- Chefs and Head Cooks, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed December 30, 2018, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/chefs-and-head-cooks.htm
- American Culinary Foundation, accessed December 30, 2018: Postsecondary and Secondary Accreditation for Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry Programs, https://www.acfchefs.org/ACF/Education/Accreditation/ACF/Education/Accreditation/; Certification Matters, https://www.acfchefs.org/ACF/Certify/AboutCertification/ACF/Certify/About/; Written Exams for ACF Certification, https://www.acfchefs.org/ACF/Certify/Exams/WrittenExams/ACF/Certify/WrittenExams/;
- The Culinary Institute of America, accessed December 30, 2018: Internship: Gain Real-World Experience, https://www.ciachef.edu/internship/; Culinary Arts Degree California, https://www.ciachef.edu/cia-california-culinary-arts-associate-degree-program/; 2018-2019 Undergraduate and Graduate Catalog, http://catalog.ciachef.edu/search_advanced.php?cur_cat_oid=27&ecpage=1&cpage=2&ppage=1&pcpage=1&spage=1&tpage=1&search_database=Search&filter%5Bkeyword%5D=cul&filter%5B3%5D=1&filter%5B31%5D=1; What's the Difference Between a Culinary Arts Certificate vs. a Degree?, https://blog.ciachef.edu/culinary-arts-certificate-vs-degree/;
- School pages, accessed December 30, 2018: Culinary Arts Degree, Milwaukee Area Technical College, https://www.matc.edu/student/offerings/2018-2019/degrees/culinary_arts.cfm; Professional Culinary Arts Diploma, Northwest Culinary Academy, https://nwcav.com/professional-program/professional-culinary-program/; Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Culinary Arts, Bastyr University, https://bastyr.edu/academics/nutrition/bachelors/bs-nutrition-culinary-arts; Association of Occupational Studies in Culinary Arts, New England Culinary Institute, https://www.neci.edu/program/online-programs.php;
- Chefs and Head Cooks, Occupational Outlook Handbook, accessed December 30, 2018, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/35-1011.00
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An elevated interest in quality food on restaurant menus as well as in home kitchens means that aspiring chefs are likely to need a quality education before they head out to stake their claim on today's culinary landscape.
There's also a trend toward chef-focused restaurants across the country, which suggests that chefs who have a good understanding of the business side of the culinary industry will have a leg up on their competition for top jobs. If you're looking for info on what education is needed to become a chef, or if you're curious about chef salary and career options, read on below for an overview of this exciting career.
What do chefs do?
The specific responsibilities of a chef can vary quite a bit from one job to another, but there are a few duties that chefs all across the spectrum tend to perform on a regular basis. Here's a breakdown of a few general tasks that you're likely to handle at some point in your culinary career:
- Inspecting equipment, work areas, supplies and storage areas to ensure sanitary conditions
- Managing inventory of food and supplies and ensuring that food and ingredients are fresh
- Developing recipes, planning menus and composing effective presentation models for dishes
- Hiring, training, supervising and coordinating schedules for cooks and other food workers
The majority of chefs work in restaurants and other food-focused businesses, but some may branch out into other industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor shows that around 10 percent of chefs work in non-restaurant special food services, while roughly 15 percent worked at resorts, casinos and other large venues in the hospitality industry. Around 7 percent of working chefs were self-employed in 2016.
As you may already know, not all chef positions are created equal. Even if your plan is to focus on learning the skills necessary to become a head chef, you may still end up taking on one of the other specialized positions on your route to the top. Here's some detail about three of the most common job types for chef school graduates:
- Executive chefs, head cooks and chefs de cuisine build menus and manage kitchens in restaurants, resort hotels and other establishments. They may focus more on administration than day-to-day kitchen operations, directing the work of restaurant personnel instead of preparing individual meals themselves.
- Sous chefs occupy the spot just below the head chef in a kitchen's pecking order. They typically serve as direct supervisors for line cooks, prep cooks and other kitchen workers and take over the kitchen in the absence of the head chef.
- Private household chefs typically work for a single client -- often a corporate executive, entertainment mogul or diplomat -- preparing menus and food for private meals and gatherings.
How to Become a Chef
If you're already wondering how to become a chef, chances are you already have the passion for food and cooking that you need to succeed. If you combine that passion with the following steps, you should be well on your way to establishing a culinary career where your skills can shine:
- Finish high school or earn an equivalency degree. Just about any employer requires a high school diploma, GED or other equivalent credential. Completing high school shows that you have essential fundamental skills in math and English, as well as qualifying you for higher education programs.
- Attend culinary school. A college education may not be necessary to become a chef, but the right culinary training may give you an advantage over other candidates. Diploma and certificate programs are the quickest route through school, but a two-year associate degree program is more likely to provide a well-rounded education.
- Complete an internship. Not all chef schools offer internships, but it's a good idea to accept one if they do. Internships can give you real-world experience and provide valuable connections in the professional culinary world before you even graduate.
