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Chef Career Working Environment

While many restaurant and institutional kitchens have modern equipment, convenient work areas and air conditioning, older and smaller eating places may have less well-equipped kitchens. Working conditions are dependent on the quantity and type of food being prepared, as well as the local laws governing food service operations. 

Workers must withstand the strain and pressure of working in close quarters, standing for hours at a time, lifting heavy kettles and pots and working with hot grills and ovens. Job hazards include falls and slips, cuts and burns, but injuries tend not to be serious. Work hours may include early mornings, late evenings, weekends and holidays. Those who work in factory and school cafeterias may be more regular. Nearly three in ten cooks have part-time schedules.

Chef Career Description

Chefs and cooks prepare meals, while other food preparation workers assist them by prepping ingredients, cleaning surfaces, peeling vegetables and performing other duties.

Chef Career Details

Generally, chefs and cooks measure, mix and cook ingredients according to recipes. While performing this work, they use various pots, pans, cutlery and other equipment, which includes ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, benders and grinders. Chefs and head cooks are often responsible for supervising the work of other kitchen workers, ordering food supplies and estimating food requirements. Some help plan meals and develop menus. 

Executive chefs and head cooks coordinate the work of kitchen staff and direct the preparation of certain foods. They decide the size of servings, plan menus and buy food supplies. Although the terms chef and cook are used interchangeably, chefs are usually more highly skilled and better trained than most cooks.

Programs to Consider:

Chef Career Specializations

Large eating establishments usually have varied menus and kitchen staffs that include several chefs and cooks along with less skilled kitchen workers. Each chef or cook tends to have a special assignment and a special job title, such as vegetable, fry or sauce cook. 

  • Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of hospitals, schools, cafeterias and other "institutions." They prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables and desserts for each meal. 
  • Restaurant cooks tend to prepare a wider selection of dishes, and cook most orders individually. 
  • Short-order cooks prepare food in restaurants that emphasize fast service. They grill and garnish hamburgers, fry eggs, prepare sandwiches and often work on several orders at the same time. 
  • Fast food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package batches of food, which are either prepared to order or kept warm until sold. 
  • Private household cooks plan and prepare meals, clean the kitchen, order groceries and may serve meals.

Chef Career Required Training

Most chefs and cooks start as fast food or short-order cooks; these positions require little training or education and most skills are learned on the job. Although a high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs, it is recommended for those planning a career as a cook or chef. 

To achieve the level of skill required of an executive chef or cook in a fine restaurant, many years of training and experience are needed. Many chefs and cooks obtain their training through high school, post-high school vocational programs or two- or four-year colleges. Chefs and cooks may also be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes, industry associations and trade unions. 

Those who've taken courses in commercial food preparation may be able to work as a cook or chef without having to first work in a lower skilled kitchen job. Their education may give them an advantage when seeking jobs in better restaurants and hotels, where hiring standards tend to be high.

Chef Career Coursework

Although some vocational programs in high schools offer training, employers prefer training given by trade schools, vocational centers, colleges, professional associations or trade unions. Postsecondary courses can range from a few months to two years or more; in some cases, these courses are only open to high school graduates. About eight to 15 years as a cook are required to be considered a fully qualified chef. 

Although curricula may vary, students in these programs spend much of their time learning to prepare food through actual practice. They learn to broil, bake and otherwise prepare food, as well as how to use and care for kitchen equipment. Training programs may include courses in menu planning, determination of portion size, food cost control, selection and storage of food and how to minimize waste. Students also learn hotel and restaurant sanitation and public health rules for food handling. 

A number of schools offer culinary courses across the nation. The American Culinary Federation has accredited over 100 training programs, and offers a number of apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships tend to last three years, and combine classroom and work experience.

Chef Salary

Wages of chefs and cooks depend greatly on the part of the country and the type of establishment in which they work. Wages are usually highest in upscale restaurants and hotels. The median salary in 2011 for chefs is $46,600. 

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