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What Chefs and Head Cooks Do About this section

Chefs and head cooks
Chefs plan menus and order supplies.

Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food preparation at restaurants and other places where food is served. They direct kitchen staff and handle any food-related concerns.

Duties

Chefs and head cooks typically do the following:

  • Check the freshness of food and ingredients
  • Supervise and coordinate activities of cooks and other food preparation workers
  • Develop recipes and determine how to present dishes
  • Plan menus and ensure the quality of meals
  • Inspect supplies, equipment, and work areas for cleanliness and functionality
  • Hire, train, and supervise cooks and other food preparation workers
  • Order and maintain an inventory of food and supplies
  • Monitor sanitation practices and follow kitchen safety standards

Chefs and head cooks use a variety of kitchen and cooking equipment, including step-in coolers, high-quality knives, meat slicers, and grinders. They also have access to large quantities of meats, spices, and produce. Some chefs use scheduling and purchasing software to help them in their administrative tasks.

Chefs who run their own restaurant or catering business are often busy with kitchen and office work. Some chefs use social media to promote their business by advertising new menu items or addressing patrons' reviews.

The following are examples of types of chefs and head cooks:

Executive chefs, head cooks, and chefs de cuisine are responsible primarily for overseeing the operation of a kitchen. They coordinate the work of sous chefs and other cooks, who prepare most of the meals. Executive chefs also have many duties beyond the kitchen. They design the menu, review food and beverage purchases, and often train cooks and other food preparation workers. Some executive chefs primarily handle administrative tasks and may spend less time in the kitchen.

Sous chefs are a kitchen’s second-in-command. They supervise the restaurant’s cooks, prepare meals, and report results to the head chefs. In the absence of the head chef, sous chefs run the kitchen.

Work Environment About this section

Chefs and head cooks
Chefs and head cooks must stand for long periods.

Chefs and head cooks held about 152,800 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of chefs and head cooks were as follows:

Restaurants and other eating places 49%
Special food services 11
Self-employed workers 8
Traveler accommodation 7
Amusement, gambling, and recreation industries 6

Chefs and head cooks work in restaurants, hotels, and other food service establishments. All of the cooking and food preparation areas in these facilities must be kept clean and sanitary. Chefs and head cooks usually stand for long periods and work in a fast-paced environment.

Some self-employed chefs run their own restaurants or catering businesses, and their work may be more stressful. For example, outside the kitchen, they often spend many hours managing all aspects of the business to ensure that bills and salaries are paid and that the business is profitable.

Injuries and Illnesses

Chefs and head cooks risk injury in kitchens, which are usually crowded and potentially dangerous. Common hazards include burns from hot ovens, falls on slippery floors, and cuts from knives and other sharp objects, but these injuries are seldom serious. To reduce the risk of harm, workers often wear long-sleeve shirts and nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most chefs and head cooks work full time, including early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Some work more than 40 hours per week.

How to Become a Chef or Head Cook About this section

chefs and head cooks image
Most chefs and head cooks learn their skills through work experience.

To enter the occupation, chefs and head cooks typically need a high school diploma plus experience. Some attend a culinary program at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or 4-year college. Others learn through apprenticeship programs or in the Armed Forces.

Education

Chefs and head cooks are typically required to have a high school diploma or equivalent to enter the occupation. Although they are not always required to have postsecondary education, many attend programs at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 4-year colleges.

Students in culinary programs spend most of their time in kitchens, practicing their cooking skills. Programs cover all aspects of kitchen work, including menu planning, food sanitation procedures, and purchasing and inventory methods. Most programs also require students to gain experience in a commercial kitchen through an internship or apprenticeship program.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Chefs and head cooks often start by working in other positions, such as line cooks, learning cooking skills from the chefs they work for. Many spend years working in kitchens before gaining enough experience to be promoted to chef or head cook positions.

Training

Some chefs and head cooks train on the job, where they learn the same skills as in a formal education program. Some train in mentorship programs, where they work under the direction of an experienced chef. Executive chefs, head cooks, and sous chefs who work in upscale restaurants often have many years of training and experience.

Chefs and head cooks also may learn through apprenticeship programs sponsored by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, or trade unions. The American Culinary Federation accredits many training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs. Some of the apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Apprenticeship programs generally combine instruction and on-the-job training. Apprentices typically receive both instruction and paid on-the-job training. Instruction usually covers food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. Apprentices spend the rest of their training learning practical skills in a commercial kitchen under a chef’s supervision.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some states and localities require chefs and head cooks to have a food handler’s certification. For more information, contact your state or local licensing board.

Although not required, other types of certification may lead to advancement and higher pay. The American Culinary Federation certifies various levels of chefs, such as certified sous chefs and certified executive chefs. Certification standards are based primarily on work experience and formal training.

Important Qualities

Business skills. Executive chefs and chefs who run their own restaurant need to know how to budget for supplies, set prices, and manage workers so that the restaurant is profitable.

Communication skills. Chefs must convey their instructions clearly and effectively to staff so that patrons' orders are prepared correctly.

Creativity. Chefs and head cooks need to develop and prepare interesting and innovative recipes.

Dexterity. Chefs and head cooks need agility to handle knives properly for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Leadership skills. Chefs and head cooks must be able to motivate kitchen staff and to develop constructive and cooperative working relationships.

Physical stamina. Chefs and head cooks often work long shifts and sometimes spend entire evenings on their feet, overseeing the preparation and serving of meals.

Sense of taste and smell. Chefs and head cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell in order to inspect food quality and to design meals that their patrons will enjoy.

Time-management skills. Chefs and head cooks must ensure efficiency in meal preparation and service, especially during busy hours.

Pay About this section

Chefs and Head Cooks

Median annual wages, May 2021

Chefs and head cooks

$50,160

Total, all occupations

$45,760

Supervisors of food preparation and serving workers

$37,130

 

The median annual wage for chefs and head cooks was $50,160 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,910, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $84,570.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for chefs and head cooks in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Traveler accommodation $61,900
Amusement, gambling, and recreation industries 61,170
Special food services 59,910
Restaurants and other eating places 48,390

The level of pay for chefs and head cooks varies by region and employer. Pay is usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs work, as well as in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Most chefs and head cooks work full time and often work early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Some work more than 40 hours per week.

Job Outlook About this section

Chefs and Head Cooks

Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31

Chefs and head cooks

15%

Supervisors of food preparation and serving workers

14%

Total, all occupations

5%

 

Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 15 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 24,300 openings for chefs and head cooks are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Income growth is expected to result in greater demand for high-quality dishes at a variety of dining venues. As a result, more restaurants and other dining places are expected to open to satisfy consumer desire for dining out.

Consumers are continuing to demand healthier meals made from scratch in restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, and other places that sell food. To ensure high-quality dishes, these establishments hire experienced chefs to oversee food preparation.

Employment projections data for chefs and head cooks, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Chefs and head cooks

35-1011 152,800 176,300 15 23,600 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

Visit Apprenticeship.gov to search for information about apprenticeship opportunities.

For more information about chefs, including a directory of 2-year and 4-year colleges that offer culinary courses or training programs, visit

American Culinary Federation

National Restaurant Association

For information about certification, contact your state or local licensing board or a professional association.

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