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Learn the Basics of Cooking & Food Preparation

Eating is more than a pastime for individuals who love to cook. But, the road to becoming a chef takes hard work and perseverance, especially for those just starting out. Head chefs at some of the most popular restaurants in the world didn't start at the top. They had to pay their dues just like in most other career fields. But, those with talent and the drive to succeed can make it in this fast-paced world.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for chefs and head cooks is positive, with expected growth of nine percent between 2014 and 2024. The median annual salary for head chefs is about $42,000, but chefs with experience and a great reputation can make much more. Of course, location, education, and years of experience all play a part in determining salary, and chefs who start at the bottom must know that it may take some time to hit the $42,000 a year mark. 

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Attend Culinary School

Chefs oversee the food preparation at restaurants, or any place food is served. Head chefs supervise and manage kitchen staff and usually handle any food-related issues from owners or customers. The work can be hectic and kitchens can be hot, and chefs typically work whenever the employing establishment is open for business, which usually includes weekends and holidays. 

Although a college degree is not necessary to enter this career field, many chefs will attend a community or technical college, four-year university, or culinary art school. Some chefs will travel abroad to learn from the masters in other countries; bringing back the tricks of the trade to prospective or current employers.  Students attending culinary school will spend much of their time cooking, planning meals, learning food sanitation procedures, and purchasing food and supplies. 

Most programs also include internships in kitchens outside of the school environment.  Apprenticeship programs funded by professional culinary institutes or associations offer invaluable on-the-job training to aspiring chefs and generally lasts about two years.  Internships and apprenticeships cover all aspects of cooking, from appetizers to desserts, and include training on kitchen equipment, knife skills, food safety, and sanitation procedures.  It’s not uncommon to start out as a line cook or sous chef, increasing their knowledge and skills prior to becoming a head chef, and some cooks will spend years on the job in mentorship programs, where they work directly under the supervision of a head chef. 

Although programs vary, coursework at a typical cooking/culinary school includes, culinary foundations and food safety, baking and pastry makings, international cooking, culinary entrepreneurship or catering, and event and menu planning. Of course, basic knife skills, learning which spices work best with which foods, wine paring, food preparation, and plating are also all things chefs must know prior to applying for work at a restaurant. 

The American Culinary Federation accredits about 200 programs across the US. Graduation from an accredited institute can lead to greater pay and advancement.  Although not required, obtaining certification can also show prospective employers a chef’s competence in the kitchen, which extends a better chance of being hired and the chance for higher pay.

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Build Your Skills and Make Connections

Skills, Creativity, & Industry Connections Will Help You Rise in the Field

There are a number of skills that are necessary for all chefs, beyond cooking. Business skills and the ability to communicate are essential, as most chefs work with a team of kitchen staff. Creativity is also required to create interesting and innovative recipes that appeal to customers. Dexterity, stamina, a good sense of taste and smell, and time-management skills are also fundamental traits of all successful chefs.

Recently, the Food Network surveyed chefs and found that most worked between 60 and 80 hours per week, and nearly all holidays. Sixty-five percent said they made less than $75,000 per year. But, most admitted to loving their jobs.  If you still plan to pursue a career as a chef, networking is imperative.  Gaining an apprenticeship, mentorship, or simply starting out as a line cook after graduating from culinary school can all lead to rubbing elbows with professional chefs who can possibly recommend you for a job.  

Practicing on family and friends, spending every waking hour in the kitchen, investing your time and energies in culinary school, watching videos, and attending culinary events will get you started on your way to becoming a chef, and ensure success in this exciting and luscious field.

Get to Know Our Experts

Barbara Werner

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Musical Pairing, LLC
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have almost 10 years of experience in all different aspects of the culinary field. From a small restaurant, to culinary school, an industrial kitchen, teaching gourmet cooking for kids, to the publishing of my first culinary book this year, and the next is scheduled for release in January 2015.

    I started working for a few years in a small Italian restaurant called Roma to start my culinary journey. My first job was to clean fish. That was it. I would take the shells off the shrimp, wash the clams, and remove the eyes and ink sacks from the fresh calamari for hours each day with my hands in cold water, and I loved it!

    I decided that this was the industry for me, and in 1982, I received my culinary degree from SUNY Cobleskill. Shortly after graduation, I was hired as the Supervisor of Food Production for a NY Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in White Plains. After 2 years, I was working in the kitchens and found myself seriously ill. I started to get sick all the time. I couldn’t concentrate; I couldn’t keep any food down, and my hands shook with terrible spasms all the time. After one exceptionally hard bout I remembered that horrible sensation when I was a kid. I had severe food allergies, and after almost 14 years, they had returned. In 1996, the allergies disappeared again.

    But it wasn’t until about 2 years ago, while eating alone at a very nice restaurant, wearing my headset (I tend to do that when dining alone) that I realized that certain music enhanced certain foods while other, very specific rhythms, tempo and melodies did not. Some combinations could even make your mouth water.

