All over the U.S., people are expanding their horizons when it comes to food. Whether it's the dozens of cooking shows being streamed to houses across the country or the growing interest in regional dishes and locally sourced ingredients, national demand for the skills taught in culinary schools is on the rise.
What are the different types of culinary professionals? How much does culinary school cost? We address these and other important questions on this page. We've also got information about the subjects covered in culinary certificate programs, the different levels of culinary arts degree and the professional organizations that can help you advance your career. Read on for some vital information about training programs and jobs in the culinary arts world.
What do culinary professionals do?
The duties you perform on an ordinary day in a culinary job can differ widely from position to position, particularly if you find work in a specialized segment of the industry. The general duties in a kitchen, however, tend to have a few tasks in common:
- Ensuring that work areas, storage areas and equipment are in safe and sanitary condition
- Managing ingredient stocks to make sure that only fresh food is available for use
- Creating recipes, menus and food pairings to inspire fellow cooks and delight your guests
- Preparing food to order and presenting it attractively on the plate
Graduates of culinary arts schools mostly work in restaurant, hospitality and bakery environments, although a few may find employment in retail stores or food factories. They typically spend most of the day on their feet and around hot ovens, and between five and seven percent were self-employed in 2016.
Culinary Arts Specializations
The best culinary schools in the country offer a range of programs to cover the various specialized roles in the world of food preparation. Here's a quick list of subjects for culinary degrees and certificate programs:
- General culinary arts
- Baking and pastry arts
- Food business management
- Culinary science
- Applied food studies
How to Become a Chef or Culinary Professional
Everyone's path to the world of professional kitchens goes through slightly different twists and turns, but there are a few tried-and-true ways to carve out your niche in the culinary world. Here's a list of conventional steps that aspiring culinary artists often take to get their foot in the door of the industry:
- Earn your high school diploma or equivalent
- Complete a culinary arts training program at the college level
- Participate in an internship or other supervised entry-level employment
- Consider professional certification
The various study plans at culinary arts schools tend to focus on courses relevant to their specialties — a baking and pastry student isn't likely to study beef and poultry in much depth, for example — but chances are good that you'll cover several of these subjects on your road to graduation:
- Culinary fundamentals
- Food safety and sanitation
- Bread and rolls
- Chocolate and confectionary
- Nutritional science
- Food service management
- Regional dishes and cuisines
- Restaurant operations
- Commercial food production
Culinary degree and certificate programs
It may not seem like a complex question — How much does culinary school cost? — but there are multiple factors that determine the bottom-line expense of culinary education. Depending on which of these study plans you choose, for example, the total bill for your culinary education can vary significantly:
- Undergraduate certificates are usually the shortest and least expensive type of program at culinary schools. They may cover several fundamentals of the culinary arts in an introductory way or go in-depth on just one or two aspects of the craft.
- Diplomas are similar to undergraduate certificates in that they generally take one or two semesters of study to complete and tend to stay away from covering many subjects in great detail.
- Associate degrees typically provide a good balance between program length and depth of study. An associate degree in culinary arts usually takes about two years of full-time schooling, typically covers theory and practice in greater detail than a diploma or certificate and often includes academic courses that may transfer easily into a future bachelor's program.
Bachelor's degrees are also available from culinary arts schools, especially for students hoping to go into management. If you're hoping to start out as a cook, a baker or another kitchen-based culinary professional, an associate degree is probably your best bet.
Hands-on training at culinary schools
A large percentage of the education at culinary arts schools is delivered with some hands-on work for students, but there is one highly practical learning experience that's more hands-on than most. Some culinary programs include an internship section for senior students, during which they travel off campus to learn and work in an active kitchen, bakery or restaurant environment.
Internship experiences can provide invaluable professional experience in a supervised environment and give students a taste of what they're likely to see once they finish school and head out into the working world. If you're interested in a culinary internship, make sure to ask an advisor at your chosen school about them before enrolling.
Online culinary schools
Education in the virtual classroom has come a long way in the last decade. Online culinary schools have developed ways to instruct students on the finer points of cooking, baking, food science and more without requiring them to attend class in person, which can be great if you want to work toward a culinary career without putting any extra strain on your existing schedule.
