Put your culinary skills to profitable use as a chef

Chef

Career spotlight - Professional chef

When you treat yourself to a meal at your favorite restaurant, you can thank the chef for each delicious bite. While the chef might not prepare every appetizer, entree, and dessert by hand, the chef claims responsibility for designing the menu, directing the staff, and ensuring excellent food quality for every patron. Chefs can work at mom-and-pop diners or at five-star restaurants, depending on their aspirations, and many may manage their own restaurants.

If you savor spending time in the kitchen, you might as well get paid for every stir of the spoon and slice of the knife. Chefs bring artistry and passion to each meal they create and can shape culinary culture while they experiment with new ideas and pairings. As long as you have the necessary experience and education, you can get a job as a chef and start earning a living from your favorite activity.

What Is a Chef?

Responsibilities

What does a chef do? Your duties and responsibilities will depend on the type of restaurant or food-service business that employs you. Some chefs take part solely in food-related activities, while others handle administrative aspects of the restaurant business as well. Your place in the restaurant hierarchy matters, too. For example, you'll discover a significant difference between a prep chef or cook and an executive or head chef.

Some of the most common responsibilities that form the chef job description might include the following:

  • Investigate and select suppliers for produce, meat, beverages, and other restaurant essentials.
  • Design and perfect the restaurant menu.
  • Teach kitchen staff how to prepare and plate meals.
  • Direct all food preparation activities to ensure quality control.
  • Schedule maintenance for kitchen appliances and machines.
  • Educate staff about regulatory and sanitary requirements and enforce those rules.
  • Update the restaurant menu to suit changing financial needs.
  • Initiate seasonal menu items as proper for the locale.
  • Hire and train kitchen staff.
  • Visit with customers to ask about their experiences.
  • Select kitchen utensils, appliances, and other supplies.
  • Monitor kitchen staff performance.
  • Set pricing for menu items based on preparation cost and other factors.
  • Order food and ingredients to support an adequate inventory.
  • Inspect the kitchen and other restaurant facilities to ensure cleanliness and safety.
  • Respond to crises, such as injuries and grease fires, to protect staff, customers, and property.
  • Create production and staffing schedules.

Work Environment

Chefs work in a fast-paced, highly physical environment. While they might spend some of their time in an office completing administrative tasks, they spend more time in the kitchen preparing food and overseeing the staff. Commercial kitchens can prove hot, noisy, and chaotic, so prospective chefs should consider their ability to work in high-stress environments.

Most chefs wear uniforms as well as nonslip shoes, hairnets, and other protective clothing. Head or executive chefs have more responsibility, so they might work more hours and endure more stress. The work environment can become dangerous if staff members fail to follow safety rules and precautions. Commercial kitchens contain hot surfaces and open flames.

Schedule

Depending on the type of restaurant, chefs can work many times during the day and night. Most restaurants close for the night, but some stay open 24 hours a day. Additionally, some restaurants only open for meal times, while others serve customers throughout the day.

Many chefs work between 50 and 70 hours per week. Since chefs often earn a salary instead of an hourly wage, their employers don't have to worry about overtime costs. The long hours can become physically taxing, and chefs might discover that the job proves too demanding.

What Qualifications Are Required to Be a Chef?

Education

You don't need a specific education to become a chef. Many professionals advance in the restaurant business, starting out in entry-level positions. However, if you want to start your career as a chef, and if you don't have restaurant experience, consider getting an education.

Culinary schools offer excellent educational backgrounds for aspiring chefs. In an interview for the International Culinary Center, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain calls a culinary school background "enormously helpful," primarily because of the baseline skills you learn in your classes. A potential employer won't have to teach you those basics, which means the company can spend fewer resources on training.

You can also take culinary classes at a nonculinary school. A culinary arts degree could help you get hired faster and increase your salary potential. Alternatively, if you hope to open your own restaurant, a business education might prove more valuable.

Experience

The experience you need to succeed as a chef depends on the position you seek in a restaurant or other hospitality venue. Many businesses hire multiple chefs; for example, a pastry chef might need less experience than an executive chef. However, hard work and persistence can often become more valuable than experience and education if you're willing to set reasonable expectations and outperform your colleagues in the kitchen.

Generally, experience can make up for a lack of education. For example, maybe you didn't pursue education beyond your high school diploma, but you have 10 years of experience on a kitchen staff. If your last job has the word chef or cook in its title, you might become more attractive to potential employers.

Additionally, restaurant managers sometimes look for chefs with specific experience. If you've worked only in casual dining establishments, your skill set might not translate well to a gourmet French restaurant or an Asian-fusion bistro. While you can always learn to cook new dishes, switching culinary genres often means learning about new ingredients, food preparation techniques, and kitchen equipment.

Skills

A great chef needs a varied skill set that allows the chef to run an efficient kitchen that produces high-quality food:

  • Dexterity: Chefs handle many utensils and gadgets in the kitchen, so manual dexterity proves essential if you want to succeed.
  • Precision: Every recipe depends on precise measurements. While you might experiment in the kitchen, menu items in a restaurant must stay consistent.
  • Cleanliness: Poor sanitary standards in a restaurant can become dangerous for patrons and put the restaurant at risk for failing inspections with a health department.
  • Decision Making: The fast pace in commercial kitchens demands quick and educated decisions. Chefs usually take responsibility for those decisions.
  • Multitasking: When the restaurant gets busy, you must juggle multiple plates at once to ensure customer satisfaction in the dining areas.
  • Organization: If your prep cook can't find the right knife to slice potatoes and your sous chef can't find the seasonings, your kitchen's performance can suffer.
  • Management: Most chefs direct other restaurant employees, so you must know how to delegate tasks, reprimand poor behavior, and motivate workers.

Salary Expectations

How much do chefs make? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, chefs earn a median annual salary of $41,500 as of May 2015. Entry-level professionals who lack experience or education might fall into the lower 10 percent of earners, which translates to around $23,000 per year. The most experienced and successful chefs, however, can earn more than $74,170.

The BLS also reports that chefs earn more when they work for traveler accommodations. To expand your salary potential, consider applying for chef jobs at hotels, inns, and other hospitality venues. Additionally, salary potential increases for chefs who work in large cities compared to rural or suburban communities.

Job Outlook for Chefs

Projected Growth

If you're thinking about becoming a chef, you have excellent job potential. The BLS estimates that chef jobs will grow 9 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is "much faster than average." Population and income growth have contributed to increased interest in the restaurant business, and dining establishments, therefore, enjoy higher profits and can create more jobs. New culinary genres, particularly those centered around healthful eating, have also contributed to excellent growth.

Not only does the high growth rate improve your chances of finding a job, but it can also improve your job security. When restaurants stay in the black, these restaurants don't go out of business or lay off valued employees.

Career Trajectory

Most chefs aspire to continue working in the kitchen. They enjoy building new menus, preparing food, and experimenting with dishes. However, since large restaurants often have chef hierarchies, you might advance in your career from a lower position to the head or executive chef position.

You could also increase your salary potential if you target upscale restaurants. When venues charge more for their food, they can pay their employees higher wages. Alternatively, if you're interested in entrepreneurship, you might save your money so you can open your own restaurant and become a business owner. While this option offers less security, the idea is often appealing to chefs who want to make all the decisions in a restaurant.

Chefs provide delicious, distinctive dishes for their customers. If you enjoy spending time in the kitchen, you can earn money for doing what you love. Start searching for a job as a chef in your area.