How to Become a Chef
Anyone who enjoys cooking has probably thought about what it might be like to work as a high-end chef. 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.
The median pay for a chef or head cook is $53,380 per year or $25.66/hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, a chef needs proper training, which can come at a steep cost if you go the formal education route.
Still, there are no strict educational or training requirements to become a chef. Most gain the knowledge and skills during those long hours in the kitchen. However, those who want to reach head chef might take the culinary degree and apprenticeship route.
What Does a Chef Do?
The tasks of a chef are varied, depending on the type of food served and where they work. However, chefs are generally the bosses in a kitchen. In addition to cooking, chefs plan the menu, choose and inspect ingredients, supervise the kitchen staff, and handle other food-related issues.
Steps to Becoming a Chef
Knowing how the kitchen and restaurant works is vitally important to becoming a chef, but. But be warned, this first job might include mundane tasks like washing dishes and taking out the trash. However, the exposure to professionals in the kitchen is what matters — you'll learn if this is right for you.
To move on to culinary school, you need a high school diploma. Most apprenticeship programs require a high school diploma or GED to get in, so earn this very important diploma. GED programs vary by state, but you can usually get one for $150 or less.
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 you don't need a formal education to become a chef, those who have earned their culinary degree can quickly earn positions with greater responsibilities.
Here are different options for getting a culinary education:
- Culinary School: No matter the diploma, certificate, or degree that results from attending a culinary school, culinary school curriculum focuses strongly on what it takes to become a chef. This path can take anywhere from one to four years. Despite their generally higher cost, with the quality of faculty, training, and updated facilities, culinary school is a great way to start your chef career.
- Community College: Community colleges generally offer an associate degree, diploma, or certificate in culinary arts, just like many culinary schools do. But community colleges may be cheaper to attend. Community colleges also allow students to take a few general education classes, providing a more well-rounded degree.
- Vocational / Trade School: 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, giving them a head start on a culinary degree or preparing them for entry-level work. Other programs are intended for high school graduates or GED recipients and teach a specific set of culinary skills, preparing students to move right into the kitchen.
- Four-Year Schools: The curriculum that leads to a bachelor's degree will be comprehensive. For example, a typical degree in the culinary arts will cover management, business, and marketing concepts, preparing graduates to run a restaurant or other food-related business. Students will also learn about a wide variety of cuisines and cooking methods.
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 a bonus, work experience is a great networking opportunity.
Whether as a commis or chef de partie, with your experience and networking opportunities, you can get your first chef job. From here, you can work your way up to sous chef and eventually to head chef.
Chef Salaries and Job Growth
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Projections Central, a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored website.
Top 10 States With the Highest Job Growth
- Utah: 32.2%
- Maryland: 23.5%
- Texas: 20.7%
- Washington: 18.2%
- Nevada: 16.9%
- Tennessee: 16.9%
- Arizona: 16%
- California: 16%
- Oregon: 16%
- Florida: 15.8%
Career Paths for Chefs
Your first step in the career path is to get a job working in a restaurant kitchen. You could take a position as a busser, making an average of about $9 an hour, or possibly get a job as a line cook making $13 on average.
Once you decide that you want to become a chef, here's what a common career path could look like:
This is most likely going to be your first job after culinary education. Here, you'll work under a chef to learn the ropes of the kitchen, which prepares you for more promotions.
The next step after becoming a commis chef is a promotion to chef de partie. Here, you'll be responsible for preparing food, and you'll likely oversee a commis chef.
The sous chef is the kitchen's second in command. They're responsible for overseeing all kitchen staff and implementing the head chef's orders.
As the head chef, you are responsible for managing the entire kitchen, implementing recipes, and maintaining culinary standards.
Since the types of foods and ways to prepare them are so varied, it's no surprise that there are several concentrations available. Some specialized positions include:
- Pastry chef: Makes desserts, pastries, bread, and other baked goods. To become a pastry chef, you must focus your training and experience on baking, desserts, and bread.
- Chocolatier: Makes a variety of sweets or candies out of chocolate. A chocolatier often focuses on becoming a pastry chef, then studies techniques and procedures for working with chocolate.
