Culinary Schools & Colleges
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated
Culinary schools provide many aspiring chefs with the basic knowledge and abilities they need to start working in commercial kitchens. In two years or less, you can learn to cook and perform other professional tasks. Tens of thousands of jobs are available every year in a huge variety of exciting workplaces. Plus, this career sector offers the potential for self-employment and good pay.
Find a Culinary School
11% growth from 2018-2028
Chefs and Head Cooks
Average Yearly Openings
Length of Training
Most Common Length
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Shelton, Connecticut
- Columbia, Maryland
- Culinary Arts and Food Services
- International Baking and Pastry
- Melbourne, Florida
- Sarasota, Florida
- Tallahassee, Florida
- Baking and Pastry Arts
- Culinary Arts
- Lancaster, Pennsylvania
- Culinary Arts / Restaurant Management
- Pastry Arts
- Cutler Bay, Florida
- Kissimmee, Florida
- Baking and Pastry
- Culinary Arts
- Newport News, Virginia
- Norfolk, Virginia
- Baking and Pastry Arts
- Culinary Arts
- Culinary Arts and Applied Nutrition
- Food Service Management
- Lexington, Kentucky
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Culinary Arts
- Hospitality Management
- Hotel and Restaurant Management
- Professional Baker
- Professional Cook
- Muskegon, Michigan
- Baking and Pastry
- Culinary Arts
- Food and Beverage Management
- Culinary Management
- Culinary Skills Essentials
- Restaurant, Hospitality, and Retail Management
Online & Distance Learning
- High School Diploma with Culinary Arts Professional Pathway
- Hotel/Restaurant Management
Culinary Career Information
Chefs and other culinary professionals are part of a large, important, and highly varied industry. It's a career sector that offers numerous opportunities and potential rewards for those with talent, dedication, and enthusiasm.
The median yearly pay for chefs and head cooks is $51,530, according to the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program. The highest-paid chefs make over $86,990 a year.
Median Annual Wage Comparison
Job Openings & Outlook
Between 2018 and 2028, the number of new jobs for chefs and head cooks is expected to increase 11 percent. That's a lot faster than the overall occupational average.
Plus, according to employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 20,700 job openings are projected to become available each year for people in this career. About 1,540 of those openings will be newly created. Another 4,400 openings will be due to people retiring. And 14,700 openings will be the result of people transferring into a different occupation.
- Opportunity for self-employment: You could start your own business as a private chef, caterer, or restaurateur.
- Chances to be creative at work: The possibilities for experimenting with new dishes are immense.
- Potential for travel: You could work for private clients, tour operators, or large hotel, resort, or restaurant chains.
What a Chef Does
Chefs perform a wide range of tasks, both directly and indirectly, related to the preparation of food. For example, they may:
- 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
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), about 51 percent of all chefs and head cooks work in restaurants or other eating establishments. The rest work in places such as:
- Hotels and resorts
- Entertainment venues
- Country clubs
- Cruise ships
- Amusement parks
- Corporate office cafeterias
- Long-term care facilities
- Food product development laboratories
- Private homes
The OOH says that roughly four percent of chefs are self-employed.
Culinary training is designed to prepare you for working within the brigade de cuisine system, which is a hierarchy of staff that is used in many commercial kitchens. Most people begin their culinary careers in entry-level roles and work their way up through the system. For instance, you might start as a cook and get promoted to more advanced roles as you gain experience.
Some of the most common jobs include:
Executive chef: This person is the head manager for food preparation and sometimes oversees the operations of more than one restaurant. In a lot of cases, executive chefs do little, if any, cooking. When they are in the kitchen, they are more likely to be acting as the expediter (i.e., the person who coordinates things between the servers and the chefs and cooks).
Chef de cuisine: Also known as the head chef (or, in some restaurants, the executive chef), this culinary pro manages the entire kitchen. Some head chefs help cook or expedite food on a regular basis. Others cook periodically or leave the cooking duties to the rest of their team.
Sous chef: This person is often the second in command. He or she generally runs the kitchen on a daily basis and is very involved in the actual food preparation.
Saucier: In this position, the focus is usually on making sauces, preparing warm appetizers, and putting the finishing touches on various dishes.
