Traditionally, chefs learned their trade through apprenticeship programs that were demanding and consisted of formal and informal training. You still need hands-on experience to land top jobs in the industry, but culinary educations and certifications can get you hired at a higher starting salary. Experience and two- or four-year college degrees give you the background to get hired in upscale restaurants, hotels, private homes, hospitals and nursing centers.
Skills and Attitudes You Need to Become a Chef
People in the culinary industry might focus on FOH or BOH careers, but cooks and chefs increasingly need people management and business skills to succeed in the highly competitive restaurant industry. A love of food and cooking is, of course, the first requirement. Other qualities that you should have include the following characteristics:
Stamina – Restaurant work is physically demanding and requires you to stay on your feet for many hours.
Composure – Stressful kitchens can become hot, repetitive and draining during peaks hours, but you must stay calm and focus on your work in a chaotic environment.
Creativity – Top chefs come up with new ways to prepare food and create appealing ingredient pairings.
Leadership – The best chefs lead their staffs by example.
Communication – Communicating well with fellow cooks, FOH staff and customers is critical to culinary success.
Math skills – You must have solid math skills to convert recipes, plan menus, order sufficient inventory and keep food costs low.
The Educational Road Map to Kitchen Success
You can find cooking jobs while still in high school, but getting a diploma is essential for career advancement. Vocational classes in food handling, cooking and safety and sanitation will help you find full-time work in better restaurants. Getting some practical training by working in the industry could prevent you from making a mistake because you might find that you don’t have the personal skills and attitudes for restaurant work.
If you enjoy the work, you can advance your career by taking culinary classes, studying food issues in your spare time, dining at all types of restaurants, watching cooking shows, reading cookbooks and learning about the business side of the industry. Today, culinary careers involve more than food preparation; they require a lifetime commitment.
You can pursue postsecondary training and culinary certifications at community colleges, vocational schools, restaurant cooking classes, four-year colleges and specialized culinary institutes. Some schools offer apprenticeship and internship programs, and online instruction allows you to earn while you learn. Some culinary institutes offer specialized courses for experienced chefs who never received postsecondary educations and want to advance their careers.
Popular Culinary Schools that Provide Expert Instruction
You can take culinary classes on a full- or part-time basis and even take some classes online. Local programs offer specialty cooking programs and safety certifications to sharpen your skills as keenly as you learn to maintain and sharpen your kitchen cutlery.
Typical majors include:
- Hotel and Restaurant Management
- Culinary Arts Management
- Food Preparation for Professional Kitchens
- Baking and Pastry Arts
- Wine, Spirits and Beverage Management
- Culinary Arts
- Associate Degrees
- Bachelor Degrees
- Diplomas and Certificates
Top culinary schools in the United States include Le Cordon Bleu, Johnson and Wales University, The Art Institutes, Kitchen Academy, French Culinary Institute, New England Culinary Institute and many well-known private schools in every region of the country.
How Much You Earn in Various Culinary Positions
Culinary positions offer job security and a variety of earning potentials based on your level of skill, experience, type of cuisine and geographic location. Of course, going into business for yourself as a caterer, restaurant owner, personal chef, food truck operator or private chef have virtually unlimited earning potential based on your willingness to work, business acumen, cooking skills and expansion plans.
You will usually start out at an entry-level position, possibly as a station chef. Culinary educations and association certifications provide you with tools for internal advancement and cross-company mobility. No industry promotes from within on a more predictable schedule than the hospitality industry.
Top executive chefs earn as much as $100,000 annually, and head chefs commonly command salaries between $50,000 and $100,000. Entrepreneurs and celebrity chefs, of course, can earn millions for televisions shows, restaurant franchises, commercial endorsements and book deals. One sobering thought you should consider—fame and money often fail to provide the simple satisfaction that cooking for people you know can provide. Earning a good reputation among your friends and neighbours can be more satisfying than media fame. If you love food, a culinary career lets you work at something you enjoy doing while getting paid a competitive salary.
