Anyone who enjoys cooking has probably thought about what it might be like to work as a high-end chef. And let’s be honest – more than a few of us have pretended our kitchen was a studio and we were the latest Food Network star. But in reality, the road to becoming a chef takes time to travel. It requires countless hours of hard work, especially in the early years. “Paying your dues” is definitely what aspiring chefs must do to reach the upper ranks of the profession.
There are no strict educational or training requirements to become a chef. For most, the knowledge and skills are simply gained during those long hours in the kitchen. However, those who want to reach the pinnacle of the profession could be well served by choosing a culinary degree in addition to an apprenticeship. This guide is designed for those who want to do more than simply cook – it is meant for those who want to tailor their lives to a culinary dream.
The tasks of a chef are varied, depending on the type of food served and where they work. However, chefs can generally be thought of as the head boss within a kitchen. In addition to cooking, chefs will plan the menu, choose and inspect ingredients, supervise the kitchen staff and handle any other food related issues relating to the kitchen.
Contrary to what some food shows portray, there are actually many chefs in the kitchen. There is the head chef, also known as the master chef, executive chef or chef de cuisine. There are sous chefs, who generally implement the head chef’s directives and are second-in-command of the kitchen; a chef de partie, which is a chef supervising a particular area or station within the kitchen; and a commis, who is usually one of the least experienced chefs, often fresh out of culinary school, who works directly under the chef de partie at a particular kitchen station.
Other chefs may specialize in a certain type of food; for instance, the pastry chef focuses on desserts, cakes and pastries. Some chefs handle not only some cooking but administrative tasks as well, including hiring and firing staff, managing cash flows, acquiring investors, ordering ingredients and more.
How much can a chef make? That depends on several factors, such as the level of experience, where they work and geographical location. Not all areas of the country pay the same amount. The following map shows the annual median wage chefs earned in each state in 2014, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Where are chefs being hired? Some states have a more pressing need for chefs than others, and the expected employment growth rates reflect that. The following section focuses on the variety of growth rates in states across the nation.
Knowing how the kitchen and restaurant works is vitally important to becoming a chef. But be warned, this first job might include the most mundane things, including washing dishes and taking out the trash. However, the exposure to professionals in the kitchen is what matters, and over time a fresh new chef will work their way up the ladder to the more appealing tasks. This time toiling in the trenches of kitchen duty will help answer the big question: Is this what you really want to do?
In order to move on to culinary school, a high school diploma will be required. It might also be required by employers, who could prefer to hire only those who have already shown they can stick with a dream and complete it. Remember that even most apprenticeship programs require a high school diploma or GED to get in, so earn this very important diploma.
Culinary schools take one to four years, depending on the program. The most common result is the diploma, associate or bachelor’s degree – master’s culinary degrees are scarce in the United States. While formal education isn’t required to become a chef, the specialized knowledge and skills learned during the program can serve aspiring chefs in good stead when honing their kitchen work. Often those who have earned their culinary degree can quickly earn positions with greater responsibilities – always a plus for any chef.
The formal culinary program is just the beginning. Working as a chef requires a great deal of experience, which is why fresh graduates probably won’t immediately begin working as a chef. Additional training under the tutelage of a professional chef, whether it’s through an internship or apprenticeship or simply through day-to-day work, will heighten the skills and knowledge every chef needs. As an added bonus, work experience is a great networking opportunity.
Certification isn’t required to become a chef, but it may make it easier, especially when applying for highly competitive chef positions. Certifications may help market a chef’s cooking ability, as well as potentially lead to more opportunities for advancement. The American Culinary Federation (ACF), founded in 1929, is the largest professional chefs and cooks association in the United States, with over 17,000 members in 200 chapters nationwide. There are 14 certification designations available in five areas: Cooking Professionals; Personal Cooking Professionals; Baking and Pastry Professionals; Culinary Administrators; and Culinary Educators. Each designation is based on a candidate’s educational and work experience.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Online|
|I love cooking – I just don’t have the time to take classes on campus. However, I would really like to learn cooking techniques and skills so I can take my cooking to a whole new level. Additionally, I might want to dabble in cooking as a side career, perhaps as a part-time caterer.|
|I am fascinated with cooking. However, I’m also interested in the management and business side of running a restaurant. I might even want to own my own restaurant one day.|
|I want a complete culinary training regime, but I don’t want to take unnecessary classes or spend extra time in school learning things that may not be used inside the kitchen. I want to become a chef as soon as possible and focus on cooking and preparing food.|
Formal education is not required to become a chef. However, a degree from a culinary school may offer exposure to a wide range of skills and ideas that can’t be found anywhere else. A culinary degree may also be an advantage when looking for a job, as it provides background learning. Students will not only learn how to do something, but understand why it is done a certain way.