Station chef: Also known as a chef de partie, this person manages a particular station (i.e., area of the kitchen) and prepares specific types of dishes. For example, pastry chefs control the preparation of breads and other baked goods as well as dessert items like candies, cookies, custards, and cakes. Other stations can include:
- Grilled, broiled, and roasted items
- Sautéed items
- Fried items
- Vegetable dishes and garnishes
- Soups and stocks
Commis: This is a junior chef who rotates between various stations, filling in as needed.
Line cook: In this role, the focus tends to be on preparing one particular type of food in a specific way at a single station.
Garde manger: This person prepares cold items, such as salads, sandwiches, and cold appetizers.
In addition to food preparation, some culinary schools can prepare you for roles in restaurant management, which includes front-of-house operations. The knowledge you gain can even help prepare you for a career as a food writer and critic.
Some culinary professionals enjoy focusing their careers in a particular area. For example, you can specialize as a:
Pastry chef: Prepare desserts and baked items. Also known as a patissier, you can even specialize in a particular type of item such as bread, cake, candy, frozen dessert, breakfast pastry, or chocolate (as a chocolatier). General skills for this can be learned in a culinary arts program. Or you can learn more in-depth skills in a pastry arts program.
Personal chef: Prepare food in private settings, such as homes and small corporate offices. You can be hired to accommodate special diets and cook for busy professionals, potentially even celebrities. If you pursue this career, it's a good idea to gain additional business knowledge, especially in the area of marketing. You'll need to build a great reputation through word of mouth in order to attract the highest-paying clients.
Caterer: Provide food on location for special events or social gatherings. Some schools offer catering classes or make this part of their curricula. But as long as you know how to cook and manage a business, you can grow a catering company (and good reputation) one client at a time. Event planning courses or experience as a banquet chef can also be helpful.
Research chef: Help develop new food products for food manufacturers or hotel and restaurant chains. In addition to culinary expertise, you may need a degree in food science.
Culinary instructor: Teach others how to expertly prepare food and master its presentation. You may need an associate or bachelor's degree and at least three to five years of professional chef experience.
How can a chef make more money?
You can increase your earning potential by gaining mentorships with more experienced and prominent chefs. But you also need to refine your talent by developing your own personal cooking style and philosophy. It all takes time and experience. Then, you can promote your unique approach and seek out the highest-paying opportunities.
Look for executive chef positions, but don't limit yourself to the usual types of employers. (For instance, many performing arts companies pay well.) Also, consider starting your own restaurant or catering company so that you can retain the profits from all of your efforts. And don't overlook the earning possibilities that can come from being a personal chef to celebrities or other wealthy individuals and their families.
What is a typical day like for a chef?
Depending on the specific role and type of establishment, the schedule can be varied. A chef may work any time from early morning to late at night. In some roles, the days can be extra long sometimes. For example, executive chefs may work as much as 12 hours in a single day since they are often on-site to ensure the delivery of food supplies, handle the planning of menu items, carry out administrative tasks, and oversee 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.
How do I know if a chef career is right for me?
You should have a real passion for making great food. That's the biggest thing. (One way to learn whether you truly have enthusiasm for the industry is to work in a commercial kitchen first, even if it's just doing dishes or basic prep work.) But it's also good to agree with the following statements:
- You want a career that falls outside of the typical nine-to-five routine.
- You are willing to work your way up the ranks within a commercial kitchen.
- You can handle being on your feet for long periods of time.
- You work well under pressure.
- A team environment appeals to you.
- You have an exceptional eye for detail.
- You take direction well.
How can I be successful in the culinary field?
The chefs who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff 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. Here are some other tips for succeeding 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.
Education & Training
Culinary arts schools specialize in teaching people like you a wide range of valuable skills. Regardless of the particular career path you have in mind, formal training can provide a great head start. Plus, it can be exciting, challenging, and fulfilling.
Length of Training
Most commonly, it takes between 15 and 24 months to get through culinary school. However, depending on the school and the academic credential you're seeking, it's possible to find programs that take as little as nine months or as many as four years.*
Most Common Length of School*
(range in months)
Baking and pastry arts9-24
Post-secondary culinary training usually leads to one of these academic credentials:
Certificate or diploma: This type of program often takes between 9 and 12 months.* It covers basic skills and fundamental knowledge, but the courses are strictly career-related.
