Believe it or not, you can’t just walk into a kitchen and start as a head chef. The head chef, also referred to as the executive chef and chef de cuisine, is the boss of the kitchen -- and naturally, that’s a spot you have to earn. To be an executive chef, you not only need the experience and training, but the right attitude and skills to run your kitchen staff and turn out a superb menu each time.
Your Role in the Kitchen
As an executive chef, you are the kitchen manager. You manage all kitchen personnel and in some smaller establishments, you may manage the wait staff too. Menu planning, inventory tracking, purchasing, recipe creation and employee training all fall under your responsibilities. You still prepare and cook meals, but more often than not you take on the supervisory role while the rest of your kitchen staff prepares, cooks and plates your menu dishes.
Formal education isn’t required to be a head chef, but it is preferred. You can get formal training at a community college, trade school or culinary arts academy in two to four years -- depending whether you want an associate or bachelor’s degree. Attending school primes you on day-to-day kitchen tasks that not only include food preparation, but also purchasing, menu planning and food sanitation. A formal education also teaches you a variety of cuisines and preparation techniques to make your culinary skills more diverse. If you can’t get formal education, consider a two-year apprenticeship program sponsored by a local trade union or industry association such as the American Culinary Federation.
Experience and Training
You must first start working in a professional kitchen in a separate position, such as a line cook, pastry chef or prep cook. Although restaurants don’t have a specific number of years they want under their executive chef’s belt, you should have enough experience and on-the-job training in a variety of kitchen positions first. For most chefs, this takes several years.
Certification isn’t required, but most restaurants prefer you are certified as an executive chef. By doing so you have proved you have the work experience, skill sets and training to provide restaurant owners with a quality head chef. You can get a culinary certificate through the American Culinary Federation. Requirements are based on formal training, ACF-sponsored classwork and work experience. Minimum work experience varies from six months to more than five years depending on the certificate you are pursuing.
Meeting the education and experience requirements aren't enough to cut it as executive chef; you have to have the right personal skills as well. Being a natural leader is important, but also being creative, having a great sense of smell and taste and managing your time effectively make you a great candidate for head chef.
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.
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