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Cook and Chef Job Description, Career as a Cook and Chef, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High school plus training

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Cooks and chefs are the mainstay of the food service industry. They work in restaurants, cafeterias, lunchrooms, hotels, and other places that prepare and serve food. Cooks and chefs mainly plan menus and prepare food for customers. Their specific duties vary depending on the type and size of the establishment for which they work.

Most restaurants have only one or two short-order cooks who make hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and other food items that can be prepared and served quickly. Other restaurants hire a cooking staff made up of dishwashers, kitchen helpers, cooks, and a head cook or chef. Unlike the short-order cook who prepares many foods, a cook in a large restaurant usually becomes an expert in one kind of food. There are pastry chefs, fry cooks, roast cooks, vegetable cooks, soup cooks, and others. These cooks are assisted by kitchen helpers. A chef supervises the cooks and oversees all of the cooking done in the kitchen. Besides seeing that the food is tasty and well plated (attractive to look at), chefs decide on the size of the servings, set prices, plan menus, and order the appropriate amount of supplies. It is their duty to check all of the equipment in the kitchen to see that it is in good condition.

There are many types of restaurants offering many kinds of food. Cooking methods vary considerably. Stir-frying a Chinese dish is quite different from Chefs may work with other restaurant staff to order the supplies and ingredients they need for the kitchen. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.) broiling a steak. A small cafe is likely to have a modest menu that rarely changes. A large restaurant may serve many items, some of which may be difficult to prepare. Whether the restaurant is large or small, or serves Chinese or soul food, its reputation is in the hands of its cooks. A good cook can make even the smallest cafe a resounding success.

Cooking is an art. Cooks create new dishes and improve on familiar ones. Good cooks are those who can prepare simple foods well. Great cooks are those who can invent new and delicious dishes. The great ones are highly paid for their skill and sometimes become celebrities.

Many cooks work in restaurants. Schools, colleges, hotels, hospitals, government agencies, the armed services, manufacturing plants, and private clubs also hire cooks. Whether they work for an elegant French restaurant or an elementary school, cooks must take pride in their work and aim to please their customers.

Education and Training Requirements

Cooks and chefs need a great deal of knowledge and experience working with food. The minimum requirement is a high school education plus on-the-job training. High schools, vocational or technical schools, two-year and four-year colleges, adult education programs, and the armed services all offer cooking programs and courses. Most courses run from two months to two years. Many employers will hire only those candidates who have earned a cooking diploma. Some cooks begin as dishwashers or kitchen helpers. These jobs enable workers to obtain restaurant experience and to observe and learn from experienced cooks and chefs.

Cooks should have a keen sense of taste and smell and must enjoy food preparation. They also must be clean, neat, and healthy. Cooks must order specific quantities of food at certain prices while staying within their budget; therefore, they should have some mathematical aptitude.

Getting the Job

Prospective cooks and chefs should apply directly to the establishments for which they would like to work. Small restaurants and cafes offer the greatest number of starting jobs. Vocational school students can contact their placement office for assistance in finding a job. Newspaper want ads, Internet job banks, and private and state employment offices frequently list job openings for cooks and chefs.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Graduates of vocational schools and other programs can usually find jobs as cooks immediately, but it takes several years before they can become head cooks or chefs in a fine restaurant. Restaurant training programs vary in their promotion policies. Most cooks find that moving from restaurant to restaurant gives them higher paying positions and a greater variety of experience. After several years cooks may decide to go into business as caterers or restaurant owners. Good business sense, fine cooking skills, and a lot of money are required to run a successful food service business. Some cooks become vocational school teachers.

Employment is expected to increase as fast as the average for cooks and chefs through the year 2014. Most job openings will be to replace workers who retire or change jobs, and jobs at the best restaurants will continue to be highly competitive. Population growth, higher average incomes, and more leisure time continues to fuel the trend of dining out in America, which bodes well for future cooks and chefs.

Working Conditions

Most kitchens are air-conditioned, have convenient work areas and modern equipment, and are well organized. Despite these conveniences, cooks and chefs require stamina and physical strength. They work near hot ovens, grills, and ranges in a very noisy and chaotic environment. Cooks stand most of the time, and they must have the strength to lift heavy pots and kettles.

Cooks and chefs typically work forty to forty-eight hours per week, including nights and weekends. Holiday work is common. Those who cook in school cafeterias work only nine or ten months each year. Cooks usually wear uniforms, and some employers provide uniforms or uniform allowances.

Cooks and chefs must be able to work under pressure during rush hours. They should enjoy working as part of a team and be able to organize and direct the kitchen staff effectively. Head cooks and chefs work with little or no supervision; other kitchen helpers work under their direction.

Where to Go for More Information

American Culinary Federation
180 Center Place Way
St. Augustine, FL 32095
(800) 624-9458

The International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education
2810 N. Parham Rd., Ste. 230
Richmond, VA 23294
(804) 346-4800

Earnings and Benefits

Wages depend mostly on the workers' skill and on the type and location of the food service business for which they work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly earnings of chefs and head cooks was $14.75 in 2004, but many top chefs earned more than twice that amount. Celebrity cooks earn millions of dollars each year. Benefits for full-time employees generally include health insurance and paid vacations and holidays. As a rule cooks receive free meals while they are at work.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesHospitality and Recreation