Cooking Careers

Executive Chef

The executive chef is at the top of the chain of command. He or she is what most people have in mind when they say “chef.” The executive chef may or may not own the restaurant, but has a great deal of autonomy over what happens in it every day, from conceiving the menu to hiring the staff to picking out d&eagrave;cor.

An executive chef may work for a hotel, resort, or chain of restaurants, in which case he or she probably has responsibility for more than one kitchen and dining room. Having to oversee all the restaurants and kitchens in a given territory can be both challenging and rewarding.

Because their duties are so varied, executive chefs may or may not spend a great deal of time “on the line.” Most executive chefs want to remain active in their kitchens to ensure that high standards are being met and their vision carried out, but sometimes they are just too busy to spend much time cooking. A successful executive chef may be asked to lecture at a conference or school one day, may serve as a judge for a cooking competition another, and may be scouting out a new location for a restaurant on a third day.

Executive chefs tend to have many years of experience not only in the kitchen but in managing the business end of a restaurant or food-related enterprise. Most executive chefs have at least a partial financial stake in the restaurants they run. Many own outright, or in partnership with investors.

Executive chefs with a regional, national, or even international following have become hot commodities in recent years, signing lucrative book deals, starring on TV cooking shows, and venturing into grocery, cookware, or specialty product sales.

What do executive chefs earn? It is difficult to generalize about their earnings because there are many variables, but the national median is around $50,000 a year, meaning that half earn more and half less. A great deal will depend on the location, size, and style of the restaurant. An executive chef at an upscale restaurant in a big city will earn considerably more than an executive chef of a modest 10-table bistro in a small town in the Midwest. But with ambition, hard work, and talent, nothing is out of the question.

Head Chef

“Head chef” is the title given to a professional who oversees the production of food for a large institutional setting, frequently a school or a hospital. He or she is responsible for planning nutritious and economical menus for hundreds if not thousands of clients each day. Head chefs more closely resemble managers and planners than cooks, because they often do not have time to take part in the food preparation itself.

Head chefs may or may have graduated from cooking school. Most job descriptions for head chefs show no preference for formal training over on-the-job experience. Usually, people holding this title have some combination of both. Most often, they hold a two-year associate’s degree.

One of the most important aspects of the head chef’s job is to ensure that food safety and sanitation standards are upheld. It would be unacceptable if people in a hospital setting or students at a public school were to fall ill through a preventable food-borne contamination. The head chef must have certification in food safety, even if he or she does not possess a formal degree from a cooking school.

Because they tend to work for the public sector or for a large corporation like a hospital, head chefs are quite likely to have regular 40-hour a week schedules, generous vacations and benefits, and earn a median salary between $35,000 and $55,000 a year. For those who are put off by the long hours and low pay of most restaurant chefs, the lot of a head chef may not look bad at all.

Pastry Chef

A pastry chef runs the baking division of a restaurant or food-service establishment. He or she is in charge of planning and executing the menu for all dessert items and baked goods served. Pastry chefs may also run or work in a bakery or caf&eagrave;, or the bakery department of a store. On a larger scale, pastry chefs may oversee the production of large-scale baking establishments. On the smallest scale, they may sell their wares at a farmer’s market or similar venue.

Pastry chefs are highly skilled craftsmen, most of whom receive at least some formal training at a cooking school. This is because the nature of baking is quite complex and not easily conveyed through observation alone. There is a science to baking. If recipes and techniques are not followed precisely, the results can be disastrous, and there is often nothing to be done but to start over.

In a fine dining restaurant, a pastry chef is under the authority of the executive chef, but operates as the master of his or her section of the kitchen and comes up with a dessert menu that complements and enhances the restaurant’s other offerings. The pastry chef is responsible for making the dessert menu profitable and enforces the same sanitary and health regimen in this part of the kitchen that the executive chef and sous-chef maintain in theirs.

Pastry chefs earn a competitive salary, with the national median around $47,000. This is partly a reflection of the difficulty and expense associated with their specialized training (as I mentioned, most pastry chefs go to cooking school for at least two years). It is also a reflection of the fact that dessert is an important source of revenue for the food industry, sometimes generating twice the profit of main courses!

It is also worth noting that, while both sexes are well represented in the world of pastry chefs, many more women have made a name for themselves in this niche of the food industry than as executive chefs. Sometimes, as with Mindy Segal of Chicago’s noted Hot Chocolate restaurant, pastry chefs become successful executive chefs as well. Again, anything is possible with the proper training, drive, and persistence.


A sous-chef is a highly trained, experienced chef. Frequently, the sous-chef is a rising star in the culinary field that attended cooking school and received either an associate’s degree or a bachelor of arts in culinary arts. He or she has at least five to 10 years of experience in the field, with increasing levels of responsibility along the way. In a large kitchen the sous-chef will have a great deal of authority over the day-to-day functioning of the kitchen and staff.

The sous-chef generally has a say in hiring and firing decisions and will play a major part in staff training and maintaining discipline. In the hierarchical world of the professional kitchen, the sous-chef is second in command, serving directly under the executive chef. The sous-chef will help plan menus, order food, keep an eye on finances, and fill in when the executive chef is absent. An important part of the sous-chef’s job is to ensure proper sanitation, because any failure in this department can lead to costly fines and even shutdowns by the health department.

Given this high level of responsibility and the long hours they put in, sous-chefs earn every penny of their salary. This varies depending on location, with the median being around $45,000 in 2011. They can earn significantly more in high-cost areas like New York or Los Angeles, or less in parts of the country with a lower cost of living.

