Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food preparation at restaurants or other places where food is served. They direct kitchen staff and handle any food-related concerns.
Chefs and head cooks typically do the following:
- Check freshness of food and ingredients
- Supervise and coordinate activities of cooks and other food preparation workers
- Develop recipes and determine how to present the food
- Plan menus and ensure uniform serving sizes and quality of meals
- Inspect supplies, equipment, and work areas for cleanliness and functionality
- Hire, train, and supervise cooks and other food preparation workers
- Order and maintain inventory of food and supplies needed to ensure efficient operations
- Monitor sanitation practices and ensure that kitchen safety standards are followed
Chefs use a variety of kitchen and cooking equipment, including step-in coolers, high-quality knives, meat slicers, and grinders. They also have access to large quantities of meats, spices, and produce. Some chefs use scheduling and purchasing software to help them in their administrative duties.
Chefs might also be a restaurant’s owner. Some may be busy with kitchen and office work and not have time to interact with diners.
The following are types of chefs and head cooks:
Executive chefs, head cooks, and chefs de cuisine are primarily responsible for overseeing the operation of a kitchen. They coordinate the work of sous chefs and other cooks, who prepare most of the meals. Executive chefs also have many duties beyond the kitchen. They design the menu, review food and beverage purchases, and often train employees. Some executive chefs are primarily occupied by administrative tasks and spend little time in the kitchen.
Sous chefs are a kitchen’s second-in-command. They supervise the restaurant’s cooks, do some meal preparation tasks, and report results to the head chefs. In the absence of the head chef, sous chefs run the kitchen.
Personal chefs plan and prepare meals in private homes. They also may order groceries and supplies, serve meals, and wash dishes and utensils. Personal chefs are often self-employed or employed by a private cooking company, preparing food for a variety of customers.
Private household chefs typically work full time for one client, such as a corporate executive, university president, or diplomat, who regularly entertains as part of his or her official duties.
Chefs and head cooks held about 100,600 jobs in 2010.
Chefs work in restaurants, hotels, private households, and other food service facilities, all of which must be kept clean and sanitary. Kitchens are usually hot, crowded, and filled with potential dangers. Hazards may include slips, falls, cuts, and burns, but these injuries are seldom serious. Chefs and head cooks usually must stand for long periods of time and work in a fast-paced environment.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time, including early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Many executive chefs regularly work 12-hour days because they oversee the delivery of food supplies early in the day and use the afternoon to plan the menu and prepare any special items for dishes.
Education and Training:
Most chefs acquire their skills through work experience. Many others, however, receive formal training at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or a 2-year or 4-year college. A few learn through apprenticeship programs or in the armed forces.
Most chefs and head cooks start working in kitchens in other positions, such as line cooks or dishwashers, learning cooking skills from the chefs they work for. Many spend years working in kitchens before learning enough to get promoted to chef or head cook positions.
A growing number of chefs and head cooks receive formal training at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 2-year or 4-year institutions. Students in culinary programs spend most of their time in kitchens practicing their cooking skills. These programs cover all aspects of kitchen work, including menu planning, food sanitation procedures, and purchasing and inventory methods. Most formal training programs also require students to get experience in a commercial kitchen through an internship, apprenticeship, or out-placement program.
Formal apprenticeship programs sponsored by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor, also are common. Apprenticeship programs generally last about 2 years and combine classroom training and work experience. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 formal academic training programs at post-secondary schools and sponsors apprenticeships around the country.
Some chefs and head cooks train in mentorship programs, where they work under the direction of experienced chefs. Executive chefs, head cooks, and sous chefs who work in fine-dining restaurants have many years of training and experience.
Some chefs receive formal training through the armed forces or from individual hotel or restaurant chains.
Although not required, certification can show competence and lead to advancement and higher paying positions. The American Culinary Federation certifies pastry professionals, personal chefs, and culinary educators in addition to various levels of chefs. Certification standards are based primarily on work-related experience and formal training. The minimum work experience for certification can range from 6 months to 5 years, depending on the level of certification.
Skills to Develop:
Business skills: Executive chefs must understand the business of restaurant work. They should be skilled at administrative tasks, such as accounting and personnel management, and be able to manage a restaurant efficiently and profitably.
Creativity: Chefs and head cooks need creativity to develop and prepare interesting and innovative recipes. They must be able to use different ingredients and create appealing dishes for their customers.
Leadership skills: Chefs and head cooks must have the ability to motivate kitchen staff and develop constructive and cooperative working relationships with them. Because the pace in the kitchen can be hectic during peak dining hours, chefs must be able to communicate their orders clearly and effectively.
Manual dexterity: All chefs and head cooks need excellent manual dexterity, including proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.
Sense of taste and smell: All chefs and head cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell in order to inspect food and design meals that will be to customers’ liking.
Time-management skills: Chefs and head cooks need to be able to efficiently manage their time and the time of kitchen staff. They must have menus ready when kitchen staff start preparing meals. And when customers are waiting for food, they must keep the kitchen running efficiently.
Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to experience little or no change from 2010 to 2020. Population and income growth is expected to result in greater demand for more high-quality dishes at a variety of dining venues, including many up-scale establishments. However, employment growth will be tempered as many restaurants, in an effort to lower costs, use lower-level cooks to perform the work normally done by chefs and head cooks.
Job opportunities will be best for chefs and head cooks with several years of work experience. The majority of job openings will stem from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The fast pace, long hours, and high energy levels required for these jobs often lead to a high rate of turnover.
There will be strong competition for jobs at upscale restaurants, hotels, and casinos, which tend to pay more. Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and creativity will have the best job prospects.
The median annual wage of chefs and head cooks was $40,630 in May 2010. 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 $23,260, and the top 10 percent earned more than $70,960.
The level of pay for chefs and head cooks varies greatly by region and employer. Pay is usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs are employed, as well as in major metropolitan and resort areas.
What is this job like?
Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food service operation of a restaurant or other food service establishment and are usually responsible for directing cooks in the kitchen, dealing with food-related concerns, and providing leadership. They are also the most skilled cooks in the kitchen and use their creativity and knowledge of food to develop and prepare recipes.
Chefs and head cooks hire, train, and supervise staff, prepare cost estimates for food and supplies, set work schedules, order supplies, and ensure that the food service establishment runs efficiently and profitably.
Many chefs earn fame both for themselves and for their kitchens because of the quality and distinctive nature of the food they serve.
How do you get ready?
While most chefs and head cooks have some postsecondary training, many experienced workers with less education can still be promoted. Formal training may take place at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or a 2-year or 4-year college with a degree in hospitality.
For students in culinary training programs, most of their time is spent in kitchens learning to prepare meals by practicing cooking skills. They learn knife techniques and proper use and care of kitchen equipment.
Although formal training is an important way to enter the profession, many chefs are trained on the job, receiving real work experience and training from chef-mentors in the restaurants where they work.
How much does this job pay?
Earnings of chefs and head cooks vary greatly by region and the type of employer. Earnings are usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs are employed, and in major metropolitan and resort areas.
In May 2010, the average yearly wages for chefs and head cooks were $40,630, but the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $70,960.
Some employers provide employees with uniforms and free meals.
How many jobs are there?
Chefs and head cooks held about 100,600 jobs in 2010.
What about the future?
Although job growth will create many new positions, the majority of job openings will stem from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The fast pace, long hours, and high energy levels required for these jobs often lead to high turnover.
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Some information on this page has been provided by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.