Working in a professional kitchen isn't the dream job you might think, particularly if your impression comes from reality TV shows. It's physically demanding work, mentally draining, and the pay isn't anything to write home about. Many commercial kitchens aren't especially welcoming to women, either. Despite that, if you're willing to pay your dues as a line cook -- doing the day-to-day grunt work, such as working a grill station, that keeps kitchens running -- it's possible to carve out a good career in food service.
On the Job
One way to get started in the industry is by knocking on doors and asking for work. You'll need to be persistent. But some chefs -- especially in casual restaurants -- are willing to take inexperienced people and train them from the ground up. You'll usually get a serious lecture on safe food handling in your first few weeks and some basic training in knife skills, then be put to work on simple prep jobs. As you gain experience and skill you'll start helping at work stations along the line, such as the deep-fry station or the grill. You'll begin working on your own during slow times, and eventually learn to handle the busiest shifts.
You might find it easier to get that first job if you've had some formal training. Culinary programs lasting one to four years are available at community and technical colleges, standalone cooking schools and universities. One-year programs teach you line cooking basics, such as ingredient prep, saute skills and soup-making. Two-year programs provide a thorough education in classical culinary techniques, and four-year degrees teach you management and administrative skills as well. One very important thing to remember is that school isn't real life. Your schooling gets you in the door, but you'll still have to prove yourself by learning your way through each station and proving you can handle the pace and the stress.
A third option is a formal apprenticeship, which combines formal and on-the-job training. The American Culinary Federation and other organizations administer apprenticeships, which require you to cook full-time for one to three years and take a total of 445 hours' online or classroom training. You'll still learn to cut, broil and saute in the kitchen, but you'll learn cooking theory and classical techniques during the formal training sessions. Unlike school, apprenticeships pay you a full-time income while you learn. Some chefs prefer to hire cooks who have worked an apprenticeship, because they've learned their skills in the full-speed environment of a commercial kitchen.
Training is just the start to a career as a cook. Once you've built the basic skills a line cook needs, you can begin working your way up the ladder. Over time, if you have the cooking and management skills, you can become a lead cook, a sous-chef, executive sous-chef, chef de cuisine, and eventually an executive chef. Women are still less common at the top, and there's a pay gap between male and female chefs. But even in the hidebound world of French haute cuisine, chef Anne-Sophie Pic was able to earn three Michelin stars to become only the fourth woman to win cooking's top award.
2016 Salary Information for Cooks
Cooks earned a median annual salary of $23,250 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, cooks earned a 25th percentile salary of $19,890, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $28,040, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 2,403,000 people were employed in the U.S. as cooks.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Cooks
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
- American Culinary Federation: Becoming an Apprentice
- Kapiolani Community College: Culinary Arts Program
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Cooks
- Career Trend: Cooks
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.