Becoming A Chef

Do you cook to eat or do you cook to live? Creating culinary delights is as necessary to you as the air you breathe. Becoming a chef is the dream you plan on chasing. Once you get your degree in culinary arts, your available options are endless. But, what does it take to become a chef? Read on to find out more about culinary school and chef careers.

How To Become A Chef

‎”This is my advice to people: Learn how to cook, try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun”-Julia Child

Maybe you worked in a restaurant, or you helped your parents with dinner. Somehow, some way, you found your passion in the kitchen. And now? You want to be a professional chef. Life would be easy if you could just snap your fingers and viola, you’re working over a hot stove in a fancy cosmopolitan restaurant. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You need to start thinking about what you want to be while you’re still in high school, and sometimes, even younger. Once you’ve gotten your high school diploma or your GED, then you can start on your culinary education journey.

Depending on which program you choose, a culinary school will take one to four years to get your diploma, associate’s, or bachelor’s degree.

There are a few different options to think about when heading to culinary school:

  • Culinary School: Culinary school focuses on all things culinary. Going to culinary school, despite the higher cost, is the best option when you want to work in the food industry. You can get a diploma through a degree at culinary schools. It can take one to four years, depending on which degree you’re working towards.
  • Community College: While the culinary program at a community college will focus on culinary, and you’ll also have to take general education courses. This path usually takes two years if you attend full time. Through a community college, you’ll get an associate’s degree.
  • Vocational/Trade School: Vocational/Trade schools are the quickest route to take to get working in the trade quickly. It can take 9-21 months but it depends on which program you attend. Vocational school graduates will get a certificate or diploma.
  • University: At a four-year university, you’ll receive a bachelor’s degree. You’ll be equipped to handle the business side of culinary, as well as working your way around a kitchen.   

Careers

There is a definite distinction between a chef and a cook. A chef is a master of culinary arts through extensive training. A cook, although highly trained, will usually work under a chef.

Under the blanket heading of CHEF, there are quite a few career options worth mulling over while you’re figuring out what you want to be when you grow up!

  1. Executive Chef: The Executive Chef is the head honcho in the kitchen. This position could take decades to achieve, but with the right education, dedication, and perspiration, it can happen.
  2. Sous Chef:  The sous chef is the executive chef's right-hand man. It’s the Robin to the Batman. The yin to the yang. They are usually placed in charge of micromanaging the kitchen and making sure everything, from the relationships amongst the kitchen staff to the preparation of the food, is running smoothly.
  3. Pastry Chef: Baking school is the first step in becoming a pastry chef. Bread, desserts, pastries, those are all the drool-worthy fruits of your labor. As a pastry chef, you can still become an Executive Chef.
  4. Station Chef: Whether it’s soup, salad, grill, as a station chef, you’re in charge. You’ll work under a sous chef and be in charge of presentation of whichever station is under your watchful eye.
  5. Saucier: The sauce is what makes or breaks the food. In some cuisines, such as French, the meal is all about that sauce. So, while the title “saucier” may not necessarily sound all that fancy, it actually is! Fish Cook: You really CAN mess up a good piece of fish. But, not you, Fish Cook. You’ve trained and studied and you can wow the patrons with delectable delicacies of the sea dwelling kind.
  1. Vegetable Cook: We love our veggies, potatoes, rice, and eggs. That’s where you find yourself excelling, as well. You can take one look at vegetables and turn them into a drool-worthy dish that complements the main course entirely.
  2. Meat Cook: Meat cooks deal with the, well, meat of the meals. Whether you’re grilling, broiling, braising, or roasting the meat, you do it with gusto. You may hook up with the saucier to create a sauce, and the vegetable cook to conglomerate on a side dish.
  3. Fry Cook: Fried foods are your thing. Positions may be more plentiful in areas where fried foods are more popular, such as down South.
  4. Pantry Chef: Pantry chefs are in charge of the cold items such as appetizers, salads, and dressings. You’ll also make sure the plates are presentable before they are served to the customers.
  5. Line Cook: The Line Cook is an entry-level position. You’re the right-hand man to everyone in the kitchen. You’re helping stir, chop, and maybe even taste all the foods beings created.
  6. Expediter: When it comes to foods and kitchens, the expediter is the last line of defense before the plates are taken from the kitchen and presented to the customer. Sometimes, this position is even accepted by the Executive Chef, especially during occasions when the dish is extra special and the pomp and circumstance is required.

Courses

Most schools have different course requirements, or they may go by different names. Below is a chart listing some of a few common courses for each type of the three most popular culinary degree types.

Certificate/Diploma

Associate’s Degree

Bachelor’s Degree

Baking

Food Safety

Marketing

Culinary Skills

Food preparation

International Foods

Food Science

International foods

Table Service

Food Safety/Sanitation

Best Practices

Methods of Cooking

Nutrition

Gastronomy

Human Nutrition

Menu Planning

Wine Studies

Science of Cooking

What to Look For In Culinary School

When it comes to culinary schools, it seems like the options are limitless. So many out there that it can be hard to weed through. Sure, factors such as location and price can make your answer clearer. But, there are a few things to look for, aside from the obvious, when researching culinary schools to attend.

