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|
|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.
Most chefs and head cooks work full time, including early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Some work more than 40 hours per week.
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.
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.
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.
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 $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:
|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.
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.
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.
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
National Restaurant Association
For information about certification, contact your state or local licensing board or a professional association.