Culinary Career and Education Overview
Food. It's one of the most important things in our lives. It fuels our bodies, it's integral to many of our societal and cultural interactions, and it can even bring people together and create memories. Imagine a birthday party without a cake or Thanksgiving without a big family dinner. Chefs and other culinary professionals spend their days preparing food for people to enjoy, which makes them part of an important and often-rewarding career field. But becoming a chef is not as simple as just cooking. Here is a look at some of the most common questions about a career in the culinary industry:
What is a Chef?
A chef is defined as someone who cooks professionally for other people. However, while the title is traditionally reserved for head cooks or those directing other cooks in a leadership role, it has also come to include many other cooking-related positions.
The position encompasses a wide range of tasks, both directly and indirectly related to the preparation of food, including:
- Prepare, season, and cook a variety of foods
- Plan and price menu items
- Collaborate with others to develop recipes and menus
- Order and manage inventory
- Keep records and accounts
- Supervise and coordinate activities related to food preparation
- Plan work schedules
- Ensure that sanitation and safety standards are observed
- Monitor the proper handling and storage of food and supplies
- Perform quality control duties
- Deal with customer complaints
- Handle requests related to dietary considerations
- Check the quantity and quality of received products
- Determine how food should be presented
How Do You Become a Chef?
There are a number of tracks, including formal education, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and some combination of these options. Choosing the best path to take depends on your specific goals for working within the culinary industry.
For instance, pursuing a career within fine-dining restaurants frequently requires a post-secondary education, whereas casual establishments or chain restaurants may not impose such a requirement. Nevertheless, many positions across the industry do require certification, which is often achieved through formal training.
One popular route starts with culinary trade schools, which can provide you with a foundation of knowledge and skills related to basic cooking methods, safe food handling and sanitation, food preparation techniques, nutrition, menu planning, and more.
This can prepare you to pursue entry-level career opportunities within various food-service establishments. It can help you become a commis (or junior chef), a position in which you can learn the ropes of working in a kitchen. While, at first, you might be responsible for carrying out basic work such as peeling carrots, filling raviolis, or dicing onions, don't look at this as invaluable work; it can help you build skills and gain experience at upholding the high standards that are necessary within a commercial kitchen setting. This type of culinary professional is vital to any restaurant, and working as one means taking an important step toward becoming a station chef (or chef de partie).
If you choose not to attend culinary school, you may not be eligible to become a commis straight off the line. Many individuals who do not possess culinary training or kitchen experience start even lower on the culinary food chain. This can mean beginning in the "dish pit" as a dishwasher. But working hard in such a position (and being ready to jump in and assist anywhere else you might be needed) can help you move up.
As your experience rises and your skills progress, you could have the opportunity to be promoted and work across all of the various kitchen stations. In order to become a successful sous chef or chef de cuisine, you will likely need to master all stations within the kitchen.
No matter which track you choose, you can expect that it will take plenty of long hours, hard work, and focused learning to reach your end goal in the kitchen. But it can pay off in the form of prestige and increased earning potential, as well as the creative freedoms that can come with more senior positions.
Culinary Training and Education
While, technically, there is no specific education requirement for becoming a chef, certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees are typically what culinary schools award. And, as mentioned above, a formal education can help you get your foot in the door of a commercial kitchen.
However, the required education is really more about skills than credentials. A formal education can provide you with those skills in a condensed amount of time, whereas the work experience option could require that you put in additional time in order to hone your abilities—depending on the establishment you might be working in.
A formal education can help you cultivate the valuable knowledge and skills needed to become a chef. And focused training can serve as an important foundation for a successful career in the field.
By enrolling in a culinary program, you can receive training in:
- Knife techniques
- Proper use of kitchen equipment
- Classical cooking methods
- Portion control
- Food storage procedures
- Meal planning
- Sanitation and public health standards
- Banquet service
- Global cuisines and cooking methods
- Food sources and production techniques
- Kitchen administration and management
- Customer service
This can allow you to graduate with a well-rounded education, which can be an asset to a chef-in-the-making. Whether you're using business principles to develop a budget and estimate food costs or drawing upon art training to create dishes that present beautifully, a comprehensive education can be extremely valuable in the culinary world.
How Long Is Culinary School?
The length of education can depend greatly on the individual school and program, but, generally, you can expect to spend approximately two years completing formal training that combines classroom learning with work experience.
