Chefs and head cooks held about 139,000 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of chefs and head cooks were as follows:
|Restaurants and other eating places||51%|
|Special food services||11|
|Amusement, gambling, and recreation industries||6|
Chefs and head cooks work in restaurants, hotels, private households, 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 can 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.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time, including early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Many chefs and head cooks work more than 40 hours a week.
Most chefs and head cooks learn their skills through work experience. Others receive training at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or 4-year college. A small number learn through apprenticeship programs or in the Armed Forces.
Although postsecondary education is not required for chefs and head cooks, many attend programs at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 4-year colleges. Candidates are typically required to have a high school diploma or equivalent to enter these programs.
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 training programs also require students to gain experience in a commercial kitchen through an internship or apprenticeship program.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Most chefs and head cooks 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.
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. Some of these apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeship programs generally last 2 years and combine instruction and on-the-job training. Apprentices typically receive about 2,000 hours of both instruction and paid on-the-job training per year. Courses typically cover 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.
The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 academic training programs at postsecondary schools and sponsors apprenticeships around the country. The basic qualifications required for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:
- Minimum age of 17
- High school education or equivalent
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Although not required, certification can show competence and lead to advancement and higher pay. The American Culinary Federation certifies personal chefs, in addition to various levels of chefs, such as certified sous chefs or certified executive chefs. Certification standards are based primarily on work-related experience and formal training. Minimum work experience for certification can range from about 6 months to 5 years, depending on the level of certification.
Chefs and head cooks typically have an interest in the Building, Creating and Persuading interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people.
If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Creating or Persuading interest which might fit with a career as a chef and head cook, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Chefs and head cooks should also possess the following specific qualities:
Business skills. Executive chefs and chefs who run their own restaurant should understand the restaurant business. They should be skilled at administrative tasks, such as accounting and personnel management, and be able to manage a restaurant efficiently and profitably.
Communication skills. Because the pace in the kitchen can be hectic during peak dining hours, chefs must be able to communicate their orders clearly and effectively to staff.
Creativity. Chefs and head cooks must be creative in order to develop and prepare interesting and innovative recipes. They should be able to use various ingredients to create appealing meals for their customers.
Dexterity. Chefs and head cooks need excellent manual dexterity, including proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.
Leadership skills. Chefs and head cooks must have the ability to motivate kitchen staff and develop constructive and cooperative working relationships with them.
Sense of taste and smell. Chefs and head cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell, to inspect food quality and to design meals that their customers enjoy.
Time-management skills. Chefs and head cooks must efficiently manage their time and the time of their staff. They must ensure that meals are prepared and that customers are served on time, especially during busy hours.
The median annual wage for chefs and head cooks was $51,530 in May 2019. 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 $28,370, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $86,990.
In May 2019, the median annual wages for chefs and head cooks in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Special food services||56,800|
|Amusement, gambling, and recreation industries||56,310|
|Restaurants and other eating places||47,980|
The level of pay for chefs and head cooks varies greatly 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. Many chefs and head cooks work more than 40 hours a week.
Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Income growth will 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, in cafeterias, in grocery stores, and by catering services. To ensure high-quality dishes, these establishments are increasingly hiring experienced chefs to oversee food preparation.
Job opportunities should be best for chefs and head cooks with several years of work experience in a kitchen. Many job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The fast pace, time demands, and high energy levels required for these jobs often lead to a high rate of turnover.
There will be strong competition for jobs at upscale restaurants, hotels, and casinos, where the pay is typically highest. Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and culinary creativity should have the best job prospects.
For more information about chefs, including a directory of 2-year and 4-year colleges that offer courses or training programs, visit
National Restaurant Association
For information about becoming a private chef, visit
American Personal & Private Chef Association
For a career video on chefs and head cooks, visit