  1. Is the school accredited by the American Culinary Federation, which is the organization in charge of culinary school regulations?
  2. How long has the school or the program been around? The longer, the better. Because, if a school has been around for a long time, that is usually indicative of quality.
  3. Is there hands-on instruction. You can learn the basics from a book, but real experience comes with actual practice. Cooking, in any form, is an action and you need to make certain that hands-on is part of the curriculum.
  4. Does the school have any famous alumni? Not that it matters because hey, you could be that person someday. But, it gives a definite check in the pro column if the school has bragging rights to famous chefs.
  5. Is the school connected? Can they offer job placement upon graduation? Do they partner with restaurants for that paramount hands-on instruction time? It is Critical to find out this information. That first job, post-grad, comes much easier if the school has connections to help their graduate students.

Certifications

“Cooking is the art of adjustment.” – Jacques Pepin

To work as a professional chef, there are no certifications necessary aside from your degree or diploma. However, there are some available licenses which are strictly voluntary. While licenses are not required, they can add a bit of posh to your resume. Certifications must be renewed every five years to keep them current and valid.

The American Culinary Federation offers certification exams to chefs who qualify, and each of their exams has different qualification requirements. What their reviews will prove to potential employers is that you’ve achieved a particular benchmark, a unique skill set that makes you a great catch. The ACF offers 14 different certification exams. To even be eligible for the first exam, the Certified Culinarian, you must have either already received your associate’s degree or have worked two years in the industry. There are 3 30-hours courses you must take before sitting for any of these exams. The ACF also offers more advanced certifications, as well.

The Culinary Institute of America offers a ProChef Certification. There are three levels to this intense exam, all of which test you on your proficiency and expertise in every part of culinary arts from the kitchen to the business side of the industry. The ProChef certifications are considered to be one of the most highly regarded in the industry.

Certification exams are also available through the United States Personal Chef Association, and the Research Chefs Association. The USPCA requires a membership first  to be eligible to take their certification exam. The Research Chefs Association offers certification for areas such as culinary science, and research chef.

The Cost

Culinary school can cost a small fortune. Luckily, there are a lot of financial aid options available to those who need it! Culinary school can cost upwards of $30,000 per year when all is said and done. Private school is more expensive than public schools but don’t let that sway you, sometimes the private schools have better financial aid packages. Other things to consider when you’re taking into account the cost of culinary school are the cost of housing, supplies, and books. Those can add up. Make sure to discuss the financial aid options with the financial aid department of the schools you’re thinking of attending.

Degree Type

Cost

Culinary School Diploma/Certificate (7-12 months)

$17,000-$47,000 total

Associate’s Degree (2 years full time)

$35,000-$56,000 total

Bachelor’s Degree (4 years full time)

$47,000-$120,000 total

Some culinary schools include paid externships in their cost, and all schools should include hands-on training. But, for the most part, costs for things such as supplies, textbooks living arrangements when necessary, and all the pieces to the chef uniforms. Expect those to add a few hundred dollars more onto the price tag.

Job Outlook

“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” -Paul Prudhomme

Between now and 2024, employment opportunities for chefs is expected to grow 9%. This is a bit faster than most other occupations. The average rate is 5%, so this is  great news for you aspiring chefs.

Driving the employment rate growth is the fact that incomes are rising, along with the population. Essentially, people have more disposable income and are willing to spend it on quality meals. Also, trends are pointing toward healthier meals because the general public is becoming a bit more aware of what they are putting in their mouths. Farm-to-table restaurants, along with locally grown and organic, are popping up everywhere and these places look for chefs with an original vision who can create culinary masterpieces.

Expect intense competition in more upscale restaurants in places like hotels, resorts, and casinos. If you have mad creative culinary skills and a strong business acumen, you should have no problem landing a great job as a chef.

Industries With The Highest Level Of Employment For chefs

Industry

Salary

Restaurants

$42,180

Special Foods Services

$47,860

Traveler Accommodations

$54,030

Amusement and Recreation Industries

$56,640

Grocery Stores

$40,620

 

States With The Highest Level Of Employment For Chefs

State

Median Salary

California

$45,810

New York

$46,720

Texas

$43,380

Florida

$54,820

Illinois

$44,350


Salary

In May 2015, the average median salary for a chef or head cook was $41,500 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salary.com states that the average salary for an Executive Chef is $62,584. The bottom 10%, generally more entry level, will earn a yearly median salary of $23,150 while those in the top 10% will earn an average of $74,170 per year. These numbers are only an average based on all recorded salaries. Keep in mind that salaries are dependent on which state you work in, and who your employer is; your salary may look very different than what is listed.

Top Paying Industries For Chefs

Industry

Median Salary

Federal Executive Branch

$66,290

Scientific Research/Development

$65,980

Wholesale Electronic Markets/Agents/Brokers

$63,610

Travel and Reservations

$63,000

Activities related to Real Estate

$62,890

 

Highest Paying States For Chefs

State

Median Salary

District of Columbia

$60,820

New Jersey

$58,200

Massachusetts

$55,840

Florida

$54,820

Rhode Island

$53,480 

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