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What Cooks Do About this section

Cooks may prepare fresh vegetables.

Cooks season and prepare foods, including soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.


Cooks typically do the following:

  • Ensure the freshness of ingredients
  • Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
  • Bake, grill, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Arrange and garnish food on serving dishes
  • Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, and dishes
  • Cook, handle, and store food or ingredients

Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers. Large restaurants and food service establishments often have multiple menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients they need to prepare food.

Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do, such as fry cook or grill cook.

Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.

Cooks' responsibilities vary depending on the type of food service establishment, the size of the facility, and the level of service offered. However, in all establishments, they follow sanitation procedures when handling food. For example, they store food and ingredients at the correct temperatures to prevent bacterial growth.

The following are examples of types of cooks:

Fast food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served. For more information about workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.

Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other establishments. They typically prepare a large quantity of entrees, vegetables, and desserts according to preset menus. However, they sometimes customize meals, such as for diners’ dietary considerations.

Private household cooks, sometimes called personal chefs, plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client’s tastes and dietary needs. They pick up groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other events. Private household cooks typically work full-time for one client, although many are self-employed or employed by an agency, regularly preparing meals for multiple clients.

Restaurant cooks prepare a variety of dishes, usually by individual order, in eating establishments. Some restaurant cooks order supplies and help maintain the stock room.

Short order cooks prepare and sometimes serve foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service. For example, they might make sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.

Work Environment About this section

cooks image
Cooks often work in restaurants.

Cooks held about 2.6 million jobs in 2021. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up cooks was distributed as follows:

Cooks, restaurant 1,255,600
Cooks, fast food 792,300
Cooks, institution and cafeteria 410,100
Cooks, short order 129,800
Cooks, private household 41,400
Cooks, all other 19,500

The largest employers of cooks were as follows:

Restaurants and other eating places 73%
Healthcare and social assistance 6
Educational services; state, local, and private 5

Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, and other establishments where food is prepared and served. They often prepare only part of a dish and coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time. Some work in private homes.

Cooks stand for long periods and work under pressure in a fast-paced environment. Although most cooks work indoors in kitchens, some may work outdoors at food stands, at catered events, or in mobile food trucks.

Injuries and Illnesses

Kitchens are usually crowded and filled with potential dangers, such as hot ovens or slippery floors. Cooks, all other, in particular, have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. ("All other" titles represent occupations with a wide range of characteristics that do not fit into any of the other detailed occupations.)

The most common hazards are slips, falls, cuts, and burns, although injuries are seldom serious. To reduce the risks, cooks wear gloves, long-sleeve shirts, aprons, and nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most cooks work full time, although part-time work is common. Work schedules vary and may include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. In school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias, cooks usually have more regular hours.

Cooks who are employed in schools may work only during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, cooks who are employed in some resort establishments work only for seasonal operation.

How to Become a Cook About this section

Cooks typically learn their skills on the job from an experienced chef.

Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training and work-related experience. Although no formal education is typically required, some cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.


Cooks typically do not need formal education. However, employers may require or prefer that applicants have a high school diploma.

Vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and some colleges offer programs and courses on topics such as cooking techniques and international cuisines. Programs generally last from a few months to 2 years, and applicants may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.


Cooks typically learn their skills on the job. The length of on-the-job training varies for different types of cooks. Trainees generally first learn kitchen basics and workplace safety and then learn how to handle and cook food.

Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may sponsor such programs for cooks. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef. The length of apprenticeship programs vary but typically last about 1 year.

The American Culinary Federation accredits many academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. Minimum qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program typically include being at least 17 years old and having a high school diploma or equivalent.

Some hotels and restaurants offer their own training programs.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Many states do not require certification for cooks. Some states and localities require cooks to have a food handler’s certification. For more information, contact your state or local licensing board.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many cooks, particularly those who work in restaurants and private households, learn their skills through work-related experience. Starting as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker allows cooks to learn basic skills, which may lead to opportunities to gain experience in assistant cook or line cook positions. Some work under the guidance of more experienced cooks.


The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs, personal chefs, pastry chefs, and culinary administrators, among others. Professional certification may lead to higher level or higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare complex dishes. Those interested in advancing should learn new cooking skills and take on increasing responsibility, such as supervising kitchen staff in the absence of a chef. Some cooks train or supervise kitchen staff, and some become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.

Important Qualities

Attention to detail. Cooks need to listen carefully to orders and follow recipes to prepare dishes correctly.

Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to use proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Physical stamina. Cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.

Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.

Pay About this section


Median hourly wages, May 2021

Total, all occupations




Cooks and food preparation workers



The median hourly wage for cooks was $14.00 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 $9.58, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.47.

Median hourly wages for cooks in May 2021 were as follows:

Cooks, private household $20.63
Cooks, all other 14.77
Cooks, restaurant 14.43
Cooks, institution and cafeteria 14.38
Cooks, short order 13.73
Cooks, fast food 11.63

In May 2021, the median hourly wages for cooks in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Healthcare and social assistance $14.64
Restaurants and other eating places 13.87
Educational services; state, local, and private 13.78

Pay for cooks varies greatly by region and type of employer. Pay is usually highest in upscale hotels and restaurants, as well as in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Most cooks work full time, although part-time work is common. Work schedules may vary and may include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. In school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias, cooks usually have more regular hours.

Cooks employed in schools may work only during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, cooks employed in some resort establishments work only for seasonal operation.

Job Outlook About this section


Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31



Cooks and food preparation workers


Total, all occupations



Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 16 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 480,600 openings for 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.


Projected employment of cooks varies by occupation (see table). Some of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession of 2020 after pandemic restrictions had significant effects on the employment levels of cooks.

Population and income growth are expected to result in greater consumer demand for food at a variety of dining places. People will continue to eat out, buy takeout meals, or have food delivered. New restaurants, cafeterias, and catering services are expected to open, requiring more cooks to prepare meals for this increased consumer demand.

In addition, consumers continue to prefer healthy foods and fast service in restaurants, grocery stores, and other dining venues. To prepare high-quality meals at these places, many managers and chefs will require experienced cooks.

Employment of fast food cooks is projected to decline. Efforts to streamline operations are expected to reduce demand for cooks in fast food establishments. For example, automated systems and employment of workers who both prepare and serve food to customers may limit the need for fast food cooks.

Employment projections data for 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


35-2010 2,648,700 3,068,000 16 419,300 Get data

Cooks, fast food

35-2011 792,300 723,200 -9 -69,100 Get data

Cooks, institution and cafeteria

35-2012 410,100 436,000 6 25,900 Get data

Cooks, private household

35-2013 41,400 40,700 -2 -700 Get data

Cooks, restaurant

35-2014 1,255,600 1,715,600 37 459,900 Get data

Cooks, short order

35-2015 129,800 131,100 1 1,300 Get data

Cooks, all other

35-2019 19,500 21,400 10 1,900 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

Visit to search for information about apprenticeship opportunities.

For more information about cooking careers, visit

American Culinary Federation

National Restaurant Association

For information about becoming a personal chef, visit

United States Personal Chef Association

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


For career videos on cooks, visit

Cooks, Fast Food

Cooks, Institution and Cafeteria

Cooks, Short Order


Cooks, All Other

Cooks, Fast Food

Cooks, Institution and Cafeteria

Cooks, Private Household

Cooks, Restaurant

Cooks, Short Order


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