- Saucier: Concentrates on creating stews, sauces, appetizers, and sautéing food. Becoming a saucier involves devoting extra time, practice, and training to this particular area.
- Caterer: Prepares food for an event at 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.
- Personal chef: Works for select clients, using the client's facilities to do the cooking. Becoming a personal chef requires several years of experience or education in catering, food preparation, or culinary arts.
Courses in Culinary Programs
Learn how to create pastries, pies, cookies, and bread.
- Yeast dough prep
- Proper baking techniques for producing on a large scale
Learn about specific tools and cooking techniques commonly used in food preparation.
- Effective food sanitation procedures
- Common cooking methods and tools used for creating a variety of dishes
Learn how ingredients react to create dishes and how and why certain food preparation methods affect taste.
- Which ingredients react a certain way to other ingredients.
- Which cooking methods produce the desired result.
Learn how to prepare international dishes, including using correct ingredients, tools, and preparation methods.
- Preparing authentic international dishes
- Using non-conventional and culture-specific cooking methods and tools
Teaches the importance of sanitation protocols, avoiding food-borne illnesses, and applicable laws and ordinances.
- Proper food handling and storage methods
- Effective safety training and management techniques
How to acquire ingredients and supplies in logistically efficient and profitable ways.
- Properly identify and confirm desired ingredients
- Understanding of food purchasing methods to provide steady ingredient supply
The proper etiquette, procedures, techniques, and fundamentals of a la carte restaurant service.
- An understanding of how to meet a guest's needs
- Waiter skills
Teaches traditional French cooking styles, history, and ingredients.
- Various French cooking methods
- How to make classic French dishes
Pro Tips on Becoming a Chef
Note: We've edited these tips for grammar and clarity.
There are multiple skills, qualifications, and traits that are best for chefs, such as education, practical training, time management, creativity, ability to multitask, and passion. A person who possesses all these qualities is a good fit for the position. Let's have a look at important skills:
- Ability and Willingness to Learn: Becoming a chef is a hands-on learning experience, and with practice, these skills become perfect. You should master certain flavors and techniques to create different dishes with distinctive tastes and presentations. Therefore, to become a good chef, you need to be open to learning consistently.
- Creativity: Being a chef requires a lot more than just learning or creating the recipe. You have to be creative with respect to taste and presentation. It is also important to be creative when it comes to putting the menu together and setting the table in some cases. Creativity is a great skill that makes you a great chef.
- Time Management: Being efficient at time management is one of the most important things a chef could master. When you are working at a restaurant, you have to serve different customers. Hence, you should have the ability to plan your schedule effectively so that time can be managed and also prepare for risks beforehand. This will also help in enhancing your productivity and increase customer satisfaction.
The best part of my job as a Chef is that, with these skills, I can go anywhere. This is because food service jobs can be found all around the world, and working in a restaurant can take me to all the interesting destinations.
The worst part of my job is that it is physically demanding. Working in a kitchen means standing and moving around for hours. For me, working in a kitchen is hot and crowded. Sometimes, I also have to carry large pots of food from one place to another. Moreover, suffering injuries from knife cuts and hot plates have become a norm.
Related Careers at a Glance
- Job growth: -12%
- 2020 Median Annual Salary: $56,670 per year
- Education Required: High school diploma or equivalent. Certain hotels may require an associate or bachelor's degree.
Food Service Manager
- Job growth: 1%
- 2020 Median Annual Salary: $56,670 per year
- Education Required: High school diploma or equivalent. Higher-end establishments may require an associate or bachelor's degree.
- Job growth: 6%
- 2020 Median Annual Salary: $24,960 per year
- Education Required: Some establishments may require a high school diploma or equivalent.
Culinary School & Chef Career Resources
American Culinary FederationThe ACF is a major professional organization that promotes and enhances the culinary profession by providing certification, accreditation, and educational resources.
International Association of Culinary ProfessionalsThe IACP hosts events, gives awards, and facilitates culinary professionals' collaboration and communication.
Research Chefs AssociationThe RCA is a leading organization for food and culinary science advancement.
United States Chef AssociationThe USCA is a professional association that helps chefs achieve their goals through certification and education opportunities.
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