To prepare for an entry-level kitchen position, you might choose a two-year associate's degree or diploma program in which you can receive training related to food handling, sanitation procedures, cooking and preparation methods, nutrition, and more. These programs will often contain both hands-on and theoretical components and can help you develop your technical skills, palate, and knowledge of kitchen procedures.
Four-year programs will often include those areas in addition to advanced topics such as cooking for large numbers of people, specialized cooking techniques, and regional cuisines.
If you're considering a career in restaurant management, there are four-year bachelor's degree programs designed specifically for this area.
It is very important to note that most culinary programs include an on-the-job component, such as an internship. This can be either paid or unpaid, depending on the individual school and program. It's vital to understand that this can significantly increase the amount of time you spend out in the workforce versus in a classroom. So, while you technically may be a student for two or more years, if you secure a paying internship, you could be working full-time during some of your schooling (and earning a regular wage).
Just like any area of study, the average cost of culinary school will vary greatly. However, as an overall guide, you can expect to spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $30,000. (The cost often depends on whether you enter a short-term certificate or diploma program or a longer degree program.) The tuition cost can also reflect a number of different variables, such as:
- School reputation
- Included materials
- Facilities and equipment
- Scope of training
- Instructor experience
- Industry connections
- Apprenticeship opportunities
It's also helpful to remember that you might qualify for government grants, scholarships, or other types of funding. Plus, loans can help lower the upfront cost of enrolling in school. Please read this article for more information about financial aid options.
Is Certification Required?
Technically, certification is not required. However, certification from a respected organization, namely the American Culinary Federation (ACF), can give you credibility in the job market.
Certification can tell employers that:
- You understand food safety and sanitation procedures.
- You hold a certain level of culinary expertise.
- You are serious about a career in the culinary arts.
- You can meet high standards of food preparation.
- You have worked under a qualified professional.
- You possess experience in various kitchen stations.
Plus, since certification needs to be renewed every five years and requires a certain amount of continuing education hours to maintain, keeping certification current can show employers that you're committed to staying up-to-date in the industry.
Wages vary depending on many different factors. Following is a breakdown of national statistics from May 2018: *
- The top 10 percent made $81,150 or more annually, or $39.01 per hour.
- The median wage (50th percentile) was $48,460 annually, or $23.30 per hour.
As you can see, these numbers are staggeringly different and should, therefore, only be considered as a general guideline. They don't take into consideration a number of important influences, such as location, education level, or experience.
The type of workplace can also affect salary expectations. Positions within high-end restaurants or hotels will generally come with a higher wage compared to casual dining establishments or chain restaurants.
In addition, location can play a role in earning potential. That is why many ambitious chefs relocate to culinary hubs such as California, Florida, Texas, Illinois, or New York, which hold the highest employment levels for this profession.
According to the ACF's 2011 salary survey, the highest median wages were found in the mid-Atlantic, New England, and Pacific regions, respectively. The lowest median salaries were found in the West North Central region, which includes states such as Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri.
The culinary industry is one of the largest industries in the U.S. and, according to the National Restaurant Association, is anticipated to account for approximately 13.5 million employees in 2014. However, this number includes workers within fast-food restaurants, which, by most standards, fall under the category of "food service" rather than "culinary arts."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job opportunities are rated as "good" with the best prospects existing for those who possess substantial skills and experience. Also, individuals who have formal education and certification can look forward to an advantage in the job market.
Overall, the employment of chefs could increase by 10 percent between 2016 and 2026. And jobs for restaurant cooks could rise in number by 6 percent over that period.**
The bulk of job openings are expected to come from workers leaving this occupation since the culinary industry is known to have an abnormally high turnover rate. However, an aging population is also a contributing factor to the trend of experienced workers retiring from the culinary field.
Culinary Career Options
An executive chef is the head of a commercial kitchen. This position typically involves handling creative direction, menu planning, quality control, kitchen operations, staffing management, budgeting, and food sourcing within a restaurant or other type of food-service establishment. Depending where he or she is employed, they may play a hands-on role in the preparation of food or spend most of their time performing administrative and managerial tasks.
Within the brigade de cuisine system (a hierarchy of staff that is used in most commercial kitchens), a cook who works directly under the executive chef is called the sous chef, who functions as a restaurant kitchen's second-in-command. His or her duties can include taking the reins when the executive chef is unavailable, monitoring kitchen operations and staff, and even overseeing food production during service.
Directly below the sous chef(s) is a series of station chefs, also known as line cooks, who are responsible for running a particular "station" or area of the kitchen and may be responsible for one of the following areas of responsibility.
