Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods, which may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.

Duties

Cooks typically do the following:

  • Ensure the freshness of food and 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, garnish, and sometimes serve food
  • 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 necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.

Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cookfry cook, or grill cook, for example.

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

The responsibilities of cooks 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:

Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies and help maintain the stock room.

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 on 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 institutions. Although they typically prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, according to preset menus, they do sometimes customize meals according to diners’ dietary considerations.

Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.

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

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Work Environment

Cooks held about 2.5 million jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up cooks was distributed as follows:

Cooks, restaurant 1,362,300
Cooks, fast food 491,300
Cooks, institution and cafeteria                                                        418,500
Cooks, short order 158,300
Cooks, private household 38,300
Cooks, all other 23,300

The largest employers of cooks were as follows:

Restaurants and other eating places 70%
Healthcare and social assistance 7
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 long-sleeve shirts, gloves, aprons, and nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias are usually more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.

Education and Training

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

Education

Vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and some colleges offer culinary programs for aspiring cooks. These programs generally last from a few months to 2 years and may offer courses in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and various cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates 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.

Training

Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. 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. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may sponsor such programs for cooks. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. 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 American Culinary Federation accredits many academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 17
  • High school education or equivalent

Some hotels and a number of restaurants offer their own training programs.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker, learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.

Advancement

The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs, personal chefs, pastry chefs, and culinary administrators, among others. For cooks seeking advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

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

Personality and Interests

Cooks typically have an interest in the Building, Persuading and Organizing 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 Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a cook, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Cooks should also possess the following specific qualities:

Comprehension. Cooks must be able to understand customers’ orders and follow recipes in order to prepare dishes correctly.

Customer-service skills. Restaurant and short-order cooks must be able to deal with customers’ complaints and special requests.

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

Physical stamina. The work of a cook can be physically tiring because 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.

Teamwork. Cooks often prepare only part of a dish. They must coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time.

Pay

The median hourly wage for cooks was $12.67 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 $9.06, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.27.

Median hourly wages for cooks in May 2019 were as follows:

Cooks, private household $18.21
Cooks, all other 14.79
Cooks, restaurant 13.36
Cooks, institution and cafeteria                                                           13.34
Cooks, short order 12.09
Cooks, fast food 11.30

In May 2019, the median hourly wages for cooks in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Healthcare and social assistance $13.55
Educational services; state, local, and private                                      12.52
Restaurants and other eating places 12.40

Pay for cooks varies greatly by region and type of employer. Pay is usually highest in hotels, many of which are located in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias are usually more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. Individual growth rates will vary by specialty.

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. In response to increased consumer demand, more restaurants, cafeterias, and catering services will open and serve more meals. These establishments will require more cooks to prepare meals for customers.

In addition, consumers continue to prefer healthier foods and faster 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, such as restaurant cooks.

Employment of fast food cooks is projected to decline as many establishments attempt to streamline operations by hiring other workers, such as food preparation and serving workers, who can prepare and also serve food to customers.

Job Prospects

Overall job opportunities are expected to be very good as a result of employment growth and the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. Cooks with previous training and related work experience will have the best job prospects.

Those who can prepare more complex dishes will have the best job opportunities at restaurant chains, upscale restaurants, and hotels.

For More Information

For information about culinary apprenticeship programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, contact the local office of your state employment service agency, or check the U.S. Department of Labor's Apprenticeship program online or by phone at 877-872-5627.

For more information about cooking careers, visit

American Culinary Federation

National Restaurant Association

For information about becoming a personal chef, visit

American Personal & Private Chef Association

CareerOneStop

For career videos on cooks, visit 

Cooks, short order

Cooks, institution and cafeteria

 

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