaurant chains, upscale restaurants, and hotels. Candidates seeking full-time jobs at these restaurants will face strong competition because the number of job applicants often exceeds the number of job openings.

For More Information

For information about culinary apprenticeship programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, contact the local office of your state employment service agency, check the Employment and Training Administration website, or call the toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627.

For more information about cooking careers, visit

American Culinary Federation

National Restaurant Association

For information about becoming a personal chef, visit

American Personal & Private Chef Association

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.