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What is a Chef and What do They do?

Sometimes referred to as a head cook, a chef is an extremely popular occupation in the United States. A couple of years ago, almost 150,000 jobs were held by successful chefs across the country. An executive chef is considered the highest-ranking culinary professional in the kitchen. A prominent executive position, a chef oversees the hands-on work in the kitchen that’s performed by entry-level staff such as prep cooks.

Most people who are considering a career as a chef probably want to know the required characteristics to qualify for this executive position. The best chefs are extremely passionate about food, great communicators, creative, team players, and multi-taskers. They also have great physical stamina, working long hours while maintaining exceptional attention to details. Top chefs also possess the following skills: Problem solving, cleanliness, leadership, stress management, organization, collaboration, customer service, and more.

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Steps to Becoming a Chef

A chef is defined as an exceptional culinary professional who effectively manages the daily food preparation at many different types of food services establishments. The overarching goal of chef is to make sure that the kitchen is always running smoothly and adhering to the many important kitchen and food regulations.

A day in the life of a chef is often busy. Many chefs are expected to juggle the following job responsibilities: developing a menu, preparing tasty food, ensuring that staff follow sanitation practices, maintaining a budget, purchasing food and equipment, monitoring the freshness of food, etc. Most chefs hire, train, and fire employees as well.

  • Step 1: Education Requirements

  • Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

  • Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

  • Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance


Step 1: Education Requirements

Generally speaking, an education is required for most chef positions in the United States. You can start with a high school diploma. The first step to becoming a successful chef is to obtain a high school diploma or GED. There are several advantages to acquiring a high school diploma. The main reason is that a high school diploma is the minimum previous education required to be admitted into culinary school.

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As for your choice of culinary program, you want to be sure you choose the right culinary school. Future chefs should seek to obtain a degree or diploma from a top-notch culinary institution. Just make sure that the culinary school is accredited. There are several associate and bachelor’s culinary arts degree programs available in the United States, though master’s culinary arts degree program aren’t particularly common. Depending on the program, future chefs should expect to spend one to four years completing a degree in culinary arts.

A culinary associate degree is the most common route leading to a career as a chef. This type of culinary degree can typically be found at community colleges and culinary schools. Students who pursue a culinary associate degree program will become extremely knowledgeable in foods, food procurement, and food safety. Students will learn important skills such as the proper handling of food, management techniques, basic knife skills, food purchasing methods, and preparation of a wide variety of dishes. An associate in culinary arts degree takes about two years to complete.

A culinary bachelor’s degree is perfect for those who would like to obtain a prominent chef position with many responsibilities. During a bachelor’s in culinary arts degree program, students will learn the ins and outs of creating a wide variety of cuisines, operating a restaurant, and proper table service. Additionally, the program will teach students excellent marketing skills, customer service techniques, and international cooking methods. Students typically complete this program in four years.

Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

When it comes to becoming an exceptional chef, a formal culinary education is definitely a good start. However, after obtaining a culinary degree, it’s a good idea to acquire relevant work experience through an internship or apprentice. An internship or apprentice will definitely give chefs incredible hands-on experience as they will be learning from seasoned culinary professionals.

During this hands-on experience, future chefs will learn the right way to use cooking utensils, how to cook various recipes, and much more. An internship or apprentice will also help future chefs quickly identify their strengths and weaknesses, providing them with feedback that can help them improve their skills quickly. An internship or apprentice also offers future chefs the opportunity to network with many culinary professionals.

Step 3: Licensing & Certifications


Future chefs who would like to operate a food service establishment with a commercial kitchen should definitely obtain a restaurant license. Here are the most common restaurant licenses and permits that are needed to operate a food services establishment.

  • Restaurant Business License:
    Chefs need to obtain a restaurant business license to legally operate a food service establishment. The cost of obtaining this common license will usually cost less than $7,000.
  • Restaurant Food Service License:
    Chefs who plan on serving food at their food service establishment will need a restaurant food service license. A food vendor license is necessary for chefs who want to serve food from a food truck.
  • Restaurant Liquor License:
    In most cases, chefs want to serve food and liquor at their food service establishment. In order to serve liquor, chefs will need a restaurant liquor license. Without a restaurant liquor license, a food service establishment may incur penalties and fines if it attempts to sell alcohol.
  • Food Handler’s Permit:
    Chefs should ensure that every team member has a Food Handler’s Permit, which is also known as an Employee Health Permit. A Food Handler’s Permit ensures that employees understand how to properly handle food. This important permit shouldn’t cost more than $600.


While certification isn’t really required to become a chef, it will definitely help qualify future chefs for high paying positions. Generally speaking, a culinary certificate may provide hands-on learning and training in the following areas: baking, food science, and culinary skills.

One of the most popular certifications is the ACF Certification from The American Culinary Federation. The ACF Certification program features several certification designations for many different chef levels. Depending on the certification level, future chefs will be able to become ACF certified within a few months or years. The United States Professional Chef Association also boasts an exceptional certification program known as a Certified Personal Chef. A Certified Personal Chef is offered to chefs who would like to receive industry recognition.