Food Preparation Worker

Food preparation workers are the stalwarts of the professional kitchen. They do most of the cleaning, trimming, and preparation work under the supervision of the sous-chef, and the executive chef. They are responsible for maintaining clean, sanitary, and orderly work stations.

Food preparation workers tend to have little formal training and may have minimal experience in the kitchen when they start. However, if they are eager and willing to learn, more experienced team members will teach them important aspects of the culinary arts.

Food preparation work is physically demanding and often numbingly repetitive. Imagine peeling and slicing an entire crate of carrots! But through this process, the food preparation worker will hone his or her all-important knife skills.

Food preparation workers often get their first jobs straight out of high school (many even begin during high school, working after school and on weekends). If they have attended cooking school, it is often a certificate program.

Again, it is important to remember that the professional kitchen is the ultimate meritocracy. Do well enough job at food preparation and you will eventually catch the eye of a supervisor, who may recommend you for promotion or advise you to go to cooking school for further training.

Food preparation workers do not earn a lot of money. They are the cheap labor of the kitchen world, working sometimes for minimum wage (plus meals) or just a little more. But, if you consider the training gained on the job under the watchful gaze of seasoned professionals, it is not such a bad deal. Think about it this way: everyone starts out in a kitchen as a food preparation worker. Where you end up is up to you.


Caterers prepare and serve food for large groups of people. They may do this on a regular basis from inside an establishment, such as a banquet hall or hotel. They may serve as the food service for an institution, such as a corporate office, a school, or a hospital. Or catering can be an independent business, ranging from a one-person operation to a large entity with thousands of employees.

A typical catering operation is a small business owned and operated by one or two people. They may hire cooks, servers, bartenders, and cleaning crews, or they may do some of the work themselves. In general, caterers are the business managers of an operation, marketing their services to customers, negotiating contracts, planning menus, buying supplies, and overseeing food preparation. Except for very small gatherings, it is generally impossible for one or two people to perform all these duties.

Caterers are often graduates of a two- or four-year cooking school. They may have studied either culinary arts or pastry arts, and gained experience in food preparation working for established caterers or restaurants. Catering often appeals to independent-minded chefs because they do not have to take on the permanent expense of opening and staffing a restaurant. Caterers can rent or buy a kitchen space (it is usually not feasible to operate out of a home kitchen) and hire staff only as needed for events.

Caterers must work very hard to establish their businesses. Even after achieving a certain degree of success, they need to be vigilant to maintain quality and service. But successful caterers can earn a good living and have the satisfaction of owning and growing their own businesses. At the top of the scale, caterers can take in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in profit. And at the bottom of the scale, they may earn just $20,000 a year. The majority of caterers earn between $35,000 and $70,000 annually. The work is demanding, and the hours can be quite long, but caterers have the chance to use their creative skills in unique settings, and they never serve exactly the same meal twice.

Fast-Food Cook

Being a fast-food cook is among the least glamorous jobs in the food industry, yet millions of Americans have occupied this role at one point or another. It is often a stepping-stone to more prestigious cooking jobs, or into restaurant or corporate management. There is a reason why McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest and most successful industries. Fast food is popular, it is profitable, and it defines life in our post-modern age.

You do not need to attend cooking school to get a job as a fast-food cook, but many managers in the fast- food industry have a degree from one.

The fact is that whether you are a fast-food cook or a cook in a more traditional restaurant, many of your duties are the same. You are responsible for maintaining an orderly and sanitary work space. You must oversee the cooking and preparation of multiple orders at once. Multitasking is a top priority. You must operate within limited space constraints and communicate effectively with other members of the team.

Fast-food cooks must operate in a highly charged atmosphere in which many people do not speak a common language. That discipline is maintained and a safe, popular product is nearly always delivered to the public is a testament to the efficiency and management skills of the fast-food model.

Being a fast-food cook does not pay particularly well, usually a bit more than minimum wage. This helps explain the high rate of turnover in the industry. And yet, by providing an entry-level job to millions of Americans, the fast-food industry introduces many people into the world of work, and may also provide a step up into a better life. Fast- food managers are nearly always promoted from within, and can earn upward of $70,000 a year.

Restaurant Owner/Manager

Restaurant owners very often manage their own restaurants and sometimes also serve as the head chef or executive chef. On the other hand, a restaurant manager is frequently hired by a corporate entity to oversee its day-to-day functioning and ensure its profitability.

When both roles are combined, as in the case of a classic family restaurant, the owner/manager has a hand in both the front and back of the house operations. This is not easy to do. The kitchen is its own world, with the executive chef in charge of ordering supplies, planning menus, and managing staff. The front of the house is the side of the restaurant that the customer sees. In traditional establishments, the solution was to have the husband/owner deal with one aspect of the business (frequently the front end), and the wife/owner deal with the other (often, but not always, the back end).

Cooking schools often seek to bridge the gap between the front and back ends of the restaurant business by combining elements of both the culinary and business aspects of the industry in their programs.

Restaurant managers may or may not have attended cooking school, but they certainly need to have extensive experience in the business. Frequently, they rise from either the serving staff or the kitchen staff. Sometimes they have been jacks-of-all-trades, working at a wide variety of jobs in restaurants and food service establishments.

Managers need to be able to handle staff needs and customer needs, as well as turning a profit for themselves and the restaurant owners. It is a grueling set of demands. The hours are long, since managers must oversee both prep workers (who tend to come in long before customers) and service staff (who wait until the last customer leaves, then clean up before going home).

Given their varied duties, restaurant managers don’t earn enormous salaries. Most take home between $40,000 and $80,000 a year. If they are also owners of the restaurant they may make considerably more (though they may also have partners who share in the profits).