Chef Salary Guide
Chef salaries vary widely, depending on education, experience, and location. For example, top chefs in New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii earn more than $100,000 per year. But the average salary for all chefs is a little higher than half that.
A chef is someone in a lead role at an establishment that serves food. This can be a restaurant, hotel, health care facility, university, or specialty food market. The chef cooks, develops the menu, orders food stock, and supervises the kitchen staff.
Cooks follow the directions of the chef, perhaps hoping to one day rise to that level.
There are plenty of job opportunities for food preparers in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the field will grow 6% by 2029 — faster than the average for all occupations.
For more information on becoming a chef, see our guide, How to Become a Chef.
How Much Does a Chef Make in the United States?
For many chefs, the job is a calling. They have a strong desire to prepare good food for others and explore culinary arts. It's a difficult job with long hours, but those who reach the upper levels of the chef ladder reap the benefits in terms of salary.
According to the BLS, the current average chef salary nationwide is $58,740, but the salary range can vary widely depending on experience and education, among other factors.
Salary Changes Throughout the Career Path
The junior chef works under the guidance of the station chef (or chef de partie), learning the operations of the various kitchen stations. The junior chef is often a current or recent graduate of a culinary program, getting on-the-job training.
Large kitchens are usually divided into stations, supervised by station chefs. Each station is responsible for one part of the overall kitchen, which proves helpful with large quantities of food being prepared. Common station chef roles (and their average national salaries) include:
- Sauce Chefs ($44,153) are responsible for creating sauces and gravies that accompany other dishes.
- Swing Chefs ($27,935) are the kitchen jacks of all trades. They fill in as needed at different stations.
- Vegetable Chefs ($27,760) prepare vegetables, soups, starches, and eggs.
The sous chef ($48,715) is considered the Number 2 role in the kitchen. They share many of the same responsibilities as the head chef and fill in when they're unavailable.
The head chef ($52,574), in addition to cooking, manages the whole kitchen. They develop the menu, supervise staff, control costs, and purchase food supplies.
The executive chef ($68,234) is at the top of the kitchen hierarchy. They have risen through the ranks to take on a more managerial role, especially when a restaurant has multiple outlets.
Executive chefs are also employed in the corporate world. Large chain restaurants like McDonald's, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Pizza Hut, and Buffalo Wild Wings employ executive chefs at the brands' headquarters. They determine what should be on the menu and specify exactly how an item should be cooked to create consistency at each chain location.
Pay Difference by Location
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Career Opportunities and Job Growth
Since the field for chefs is growing higher than usual, you have a better shot at getting a job. However, some areas offer more opportunities than others. According to the BLS, states with the highest job potential for chefs include:
- New York
The top metropolitan areas for chefs include:
- New York, NY
- Los Angeles, CA
- San Francisco, CA
Other Benefits of Becoming a Chef
If they work in a restaurant, full-time chefs often enjoy benefits such as:
- Medical and life insurance
- Clothing allowances
- Paid days off
- Sick time
- Retirement benefits
Culinary instructors employed by a school generally receive the same benefits other instructors get. However, outside the kitchen, private chefs, caterers, food writers, and so on are likely responsible for paying for their own benefits and clothing.
Salary for Independent Contractors
Personal chefs and caterers are considered independent contractors.
Personal chefs customize meal plans according to their client's needs and preferences and run the kitchen on their own. Though the salaries vary widely according to circumstances, the average annual salary is $43,447.
Caterers, who prepare food for single events, can make about $30,000 per year, again depending on the location and number of clients. As noted above, caterers have to buy special equipment to prepare food and keep it warm.
How Much Does it Cost to Become a Chef?
No one just walks into a restaurant and starts cooking. But the kitchen is a good way to get a taste for the job and see whether it suits you. Apply at a restaurant or other foodservice operation to get a foot in the door. You will likely start by bussing tables or serving food, but you will see how the business operates.
Some chefs mentor promising young people who show an interest in the profession. But the best plan is to sign up for a cooking program at a community college or vocational school. You'll learn basic skills and kitchen operations.
You can also enroll in one of the many dedicated culinary arts institutes around the country. These are intensive programs that teach the entire range of cooking, but they aren't cheap, with tuition typically costing more than $30,000.
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