Culinary schools are dedicated to one thing – the culinary arts. No matter the diploma, certificate or degree that results from attending a culinary school, students should feel secure the curriculum will be focused strongly on what it takes to become a chef. Completion might require a commitment of anywhere from one to four years. Despite their generally higher cost, culinary schools can be one of the best ways to begin a chef career, thanks to the quality of faculty, training and updated facilities.
Community colleges generally offer an associate’s degree or diploma/certificate in culinary arts, just like many culinary schools do. But unlike culinary schools, community colleges may be cheaper to attend. Community colleges also allow students to take a few general education classes, which can provide for a more well-rounded degree.
A vocational or trade school program could be one of the quickest ways to obtain culinary training. Some programs are associated with local high schools, where juniors or seniors can learn valuable skills that will give them a leg up when getting a culinary degree or prepare them for entry-level work. Other programs are intended for high school graduates and have a curriculum that is designed to teach a specific set of culinary skills, preparing graduates to move right into the kitchen.
The curriculum that leads to a bachelor’s degree will be quite comprehensive. For example, a typical degree in the culinary arts will cover management, business and marketing concepts, all of which will prepare graduates to run their own restaurant or other food related business. Students will also learn about a wide variety of cuisines and cooking methods.
There are numerous educational paths to fulfill the dream of being a chef. Due to the fact that becoming a chef is more dependent on an individual’s skills rather than where their degree is from, there usually isn’t a “best” degree to get. It all depends on the particular student and a host of other factors.
A certificate is the fastest way to get culinary arts training, typically taking under a year to complete. This curriculum is typically very intense and focus mostly on hands-on learning and obtaining practical skills. A few classes that can be found in a typical culinary certificate program include:
Students will learn how to create various bread and dough foods, such as pastries, pies, cookies and bread.
Students will learn about the equipment in a kitchen, as well as specific tools and cooking techniques commonly used in food preparation.
Focuses on how ingredients react with each other to create certain dishes, as well as how and why certain methods of food preparation affect the taste.
The associate degree is one of the most popular means to obtain a culinary degree. It usually takes only two years to complete and is offered by a variety of institutions, such as community colleges and culinary schools. During the two years of education, students should expect to gain an extensive array of culinary skills and knowledge that will provide the foundation for a career as a chef. Below is a sampling of potential courses.
Students will learn how to prepare international dishes, including using correct ingredients, tools and preparation methods.
This class teaches the importance of sanitation protocols and avoiding food-borne illnesses. Applicable local laws and ordinances will also be discussed
How to acquire ingredients and supplies in logistically efficient and profitable ways is reviewed in this course.
For those who want to maximize their skills and knowledge, gain exposure to a variety of cuisines from around the world and learn about the business aspects of running a restaurant or food business, a bachelor’s degree could be the way to go. About half of a bachelor’s degree program will cover culinary topics, while the remaining half will delve into the management-related training and concepts. It typically takes four years of full-time study to complete. Classes a culinary student can expect to find in a bachelor’s degree program include:
The proper etiquette, procedures and techniques, as well as the fundamentals of a la carte restaurant service, are taught in this class.
Traditional French cooking styles and ingredients are the focus of this class. The history of French cuisine will also be introduced.
The basics of marketing concepts are explained. Students will also learn to apply those principles to the food service and restaurant setting.