The top culinary schools in the country may each have their own idea of what specific education is needed to become a chef, but the general structure of their degree plans tends to be fairly similar. Here's a list of course subjects that you can expect to see on your schedule at some point during your program:
- Culinary fundamentals
- Food service sanitation
- Vegetables and grains
- Meat identification and use
- Seafood/shellfish cooking
- Stocks, soups and sauces
- Regional cuisines
- Garde manger
- Restaurant operations
Chef degree and certificate programs
It seems like a straightforward question -- how long does it take to become a chef? -- but the answer is a bit complicated. As is the case with many creative professions, programs at chef schools tend to vary in length, with longer programs tending to cover the elements of the profession in greater depth.
Depending on the chef school you choose, you may have one or more of the following study plans available:
- Undergraduate certificates and diplomas are typically shorter programs that either provide a brief introduction to multiple aspects of the field or cover one or two concepts in depth. They may take as few as 12 months to complete and tend not to cover any general education subjects.
- Associate degrees can generally be earned in two years of full-time study. Students hoping to learn as much as they can about the culinary profession often opt for associate plans, because they typically cover theory and practice in greater detail and include academic courses that can provide a foundation for continued education in the future.
- Bachelor's degrees take roughly four years of full-time study to complete and often include training in restaurant management, nutrition science or other aspects of food that go beyond cooking. If you know you want to cook, create recipes and build menus, an associate degree can probably give you the training you need.
Hands-on training chef schools
Internships may not be included in every culinary curriculum, but they can be a big help to young chefs looking to get their start. Culinary internships are possible in a variety of locations, from hotels and high-end restaurants to cruise ships and the Food Network, so you may be able to get experience in exactly the setting where you're hoping to work.
Online chef schools
Even though you have to be in a kitchen to train as a chef, there's no reason that the kitchen can't be your own. Online chef schools can provide instruction, course materials and student-teacher interaction all via the internet, allowing you to learn how to become a chef without the need to travel to class each day or take time away from your work and family responsibilities.
What online culinary schools are not, however, are an "easy A" alternative to brick-and-mortar study. Online students have to stay motivated and disciplined without the benefit of an in-person classroom environment to hold them accountable. It's typically best to chat with an advisor at an online chef school about the demands of the program before making a commitment to enroll.
The American Culinary Foundation (ACF) offers a range of certifications that can demonstrate your dedication to your craft and serve as proof of your skill in specific areas. Here's are a few of the ACF chef certifications available as of 2019:
- Certified Sous Chef
- Certified Chef de Cuisine
- Certified Working Pastry Chef
- Certified Executive Chef
- Personal Certified Chef
Employers don't typically require certification of entry-level chefs, but it can be a valuable asset when trying to take the next step in an established career.
Career advancement options for chefs
If there's one sound piece of advice for chefs who want to climb the career ladder, it's this: never stop learning. There's always more to know about the food you serve, the techniques you use and the approaches that are conducive to a good experience for cooks and diners alike. The more experienced you are, the more likely you are to be considered for positions at more prestigious and higher-paying establishments.
Another way to move up in the culinary world is to return to school and learn about the management side of the profession. Culinary managers may not be as active in the kitchen as head chefs, but their administrative expertise is essential to helping a restaurant run smoothly.
Chef Skills and Abilities
According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), there are a few skills and abilities that can be a great help to anyone wondering how to become a chef. Take a look at this list and find out if you've already got some of the more valuable skills and traits for culinary careers:
- Time management is one of the most important elements of a well-run kitchen, especially during busy periods
- Oral expression is the most efficient way for chefs to express their ideas and expectations to their team of cooks
- Manual dexterity is a must when working with knives, hot pans, meat grinders and other dangerous hand-operated tools
- Performance monitoring helps chefs make honest assessments of their kitchens' strengths and weaknesses
- Problem sensitivity, or the ability to tell when something is wrong or likely to go wrong, can avert kitchen crises before they start
Chef Salary and Career Outlook
After all that information, you're probably ready to know the big one: how much do chefs make? Chef salary expectations can depend on a range of factors, including the state, industry segment or individual establishment where you work. The best opportunities for chefs and head cooks tend to be available to candidates with plenty of experience on the job, education and culinary creativity.
Take a look at this breakdown of salary and career projections for a few key culinary professions, drawn from statistics compiled by the BLS:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Chefs and Head Cooks||128,600||$52,160||9.6%|
Professional Resources for Chefs
Joining a professional association can help you move forward in your culinary career by providing access to educational seminars, resources for professional development and networking opportunities at conferences and other events. Here's a short list of professional resources that can provide career benefits to chefs:
- The American Culinary Foundation offers culinary certifications, provides chefs with an online career center and publishes The National Culinary Review, an award-winning industry magazine.
- The International Association of Culinary Professionals produces interactive Web presentations by industry leaders, maintains a fully accessible directory of members and compiles information on pay rates and other compensation data for various culinary positions.
- Women Chefs and Restaurateurs works to help women navigate the traditionally male-dominated world of the professional culinary arts.
- Slow Food is an international grassroots organization founded to preserve local food cultures and forge lasting relationships between people and the food they eat.
- Food science enthusiasts can join the Research Chefs Association, which provides a supportive community for culinary industry professionals working in research and development.