Wherever food is served, you’ll find chefs. They are in charge of the kitchen, and ultimately are responsible for everything that comes out of it. You really don’t need much more than a high school diploma, though some employers look for culinary degrees and work experience. The work can be fast-paced and often involves long hours. In 2010, the median pay for chefs was $40,630 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although you won’t have complete creative control, you will exercise a great deal of influence on the menu. Sometimes, menu development is a collaboration between you and the restaurant owner. Other times, it’s all your baby. The chef might provide a general theme, specific recipes or variations on already known recipes. Even when the menu or the theme of the establishment is pre-determined, it’s you who is responsible for ironing out the details and making each dish work. Chefs fine tune recipes and make decisions about where to order ingredients. You might also have to come up with weekly specials, develop new methods for preparing the dishes and make decisions about food presentation.
The chef is in charge of the kitchen and everything that happens there. Many chefs don't actually even spend much time cooking, as they are more concerned with directing their team of cooks. Management involves active direction of the cooks in the kitchen. You’re the boss and the mentor, helping them to prioritize tasks and cook meals the way you want them done. Preparation, cooking procedures, sanitation and kitchen safety are all monitored, taught and enforced by the chef. You’re usually responsible for the successful development of a kitchen team and will take on the duties of hiring, training and promoting your staff.
The chef also has a variety of administrative duties. First, as the manager of the kitchen team, you are likely going to be in charge of scheduling and payroll. You also must comply and communicate with various inspecting agencies such as the sanitation department, the fire department or OSHA, making sure everything in the kitchen is up to legal standards. The chef also takes the lead in making sure that the kitchen is stocked. This can include finding and communicating with vendors, ordering the appropriate items and making sure the kitchen stays within a budget.
The chef is the face of the kitchen staff -- responsible for the final product that comes out of the kitchen, whether you personally prepare it or not. Many chefs walk the dining room and regularly check on customers to make sure that everything has been prepared to satisfaction. Many chefs talk directly with customers on special occasions or for specific food requests. For example, specialty items might be prepared for regular patrons with eclectic tastes or allergies. The chef might take the lead in catering an event for a regular customer or preparing meals beforehand for a special event.
2016 Salary Information for Chefs and Head Cooks
Chefs and head cooks earned a median annual salary of $43,180 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, chefs and head cooks earned a 25th percentile salary of $32,230, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $59,080, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 146,500 people were employed in the U.S. as chefs and head cooks.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Chefs and Head Cooks
- Degree Directory: What Are the Typical Job Duties of a Chef
- Career Planner: Chef and Head Cook
- Exforsys Inc.: Responsibilities and Specific Duties of a Chef
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Chefs and Head Cooks
- Career Trend: Chefs and Head Cooks
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."