One thing online culinary schools are not, however, is a low-effort alternative to conventional education. It may be best to avoid online culinary programs unless your passion for cooking is strong enough to motivate you to complete all of your readings, assignments and exams without the driving force of meeting regularly in a classroom.
Certifications are available for culinary professionals in just about every specialty. The American Culinary Foundation (ACF), for example, offers a copious list of certifications that includes credentials like these:
- Certified Fundamentals Cook (CFC)
- Certified Sous Chef (CSC)
- Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC)
- Certified Working Pastry Chef (CWPC)
- Certified Master Pastry Chef (CMPC)
- Certified Culinary Administrator (CCA)
- Certified Culinary Educator (CCE)
Certifications are also available through other organizations, such as the Retail Bakers of America. While it's not typically required to earn certification before you land your first real culinary arts job, established professionals can demonstrate their dedication, drive and skill by maintaining a certification level appropriate to their experience.
Career advancement for culinary professionals
There are those who would tell you that extensive experience on the job is the only way to advance your culinary career, but that's not necessarily the case. It's true that developing a reputation for quality work and sharpening your skills to a high degree of professionalism can help you climb the career ladder, but learning the administrative side of the business can also create opportunities for advancement.
Although it's possible to learn some culinary management techniques on the job, formal training programs work to provide a well-rounded administrative education. Culinary management degree programs focus on the particular challenges of the food service industry, but a general degree in management can suffice if you've had sufficient experience in culinary environments.
Top Culinary Arts Programs
To find the best culinary arts programs at vocational schools, we analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics. We looked for institutions that demonstrated student success, had affordable tuition and offered flexible program options, among other metrics. Based on our methodology, the following ten colleges rose to the top.
Students enrolled at Lake Land College get a personalized education at an affordable price. The school notes its average class size is 12.2 students and estimates its textbook rental service can save people $1,400 per year. With more than 150 programs available, Lake Land College offers both academic degrees and vocational training. It has more than a dozen programs that can be completed entirely online as well as a number of online-flex degrees that combine online and on-campus classes.
Culinary arts programs at Lake Land College: The culinary arts certificate at Lake Land College is intended to provide fundamental knowledge and skills to servers, cooks and food prep workers. It requires 14 credits and can be completed in a single semester. The curriculum covers sanitation and culinary fundamentals among other topics.
Established in 1961, Albany Technical College is part of the Technical College System of Georgia. It offers diploma, technical certificate of credit and degree programs, many of which can be earned online as well as on-campus. More than 3,000 full-time students are enrolled each quarter in credit classes, and nearly as many study on a part-time basis.
Culinary arts programs at ATC: Students at ATC can choose from several culinary arts programs. The school offers an associate degree, diploma and two technical certificates of credit in the field. The degree and diploma programs cover a wide range of occupational courses, including baking, restaurant operations and contemporary cuisine. They also require students complete a practicum. The certificates are designed for those who want to work as either a culinary professional assistant or a food production worker.
South Georgia Technical College is on a mission to provide students with high-quality and accessible education programs. It is unique in that it is one of only two technical colleges in its state to offer on-campus housing. However, there are also online learning options for those who prefer to study from the comfort of their own home.
Culinary arts programs at South Georgia Tech: There are two culinary arts programs at South Georgia Tech. The culinary arts degree program includes both general education and occupational classes. Students learn about cooking, baking and menu development and may complete a practicum prior to graduation. The culinary arts diploma at South Georgia Tech is a shorter program that focuses almost exclusively on occupational classes.
With a history dating back to 1909, West Kentucky Community and Technical College is focused on providing students with a practical education that will prepare them for the workplace. More than 6,000 students are enrolled in the school with many studying online or on a part-time basis.
Culinary arts programs at WKCTC: WKCTC has an extensive culinary arts program. It offers more than a dozen associate degree, diploma and certificate options. Within its associate degree, students can choose from three tracks: catering and personal chef, culinary arts and food and beverage management. Those options are also available at the diploma level. Certificates can be earned in as little as one semester and are offered in fields of study such as catering, baking and culinary arts.