Since the types of foods and ways to prepare them are so varied, it’s no surprise that there are several concentrations available. Each concentration prepares students for a particular career in the culinary world.
The making of desserts involves its own unique set of ingredients and cooking techniques. In fact, many higher end restaurants will have a chef devoted only to making desserts.
A pastry chef focuses on making desserts, pastries, breads and other baked foods. In order to become a pastry chef, an individual must focus their training and experience on baking, desserts and breads.
A chocolatier works with chocolate to make a variety of sweets or candies. A chocolatier often focuses first on becoming a pastry chef, then studies techniques and procedures for working with chocolate, which can take many years.
Management professionals in the culinary field spend most of their focus on the business and personnel side of a restaurant.
A restaurant manager oversees and operates a restaurant. They are responsible for managing staff hours and duties, ensuring health codes and rules are followed, controlling budgets and ordering drinks, supplies, equipment and ingredients. A formal degree is strongly recommended.
Though they might perform some management duties, the executive chef’s sphere of control is usually limited to the kitchen and other “back-of-the-house” areas of a restaurant. An executive chef will coordinate kitchen staff and decide how the kitchen will be run. Becoming an executive chef requires working up the kitchen and restaurant hierarchy.
As its name implies, cooking refers to the actual act of making food. These specialties focus on the food and little else.
A sous chef is the second-in-command. They will fill in when the executive chef is absent and work directly with the kitchen staff to ensure the executive chef’s orders are followed and expectations met. Becoming a sous chef is similar to becoming an executive chef, although it takes less time, since there’s less of the hierarchy ladder to climb.
A saucier is a chef that concentrates on creating stews, sauces, appetizers and sautéing food. Becoming a saucier involves devoting extra time, practice and training to this particular area. Generally, a saucier is considered the highest ranking chef after the executive and sous chefs.
Not all chefs work in restaurants. Some cook for private or individual clients, or prepare food at a specific location for a special occasion.
A caterer is a person who prepares food, then brings it to an alternate location. There are no formal requirements to becoming a caterer, but knowing how to prepare and transport large amounts of food efficiently and safely will be critical for success.
A personal chef works for select clients, using the client’s facilities to do the cooking. Becoming a personal chef will usually require several years of experience or education in catering, food preparation or culinary arts.
The stamina, skills and knowledge for cooking at such a high level is not innate or easily learned. Being a chef also requires the use of specialized tools and equipment, and credentials can further enable chefs to move ahead in their careers.
Becoming a chef involves more than just following a recipe or cooking for large numbers of people. Being able to design a new food or a unique method of presentation is important.
It takes a lot of practice and long hours to become a chef. Double shifts and sacrificing personal and family time is practically a rite of passage. And don’t forget that some of the busiest times for food preparation are during the holidays.
Working in a kitchen is very physically demanding. Working nonstop for hours on end is regularly expected.
Mixing, slicing, assembling, squeezing and any other capability of the human hands will be needed as a chef.
Certification is not required to become a chef, but it can ensure prospective clients and employers of a requisite level of knowledge. Some of the most widely recognized certifications come from the American Culinary Federation. Other organizations offering certifications include the Professional Chef’s Association and the United States Chef Association
The ACF is a major professional organization that promotes and enhances the culinary profession by providing certification, accreditation and educational resources.
Provides a comprehensive overview of the culinary profession, such as how to become a chef, what they do, where they work and expected compensation.
The IACP hosts events, gives awards and facilitates the collaboration and communication of culinary professionals.
As the largest foodservice trade organization in the world, the NRA exists to help restaurant professionals obtain their culinary and professional goals. The NRA also acts on behalf of restaurant workers and owners to promote the interests of the food service industry.
The PCA is a leading resource for the culinary profession, offering networking, trade shows and competitions to enhance the culinary profession.
The RCA is a leading organization for the advancement of food and culinary sciences.
The USCA is a professional association that helps chefs achieve their goals. USCA offers certification and education opportunities to its members.
Hundreds of schools across the country offer culinary programs. This culinary arts search tool can help by enabling aspiring chefs to filter down a long list of potential culinary schools and search for schools based on location and degree programs offered.