- Baked goods, such as breads, pastries, and other bakeshop items
- Grilled, broiled, and roasted items
- Sautéed items and sauces
- Fried items
- Cold items, such as salads, cold appetizers, desserts, and sandwiches
- Pastry shop items, which can include pastries, candies, cookies, custards, and cakes, or even ice carvings and other decorative items
- Vegetable dishes and garnishes
- Soups and stocks
- Covering various stations and filling in as needed within any areas
Furthermore, a commis is a junior chef who works under the direction of a chef de partie.
Aside from working in a commercial kitchen, there is also the possibility of pursuing a career as a personal chef. This is someone who prepares food in private settings, such as corporate offices and homes. They are often hired to accommodate special diets or cook for busy professionals.
Additional Career Options
In addition to working hands-on in food preparation, there are a number of other career options within the culinary industry, including:
- Banquet and catering manager
- Culinary instructor
- Food researcher and developer
- Food stylist and photographer
- Food writer and critic
- Restaurant consultant
- Restaurant designer
- Restaurant manager
- Restaurant owner
What is a Typical Day Like?
The schedule of a chef can be varied and is often demanding. Depending on their specific roles and the types of establishments they work in, they can work from early morning to late at night.
Executive chefs may work as much as 12-hour days since they are often on-site to ensure the delivery of food supplies, handle the planning of menu items, carry out administrative tasks, and take care of technically challenging prep work.
Other professionals within a kitchen can also work long, intense shifts, performing prep work for the day's menu items, cooking dishes, and cleaning their stations for the next service.
Benefits of Working in a Commercial Kitchen
- Working in a commercial kitchen is a team sport. That means you could have the opportunity to work side-by-side with other talented and driven culinary professionals.
- Many people thrive on the energy and adrenaline of working on the line and regard it as a thrill of the job. Plus, it can help form strong relationships between coworkers.
- This field is full of driven, passionate people who want to create amazing food.
Is it Right for You?
Here are a few things to ask yourself before deciding to go to culinary school:
- Do you want a career that falls outside of the typical nine-to-five routine?
- Are you willing to work your way up the ranks within the kitchen?
- Can you handle being on your feet for long periods of time?
- Do you work well under pressure?
- Does a team environment appeal to you?
- Are you passionate about food and cooking?
- Do you have an exceptional eye for detail?
If you answered "yes" to these questions, a career as a chef could be the right choice for you.
And, before exploring how to become an executive chef, here are a few questions to find out if this is the right career match for you:
- Are you interested in learning the business side of the culinary industry?
- Do you possess (or want to cultivate) leadership skills?
- Are you a good communicator?
- Would you be satisfied handling all aspects of restaurant operations, rather than just food preparation?
If you've never worked in a commercial kitchen, you may want to consider job shadowing (during a busy time), which can allow you to see a working kitchen in motion.
Like most things in life worth doing, becoming a chef is hard work. If you get excited about food and cooking, you already have a big piece of the puzzle in place.
How to Be Successful in the Culinary Field
There are many actions you can take to give yourself the best possible chance of success in this industry, but the most important quality you can bring to the table is passion.
The chefs who eat, sleep, and breathe food generally have an edge over the ones who don't. If food is truly your calling, you will be more inclined to work hard and earn your stripes in the kitchen.
Aside from that, here are some techniques for becoming successful as a chef:
- Find a mentor—Look to a seasoned professional to provide guidance and help you learn the tricks of the trade.
- Practice new recipes—Challenge yourself to learn new recipes outside of work. This can prepare you to handle anything that comes your way and offer inspiration for new dishes.
- Eat a lot of different things—Always try new foods, experiment with new flavors, and cultivate your palate. Broadening your culinary horizons is very important.
- Keep up your education—Whether you choose formal education or on-the-job training, continue to hone your skills and learn about new techniques and food trends.
- Stay busy—If you're in the kitchen, never forget the saying, "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean." This means that, if you're not busy, you should be cleaning your station or something (anything) else in the kitchen.
- Remain humble—This is something that young chefs are often warned of, especially right out of school. Respect and success in the culinary industry are gained through experience in the kitchen, not simply education.
Above all, stay energized about your career choice. Read books, magazines, and blogs about cooking. And look for daily inspiration in places like the local farmers market or even the grocery store.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on April 29, 2019.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, web site last accessed on September 21, 2018.
American Culinary Federation, web site last accessed on October 23, 2017.
National Restaurant Association, web site last accessed on June 4, 2018.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site last accessed on October 23, 2017.