The skills of professional chefs are what set 5-star or extraordinary restaurants apart from average ones. These professionals mix spices, herbs and sauces with meats, soups and vegetables. They also prepare tasty salads and desserts and plan menus. If you have the manual dexterity and stamina to work hours in a kitchen -- outside of preparing family meals -- you are already ahead of most in fulfilling the requirements of a professional chef.
Most professional chefs earn two- or four-year degrees from technical schools, culinary institutes or community colleges. While there is some classroom training, students spend most of their time in the kitchen honing their cooking skills. As a student chef, you learn everything about running a kitchen, including menu planning, food sanitation and ordering food and supplies. Most professional chefs combine coursework and cooking with internships or apprenticeship training. Formal two-year apprenticeships are sponsored by industry associations, trade unions and culinary institutions, including the American Culinary Federation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Training and Certification
After graduation, professional chefs usually train under professional chefs in mentorship programs. In this role, you may work in a fine dining establishment, hotel or chain restaurant. The armed forces also have mentorship training programs. Certification is not mandatory, but it can increase your employment opportunities and pay. For instance, the American Culinary Federation certifies those interested in becoming pastry or personal chefs or culinary instructors.
You need strong leadership skills to be a successful chef. You will coordinate the work of other chefs, cooks and food preparation workers. Major responsibilities include training and motivating workers, and fostering teamwork in a positive work environment so meals are served accurately and in a timely manner. As a boss, you must also conduct employee reviews and create action plans to improve their skills and performances.
Professional chefs also need business skills. As a chef, you have administrative responsibilities, including accounting, selecting and hiring skilled employees, tracking inventory and keeping food costs under budget. You must also help the restaurant or kitchen manager generate repeat business by satisfying customers. This includes interacting with guests, asking them if they enjoyed their meals and acting on their suggestions for improving the restaurant's service.
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: Occupational Outlook Handbook: How to Become a Chef or Head Cook
- United States Professional Chef's Association: Personal Chef Certification (CPC)
- EduChoices.org: Chef: Education Requirements for Becoming a Chef
- MyPlan: Chefs & Head Cooks
- American Culinary Federation: Education
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Chefs and Head Cooks
- Career Trend: Chefs and Head Cooks
- Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images