The College of Lake County attracts more than 14,000 students to its credit and non-credit classes. They come to the school for its low in-district tuition rate, welcoming atmosphere and flexible learning options, among other things. In addition to its on-campus programs, the college offers fully online and blended courses as well.
Culinary arts programs at CLC: Culinary arts students can earn either a degree or a certificate at CLC. Degree options include an associate degree in hospitality and culinary management and an associate degree in baking and pastry arts. Meanwhile, certificates cover a half dozen specialties including professional chef, hospitality supervisor and pastry chef assistant. Students in all programs may be able to practice their skills in the school's Prairie Restaurant.
Conveniently located in Albuquerque, Central New Mexico Community College is a top producer of certificates and associate degrees. It is ranked first in the nation when it comes to awarding associate degrees and certificates to Hispanic and Native American students, according U.S. Department of Education data. The college offer traditional degrees, fast track programs and workforce training.
Culinary arts programs at CNM: Students can choose from certificates or degrees in culinary arts from CNM. The school has an associate degree that offers three concentrations: culinary arts, beverage management and advanced baking and pastry. Certificates of completion are offered in baking, culinary fundamentals and food service management. Programs include both classroom and lab instruction. Associate degree graduates may be eligible for certification through the American Culinary Federation.
Atlanta Technical College prides itself on preparing its students for careers with the region's leading industries. It offers 150 programs of study, including 15 tuition-free career training options in sectors such as business, health and transportation. Atlanta Technical College has both traditional and online degree programs, and its graduates have an impressive 98 percent job placement rate.
Culinary arts programs at ATC: ATC offers a degree, a diploma and two technical certificates for culinary arts students. The school's culinary arts associate degree can be completed in four semesters and combines culinary theory with practical application. The diploma in culinary arts also require four semesters but contains fewer general education classes and does not require a leadership class. Certificates are intended for those planning to work as culinary nutrition assistants or prep cooks.
Trident Technical College is working to make its programs affordable and accessible. For instance, the school piloted a program in fall 2019 to offer free tuition to students enrolling in more than 70 areas of study. There are also flexible learning options with classes offered at eight locations, in the evening and online. More than 15,000 students are enrolled at Trident Technical College.
Culinary arts programs at TTC: The Culinary Institute of Charleston at TTC has 25 years of experience within the culinary and hospitality industry. It offers students a hands-on education in the school's restaurants and labs and holds classes on two campuses. TTC awards two associate degrees, six certificates and one advanced certificate in the field. The culinary arts programs at the school covers a range of specialties including beverage service, baking and cake decorating.
Adult students shouldn't feel out of place at Richland Community College where the average age is 28. With night, weekend and online classes available, the college provides a flexible learning environment for those who need to juggle a job and family responsibilities with their studies. Program options include associate degrees and certificates in academic and vocational fields.
Culinary arts programs at Richland: Richland offers both an associate degree and short term certificates for culinary arts students. While the Associate of Applied Science in culinary arts includes instruction on many facets of the industry, certificates allow students to specialize in a particular area such as food preparation or baking and pastry. Students get hands-on experience within Bistro Five Thirty Seven, Richland's full-service, on-campus restaurant.
At Oxnard College, there are multiple pathways to success. The school offers both academic and vocational programs in more than 60 disciplines. For high school students, there are free dual enrollment options while adult learners may find distance education classes to be a convenient way to complete their education. Oxnard College is part of the Ventura County Community College District.
Culinary arts programs at Oxnard College: While there are plenty of culinary arts programs to be found in nearby Los Angeles or Pasadena, Oxnard College promises it offers high quality training at a fraction of the price of for-profit schools. Students get hands-on experience in the college's fully-equipped kitchens and full-service restaurant. Both associate degrees and certificates in culinary arts are available at Oxnard College.
