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Chefs and Cooks

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Summary: Requirements, benefits, and job outlook for chefs and cooks.

A quick look at the role of a chef or cook.

Nature of the Work

A reputation for serving good food is essential to any restaurant, whether it prides itself on hamburgers and French fries or exotic foreign cuisine. Chefs and cooks are largely responsible for the reputation a restaurant acquires. Some restaurants offer a varied menu featuring meals that are time consuming and difficult to prepare, requiring a highly skilled cook or chef. Other restaurants emphasize fast service, offering hamburgers and sandwiches that can be prepared in advance or in a few minutes by a fast food or short order cook with only limited cooking skills.

Chefs and cooks are responsible for preparing meals that are pleasing to the palate and the eye. Chefs are the most highly skilled, trained, and experienced of all kitchen workers. Although the terms chef and cook are still used interchangeably, cooks are less skilled. Many chefs have earned fame for themselves and the establishments where they work, due to their willful preparation of traditional dishes and refreshing twists in creating new ones.

Institutional chefs and cooks work in the kitchens of schools, industrial cafeterias, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a small selection, but large quantity of entrees, vegetables, and desserts. Restaurant chefs and cooks generally prepare a wider selection of dishes for each meal, cooking most orders individually. They are often responsible for directing the work of other kitchen workers, estimating food requirements, and ordering food supplies. Some chefs also assist in planning meals and developing menus.

Bread and pastry bakers, called pastry chefs in some kitchens, produce baked goods for restaurants, institutions, and retail bakery shops. Unlike bakers who work in large, industrial bakeries, bread and pastry bakers need only to supply the customers who visit their establishment. They bake quantities of breads, rolls, pastries, pies, and cakes, doing most of the work by hand. They measure and mix ingredients, shape and bake the dough, and apply fillings and decorations.

Short order cooks prepare foods to order in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service. They often work on several orders at the same time. Prior to busy periods, they may slice meats and cheeses or prepare salads.

Specialty fast food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items. They cook and package batches of food such as hamburgers, which are prepared to order or kept warm until sold.

Working Conditions

Working conditions depend on the type and quantity of food being prepared and the local laws governing food service operations. Workers generally must withstand the pressure and strain of working in close quarters, standing for hours at a time, lifting heavy pots and kettles, and working near hot ovens and grills. Job hazards include slips and falls, cuts, and burns, but injuries are seldom serious.

Work hours in restaurants may include late evenings, holidays, and weekends, while hours in factory, and school cafeterias may be more regular. Half of all short order and fast food cooks worked part-time; a third of all bakers and restaurant and institutional cooks worked part time. Kitchen workers employed by public and private schools may work during the school year only, usually for 9 or 10 months.


Chefs and cooks held about 146,500 jobs in 2016, with a majority being employed by restaurants.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most kitchen workers start as fast food or short order cooks, or in one of the other less skilled kitchen positions. These positions require little education or training and most skills are learned on the job. After acquiring some basic food handling, preparation, and cooking skills, they may be able to advance to an assistant cook or short order cook position. To achieve the level of skill required of an executive chef or cook in a fine restaurant, many years of training and experience are necessary. Even though a high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs, it is recommended for those planning a career as a cook or chef. High school or vocational school courses in business arithmetic and business administration are particularly helpful.

An increasing number of chefs and cooks obtain their training through high school, post high school vocational programs, and two or four year colleges. Chefs and cooks also may be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions. In addition, some large hotels and restaurants operate their own training programs for cooks and chefs.

People who have had courses in commercial food preparation may be able to start in a cook or chef position immediately. Their education may give them an advantage when looking for jobs in better restaurants and hotels, where hiring standards often are high. Some vocational programs in high schools offer this kind of training, but these courses are usually given by trade schools, vocational centers, colleges, professional associations and trade unions. Post secondary courses range from a few months to two years or more and are open in some cases only to high school graduates.

Although curricula may vary, students usually spend most of their time learning to prepare food through actual practice. Training programs often include courses in menu planning, determination of portion size, food cost control, purchasing food supplies in quantity, selection and storage of food, and use of leftover food to minimize waste. Students also learn hotel and restaurant sanitation and public health rules for handling food. Training in supervisory and management skills sometimes is emphasized in courses offered by private vocational schools, professional associations, and university programs.

Certification provides valuable formal recognition of the skills of a chef or cook. The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs and cooks at the levels of cook, working chef, executive chef, and master chef. It also certifies pastry professionals and culinary educators. Certification standards are based primarily on experience and formal training.

Important qualifications for chefs and cooks include the ability to work as part of a team, possessing a keen sense of taste and smell, and personal cleanliness. Most states require health certificates indicating workers are free from communicable diseases.

Some chefs and cooks advance to executive chef positions, or supervisory or management positions, particularly in hotels, clubs, or larger, more elegant restaurants. Some eventually go into business as caterers or restaurant owners, while others become instructors in vocational programs in high schools, community colleges, and other academic institutions.

Job Outlook

Employment for chefs and cooks is expected to grow 10% from 2016 to 2026, faster than average for all occupations. As the demand for healthier meals escalates, so will the demand for highly qualified and experienced chefs and cooks.


The median annual wage for chefs and cooks was $45,950 in 2017. The lowest 10% earned less than $25,020, while the highest 10% earned more than $78,570.

Related Occupations

Butchers, food service managers, cannery workers, industrial bakers, food preparation workers

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