Associate degree: Most of your courses will be related to the culinary industry. But you will also have some more advanced courses and a few general education classes. Completing a program at this level typically takes from 15 to 24 months.*
Bachelor's degree: You'll likely have a more balanced mix of general and career-related classes. You may also have more advanced courses than you would have at a lower level. In general, you need about four years to complete this kind of program. But some schools offer accelerated programs that take as little as about three years.*
Examples of career-related classes include:
- Safety and sanitation
- Food storage and refrigeration
- Food science
- Mise en place
- Baking and pastry fundamentals
- Classic French cuisine
- American regional cuisine
- International cuisine
- Food presentation
- Dining service
- Kitchen supervision
- Professional development
For associate and bachelor's degree programs, general education classes may include examples like:
- Written communication
- Public speaking
- Intro to psychology
- Computer technology
Many programs also include a real-world externship that lets you gain experience in an actual commercial kitchen before graduating. Some schools even have their own on-site kitchens and restaurants with paying customers.
Skills You Can Learn
You can receive training related to skills like:
- Identifying ingredients and food products
- Sharpening, holding, and using knives safely
- Using and caring for other kitchen tools and equipment
- Preparing ingredients
- Making salads, dressings, pates, and other cold food items
- Cooking with dry heat, moist heat, or a combination of both
- Preparing stocks, soups, and sauces
- Cooking various types of proteins, starches, and vegetables
- Baking bread
- Creating restaurant-style desserts
- Plating and presenting food
- Planning menus
- Developing recipes
- Working across various stations in a commercial kitchen
- Purchasing food and controlling costs
Certification is not required in order to be a chef. It is completely voluntary. However, being professionally certified by a respected organization can give you added credibility in the job market. It can tell potential 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.
Popular options for getting certified include:
The American Culinary Federation (ACF): This organization offers nine certification levels for savory cooking, six levels for pastry, and one certification for culinary educators.
The National Restaurant Association Culinary Exams: Available through Pearson, these exams can lead to recognized certification in professional cooking and/or baking.
Education & Training FAQs
How can a chef be self-taught?
You can teach yourself how to cook by reading detailed culinary books, watching online videos, and having your friends and family test what you make. But if you aren't going to culinary school, you should seriously consider getting an entry-level job in a commercial kitchen and working your way up through the ranks. (You don't need any prior experience to get a job as a dishwasher. And most restaurants will train you from there (i.e., how to cook and prepare food)—if you show reliability and passion for the industry.)
Even so, many fine restaurants, hotels, resorts, and other top employers want people who already know how to conduct themselves efficiently in a commercial kitchen—even for entry-level jobs. That's why finding a culinary school near you may be the most efficient method for getting off to a promising start.
How do you get into culinary school?
Most of the time, you just need a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent credential. Generally, you also must be at least 17 or 18 years old. Aside from meeting those requirements, you simply need to find a school in your area and apply.
Is culinary school hard?
Many students find it challenging, but it isn't too difficult if you follow a few tips. For example:
- Listen attentively to your instructors.
- Write down everything.
- Ask questions about anything that interests or confuses you.
- Always pay close attention to cooking demonstrations.
- Makes notes about every recipe (or anything you might forget) and keep them handy.
- Go easy on yourself when something doesn't turn out exactly as you'd hoped. (You may learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.)
Does going to culinary school make you a chef?
It doesn't necessarily make you a chef right away, but it does give you a good head start on becoming one. After all, formal training can help make you a competent cook, especially when it comes to the basics. And it can make you much more confident in a commercial kitchen than you would otherwise be, which can have a positive impact on how quickly you advance.
Almost every aspiring chef begins his or her culinary career in an entry-level role. But as you gain professional experience, you can move into higher roles and become a bona fide chef—possibly in just a few years or less.
Can I get culinary training online?
Some schools do offer online culinary classes or even full programs. They are often self-paced and involve video demonstrations and home-based cooking assignments. (You may be asked to take photos of the finished dishes you make and/or document each step of your cooking process.)
* Length of training information is based on a combination of information from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Department of Education, and a wide sampling of relevant program lengths from about 30 individual school websites. They are a mix of public, private non-profit, and private for-profit institutions.