Skills and Abilities for Culinary Professionals
In every profession, there are certain skills and abilities that can help students and workers learn, grow and thrive. Here's a list of personal traits that can be a great help to chefs, bakers, caterers and other members of the culinary field, according to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET):
- Monitoring your performance as well as the performance of employees, equipment and the kitchen as a whole can help keep your product quality consistent
- Problem sensitivity can help you determine when something is about to go wrong or whether a potential issue is a problem that needs addressing
- Time management is one of the most important elements in a working kitchen, especially in on-demand environments like restaurants
- Oral expression skills can ensure that everyone stays on the same page in the high-intensity, close-quarters environment of a professional kitchen
- Manual dexterity can help you prepare food quickly as well as avoid accidents when working with sharp knives and hot pans
Culinary Salary and Career Outlook
There is a range of factors that might influence a culinary professional's salary. The type of establishment where you find work, the segment of the industry you choose, the state where you live and your level of education and experience can all have an effect on your annual pay.
That said, though, these salary figures and career projections by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from today's culinary job market:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Chefs and Head Cooks||128,600||$52,160||9.6%|
|Food Service Managers||219,160||$58,960||8.8%|
Professional Resources for Culinary Professionals
Multiple industry associations and professional organizations work tirelessly to provide advocacy and support on behalf of chefs, bakers and other professionals in the culinary industry. Membership in groups like these can help you stay on the cutting edge of your field and make valuable connections with prospective mentors and colleagues:
- The International Association of Culinary Professionals is a multidisciplinary industry association that counts Julia Child and Jacques Pépin among its early members and currently welcomes writers, photographers, bloggers, marketers, stylists and academics alongside chefs and restaurateurs.
- Slow Food is an international movement designed around preventing local, regional and communal food cultures from being replaced by globally exported processed food that emphasizes convenience rather than nutrition or tradition.
- The Association of Club Catering & Event Professionals offers its members quarterly mentoring sessions, multiple live webinars each year and an extensive archive of research, surveys and whitepapers.
- The American Culinary Foundation provides a list of member benefits that includes multiple industry publications, deep discounts on its certification and conference registration fees and opportunities to participate in local, regional and national competitions.
Expert Q&A on Culinary Schools
There are many roads to becoming a culinary professional, and while picking a culinary school is an important decision, there are many other factors to consider. To get more insight on how to become a chef or culinary professional, we spoke with an expert in the field. Moshe Grundman is a chef at Sixty5 on Main on in Nyack, N.Y., and here's some of his advice for young chefs who are just starting out.
|Moshe Grundman is a chef at Sixty5 on Main on in Nyack, N.Y.|
What is the typical educational path needed to enter a chef career?
The best way to get into the industry and to fast track (if possible) your career is to study at a top culinary school. You can also take alternative routes of working in restaurants, from a line cook to sous chef to hopefully one day becoming an executive chef. Generally, culinary school lasts 2 years, but there must be innate talent, longing for this career, and character that leads you to push through and persevere — as kitchens aren't always the easiest places to work. The cream rises to the top and you become a great and top chef.
How long does it typically take to complete education/degree/certification for this job?
There are 1, 2, and 4 year culinary school programs. I attended a 2 year program. The longer 4 year programs give you a bachelors degree with more restaurant management, accounting, bookkeeping, and other business management skills that would apply to restaurants. The shorter programs focus on actual cooking skills, techniques, plating, and anything required to become a great chef. One of the 4 year programs is Johnson and Wales. In addition to this preparation and learning in school, anyone wanting to get into the culinary world must have a strong passion and willingness to work long and hard hours, beyond the classroom. It takes real world and restaurant experience to succeed.
Why would you encourage someone to pursue this career?
You should pursue cooking, being a chef and the industry as a whole if your passion and dream in life is to become a chef and if you love cooking and take pride in the food that you produce. You must also combine that with a passion and love of people, as half the battle is hospitality and working with other cooks, chefs, restaurant managers, owners, but most importantly patrons and diners. Without patrons, you have nothing and you must have the people skills and be personable enough to engage your clientele and live by the "the customer is always right" motto. Lastly, because you are away from your family so often, and because you are cooking for guests and their families on holidays (and therefore missing them with your family) you must love your "restaurant family" and be able to make the sacrifices necessary to become successful in the culinary world. You miss vacations, holidays, birthdays and the like, so you can make others happy and help them celebrate those very special occasions with your food and in your restaurant.
Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in this career?
Before you go to culinary school or pursue a career in the kitchen, spend some time in a busy kitchen, assist with prep work, try to make fun and complex dishes at home, and work on your plating skills. You must make a serious commitment to cooking and learning, working toward success by learning from mistakes and have a willingness to "pay your dues". You must have a hunger, and drive to succeed. There are plenty of other cooks, sous chefs and the like who are angling towards becoming the executive chef and you must therefore strive to be the best and to seek perfection (or as close as possible). In addition, go to farmers markets, sample produce, wake up early and pick things out at the local fish market, speak to other chefs and ask them about their journeys.
Overall, if you invest the time and have a great passion for cooking and a willingness to learn (combined with patience) you will succeed. You will rise up in the culinary world -- hopefully quickly — and if given the opportunity to be executive chef, which I was at a young age, take the bull by the horns and do your very best, day in and day out.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
- The school must offer at least 1 program for the subject in question
We ranked the resulting colleges on the following variables:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificates conferred for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 30-31, 2019: Chefs and Head Cooks, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/chefs-and-head-cooks.htm; Bakers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/bakers.htm;
- American Culinary Foundation, accessed January 30-31, 2019: 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/; Certification Designations, https://www.acfchefs.org/ACF/Certify/Levels/ACF/Certify/Levels/;
- School pages, accessed January 30-31, 2019: 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/; Internship: Gain Real-World Experience, The Culinary Institute of America, https://www.ciachef.edu/internship/; Culinary Arts Degree California, The Culinary Institute of America, https://www.ciachef.edu/cia-california-culinary-arts-associate-degree-program/; NY Food Business Management Degree, The Culinary Institute of America, https://www.ciachef.edu/cia-new-york-food-business-management-bachelors-degree-program/; CIA Degree Programs & Certifications, Culinary Institute of America, https://www.ciachef.edu/cia-degree-and-certificate-programs/; What's the Difference Between a Culinary Arts Certificate vs. a Degree?, The Culinary Institute of America, https://blog.ciachef.edu/culinary-arts-certificate-vs-degree/; 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;
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, accessed January 30-31, 2019: Chefs and Head Cooks, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/35-1011.00; Bakers, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/51-3011.00;
- Professional association pages, accessed January 30-31, 2019: About, International Association of Culinary Professionals, https://www.iacp.com/about/; Benefits, American Culinary Foundation, https://www.acfchefs.org/ACF/Membership/Join/ACF/Membership/Join/; About Us, Slow Food International, https://www.slowfood.com/about-us/; Join, The Association of Club Catering Professionals, https://www.theaccp.com/default.aspx?p=DynamicModule&pageid=338637&ssid=237864&vnf=1#Club-Based%20Professionals;
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- About Oxnard College, Oxnard College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.oxnardcollege.edu/college-information/about-oxnard-college
- Lake Land College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.lakelandcollege.edu/
- A Brief History, Albany Technical College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.albanytech.edu/about/about-atc/a-brief-history
- Fast Facts, South Georgia Technical College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.southgatech.edu/about-sgtc/fast-facts/
- College at a Glance, West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Accessed August 2019, https://westkentucky.kctcs.edu/about/college-at-a-glance/index.aspx
- About CLC, College of Lake County, Accessed August 2019, https://www.clcillinois.edu/aboutclc
- Central New Mexico Community College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.cnm.edu/
- Atlanta Technical College, Accessed August 2019, https://atlantatech.edu
- Trident Technical College offering free tuition for 70+ programs this fall, August 5, 2019, ABC News 4, Accessed August 2019, https://abcnews4.com/news/local/trident-technical-college-offering-free-tuition-for-70-programs-this-fall
- Culinary Institute of Charleston, Trident Technical College, Accessed August 2019, https://www.tridenttech.edu/academics/divisions/cic/index.htm
- Our Students, Richland Community College, Accessed August 2019, http://www.richland.edu/students