Balancing Education and Practical Experience
Regardless of education, most people start as assistants or line cooks because the demands of restaurant work can prove overwhelmingly stressful for untested culinary workers. Many culinary institutes offer job placement or practical work experience in student-operated restaurants as part of their educational curricula. The more experience you get, the better your chances for landing a good job or advancing in the profession.
You might gain valuable work experience by entering apprenticeship programs or working in restaurants at entry-level positions while going to school. Cooking at home helps you to learn about food and sharpen your skills. Don’t forget that most restaurants use POS systems and computerized inventory and ordering systems, so you should take time to become familiar with spreadsheets and computer applications.
Culinary Certifications Provide Strong Résumé Enhancements
Culinary certifications show potential employers that you are serious about your job and food safety. The federal government establishes no mandates for chef certification, but getting certified can improve your chances when job hunting. Requirements for chef associations usually include attaining a certain education level and passing written and practical tests.
The Conference for Food Protection has no regulatory authority but focuses on common national and government standards in its Certified Food Protection Professional certification program. Other important safety certifications include the following programs:
1. ServSafe: This food safety program provides practical education and training on food safety issues and was developed by the National Restaurant Association. You can register for SerSafe training courses in most cities, which you can find through your local health department.
2. Certified Food Safety Manager: The National Registry of Food Safety Professionals, Inc., offers certifications for food-service professionals that include assessing knowledge of the industry and regulatory agency rules.
3. Prometric Certified Professional Food Manager Program: Prometric tests your knowledge, skills and food safety training and makes a good résumé builder for managers and supervisors. This certification is recognized by ANSI and the Council for Food Protection.
4. NRAEF: The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation offers certifications for culinary professionals in five key areas that include educators, administrators, baking and pastry professionals, cooking hospitality professionals and personal, private or and catering chefs. A few samplings of the certifications include:
- Certified Culinarian
- Personal Certified Chef
- Working Pastry Chef
- Sous Chef
- Master Pastry Chef
- Certified Master Chef
The American Culinary Federation also offers 14 levels of culinary certifications, and you need to demonstrate education and work experience to get certified professionally. ACF certifications make you more attractive to employers and help to raise your starting salary.
Multiple certifications could make you more attractive to employers, lead to quick job advancement or generate opportunities for business success. Getting multiple certifications in different areas shows employers your versatility and commitment to the profession as a long-term career choice.
Celebrity Chefs Become Increasingly Common
The Food Network has launched many celebrity chef careers, but even before the Food Network’s high visibility, chefs like Julia Child and Graham Kerr captured the imagination of aspiring chefs around the world. Today, new shows showcase chefs with unique personal twists on food preparation or hold culinary competitions for various dishes such as barbecue, cakes, chili and full-course meals.
Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Rachel Ray and Alton Brown have become household names. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, who already owned multiple restaurants, raised his profile to new levels by attracting 2.7 million viewers for his reality cooking show. Television chefs become industry rock stars, but local cooking celebrities command respect in their communities, take part in civic events and educate the public about food trends, safety and sustainability.
You need to learn classic cooking techniques before bringing your personal creativity and style to food preparation in a professional venue. Thinking creatively, you might inspire a new dining trend, work in a casino or on a cruise ship, start your own catering company specializing in a certain type of cuisine or use other people’s kitchens and resources to start a business as a personal or private chef.
Culinary careers include head chef positions, sous chefs, caterers, line cooks, short order cooks, private chefs, dietitians, bakers and pastry chefs. Cook at home to find out which kinds of foods you enjoy preparing. Learn about the foods you love and gain knowledge of organic, free range, kosher and gluten-free foods. Share your culinary efforts with friends and family to get their opinions on your creative and preparation skills.
You can find out what it takes to become a certain type of chef and other culinary careers by clicking on the links that capture your interest in our guide on how to become a chef.