How to become a chef
Becoming a chef involves more than just learning to cook and loving food. In addition to potentially being trained in different culinary techniques and cooking disciplines, aspiring chefs might also need strong business skills, creativity, leadership and time-management abilities. It can be a challenging career, but also a very rewarding one.
What types of chefs are there?
Sure, all chefs cook, but there are various types of chefs who have different levels of responsibilities. These might include:
- Executive chefs, head books and chef de cuisine: They oversee the operations of the kitchen, ranging from coordinating the meals to preparing the menus.
- Sous chefs: They're the "kitchen's second-in-command," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Sous chefs prepare the meals, supervise the other cooks, report results to the head chef and run the kitchen when the head chef is gone.
- Private household chefs: They typically work for one client, such as a university president or diplomat, though some private chefs cook for various individuals at their homes.
How do you become a chef?
It's technically possible to become a chef without any formal training, but that isn't the most common way to go. If you have big dreams in the kitchen, then you might want to follow a more traditional culinary career track. Those steps might include:
- Getting a high school diploma or GED
- Gaining work experience in a kitchen, as a line cook or a similar role
- Completing a two- or four-year formal chef training program at a vocational school, community college or culinary school
- Working as an apprentice, formally through a culinary school or association, or in a more unofficial capacity
You can also obtain certification through an official organization, such as the American Culinary Federation, but that's optional.
Explore relevant degree options from these sponsored schools:
What's the salary and job outlook?
You can earn a wide range of salaries as a chef, depending on where you're cooking and your level of experience, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. According to the BLS, the mean annual wage of chefs and head cooks in the United States was $46,620 in May 2013, with the lowest-paid 10 percent earning an annual wage of $24,160 or less and the highest-paid 10 percent earning an annual wage of $74,240 or more.
The highest-paying metro areas for chefs and head cooks, as of May 2013, include:
- New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division: $64,510 annual mean wage
- Sebastian-Vero Beach, FL: $64,400 annual mean wage
- Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX: $62,160 annual mean wage
- Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY: $61,230 annual mean wage
- Trenton-Ewing, NJ: $61,150 annual mean wage
Employment of chefs and head cooks is expected to grow by 5 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS. That's slower than the national average for all jobs combined, but it is still growing, so take heart. For more details on how to become a chef and a full list of sources, check out the infographic below.
Certification Matters, American Culinary Federation,
Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Chefs and Head Cooks, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
Chefs and Head Cooks, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,