    Right now, I hold down 2 jobs. By day, I work as the office manager for Bernstein Medical. I run the office from 7:00-3:00, but then –I am all about the food. I am constantly cooking, trying new things, experimenting with new combinations of food, beverage, and music because each one of my book looks at a different aspect of cooking. 90% of the time you will find me in a restaurant or food store with my headset firmly planted on my ears, talking to myself, deciphering the nuances of different flavor and music combinations.

    I am extremely lucky because there is nothing that I dislike about either job. I get to keep my hand in food and cooking, share my love of writing and music, and still meet new people. You never have to limit yourself. The world is open, so why settle on just one career?

    Advice

    Never stop learning

    You never know where your interests and education will lead you, so just keep learning. I am always in school or studying online. So far I have my culinary degree, earned my manicuring license, I am certified in reflexology, I have taken Sommelier classes, and have studied to become a beverage specialist. I’ve even taken some Master Classes at the International Culinary Center here in NYC, and they are magnificent.

    Pick a school where you feel at home

    I had applied to attend the Culinary Institute of America, but I was only 16 when I interviewed there. They told me I was too young and they would welcome me when I turned 18. I didn’t want to wait, so I kept looking. The minute I got out of the car at SUNY Cobleskill, I knew I was going to love it. And I did. That makes all the difference.

    Take the time to hone your skills, practice and create

    Cook at home, for friends, experiment, and have fun! For me, cooking, being a chef and now a food writer, it’s all about being creative; experimenting; exploring foods and beverages, even place settings; anything that could enhance the experience of dining. For others it’s the joy you get when serving something you made to others. Still others like the business aspect of food service. Whatever it is that strikes your passion in the culinary world – keep at it. Learn, experiment and don’t ever lose that joy that food can bring!

    Kerry Dunnington

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Kerry Dunnington Catering
  • Where:
    Baltimore, MD
  • Experience:
    24 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I studied fashion merchandise and design and graduated with a B.A. from Southern Virginia University. In the summer months and throughout college I worked and fell in love with the restaurant business. Later, I was general manager of the Tremont Hotel, a position that included overseeing all food and beverage outlets.

    I was desirous of striking out on my own and being more directly connected with food, so I started a cottage-style catering business. An instant attraction was menu design; I enjoyed creating seasonal complementing menus specific to the time of year, type of event, and theme. I referred to the extraordinary dishes my mother prepared for family and friends and adopted her successful entertaining style.

    I began penning my recipes and logged them into a recipe journal. One night after a dinner party all the women requested the recipes I prepared for the party. After I handed my cookbook journal over, they asked why I hadn’t written a cookbook. I loved the idea and spent the next few years writing my first cookbook.

    When I’m catering, my day generally begins with a list of the food I’m going to prepare. Then the day long preparing and cooking begins. On the days when I’m not catering, I think about food combinations (think chemist and artist) and create recipes using the ingredients I hand select. Creations are tested by taste-testers, and when I receive a thumbs up, I write a recipe.

    I love everything about the work I do as an author and caterer. As a cookbook author, my favorite is to design food combinations and turn them into recipes. The most rewarding part of catering is when it all comes together on the plate or the buffet table. I’m known for my unique presentation, it’s all about color, the food season, balance, texture and variety, so it’s fun to see this all in one place and how all the “pieces” fit together.

    Advice

    Talk to as many chefs as possible

    Get their view about what it’s like to be in the food business. Read culinary trade magazines. If you’re interested, I recommend getting to know everything about the business and work your way up slowly, so that way you will be familiar with how it runs and will be able to see firsthand how it relates to the eventual position as chef. Look to the future and see what the trend will be in twenty or thirty years. Ask yourself if this is what you want.

    Learn hands-on

    Hands on experience is one of the best ways to educate oneself because it’s generally one-on-one and very specific. Initially I learned everything about food and cooking from my mother. Seeking a mentor is another great way to get an education in the culinary field. There are many famous and talented chefs in the world that are self-taught and many who mentored under extraordinary talent and then pursued an education. Of course, a formal education is a plus.

    Start from the bottom

    This is where a job in the restaurant or hotel business might help to get one’s foot in the door and get started toward a career as a culinary chef. Start out as a busboy or dishwasher or hostess; some of the most talented chefs worked their way up to line cook, then head chef. In every capacity you work, ask questions and try and get the most out of each position.

    Stephanie Lamour

  • Title:
    Chef Instructor
  • Company:
    Art Institute of California
  • Where:
    Sacramento, CA
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    As a professor, I teach 4 and half hours a day, 5 days a week, plus 1 hour of office hours to do my grades, meet with students, etc. I love to be able to share what I have learned throughout the years. Teaching is very rewarding in so many ways. I wish I would have more time with the students. The classes are going very fast and that is what I don’t like about it.

    Advice

    Have perseverance

    My advice to whoever is interested in becoming a culinary chef would be “Do not take NO for an answer”, “pursue your dream”, and “go for it”. Work hard, watch closely, and listen to your chef. Always say “yes chef”. Respect one another.

    Get an education

    I truly believe in education. Learn the techniques at school, then work hard in the industry to utilize the techniques and make your way up. I am very blessed to have had some of the best training in France. I use everything that I learned every single day. Never stop learning. I am still learning every single day.

    Culinary Chef Infographic