Other certifications are available for chefs who wish to work in a variety of settings. It’s up to each individual to decide which certifications are right for them and which will best help them achieve their career goals.

Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance

As a prominent chef, continuing education and license maintenance is extremely important for career advancement. For those who chose to become a chef by moving up the ranks, keep in mind that continuing education is always a great option. In fact, pursuing a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s culinary arts program while working as a line cook, food preparation worker, or even a dishwasher will make climbing the ranks much easier.

Current chefs with an associate degree might increase their education by obtaining a bachelor’s degree. A culinary bachelor’s degree will be a great way for chefs to obtain a position that prepares many different types of cuisines from around the world. For instance, a culinary bachelor’s degree may teach students about French cuisine, preparing them for a chef position that uses several excellent French cooking techniques.

In addition, a culinary bachelor’s degree may offer students several chef career concentrations including pastry chef, chef de cuisine, executive/head chef, saucier, personal chef, chocolatier, and many more. A culinary bachelor’s degree may also provide culinary professionals the necessary skills to be a top-notch fine dining chef. A fine dining chef specializes in preparing delicious dishes with only the finest ingredients.

Current chefs can also engage in continuing education by joining professional organizations, reading industry magazines, visiting well-known restaurants, and attending conferences. In addition, chefs can also participate in continuing education the traditional way by getting family and friends’ opinions on their homemade dishes. Make sure to stay abreast of industry trends as well.

Licensing Maintenance

For chefs who own and operate a food establishment, they will need to maintain a restaurant license. There are several different types of restaurant licenses including Restaurant Business License, Restaurant Food Service License, Restaurant Liquor License, and Food Handler’s Permit. Your state or license provider will likely provide information that will help you know what you must do to maintain this license over years. You may need to pay a fee, continue taking courses, or something else. However, it’s important that you make the effort to maintain any license you use for your career.

Where Do Chefs Work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, chefs often work in the following environments: eating places, special food services, entertainment, and travel accommodation. More specifically, these culinary professionals can be found at restaurants, bakeries, amusement parks, resorts, and a variety of other food service establishments. Many chefs and head cooks are self-employed, operating their own restaurants or catering companies.

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Most of these culinary professionals also work well over 40 hours a week, which may include early morning prep, afternoon, and/or late evening shifts. They may also work on holidays and weekends, depending on the food service establishment. As an experienced chef, you can expect to cook in a fast-paced setting while standing throughout the shift.

Professional Organizations

There are many professional organizations for chefs and head cooks in the United States. As a student or professional, these professional organizations are definitely worth joining because they offer many incredible educational resources and network opportunities.

  • American Culinary Federation
    For well over 90 years, the American Culinary Federation has been providing top notch educational offerings for chefs in North America. The organization prides itself in offering the ACF Certification program for chefs who would like to become a competitive candidate to employers.
  • International Association of Culinary Professionals
    Located in the United States, the International Association of Culinary Professionals is dedicated to supporting chefs and other culinary professionals. As an IACP member, chefs will have access to online classes, annual conferences, networking opportunities, and much more. Julia Child was a member of this prominent organization.
  • American Institute of Wine and Food
    The American Institute of Wine and Food is the perfect organization for chefs who would like to meet and learn from the best culinary professionals in the United States. Members can attend educational events, enabling them to learn all about food and wine. The education events are also a great way for chefs to network.

Chef Career and Salary

Job prospects for chefs and head cooks are expected to grow more than 5% in the next 10 years or so, making a job as a chef or head cook a relatively fast-growing occupation. Many experts predict that there will be a greater demand for these professionals in the near future. One of the reasons why employment for these exceptional professionals continues to grow is because customers want healthy meals from food establishments. Many food establishments are meeting the needs of customers by hiring chefs and head cooks who know how to properly prepare healthy meals.

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A job as a chef or head cook requires stamina, high energy, and an ability to meet many demands. As a result, chef and head cook jobs often have an extremely high turnover rate. Due to the need to replace chefs and head cooks who will leave the food industry or start their own businesses, a drastic increase in employment opportunities will also occur soon. Chef and head cooks who have several years of experience and excellent business and culinary skills will be presented with the most job opportunities. Since luxury casinos, restaurants, and hotels pay really well, chef’s and head cook’s positions at these places will likely be the most difficult to obtain.

Here are the average annual salaries for these positions:

  • Executive Chef: $62,293
  • Head Chef: $48,306
  • Sous Chef: $45,249
  • Chef de Partie: $32,240
  • Kitchen Chef: $26,820

According to the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics (BLS), the states with the most job opportunities for chef and head cook positions are as follows: Texas, New York, Florida, Ohio, California, Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, and South Carolina. For successful chefs who want to have access to job opportunities or are having difficulty finding opportunities in their area, it may be a great idea to relocate to one of those states.

The states that pay chef and head cooks the most are California, New York, Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, and New Hampshire. Therefore, successful chefs who are looking for a higher paying position may want to consider moving to one of those states.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What skills do chefs need?

As a chef you will need a strong attention to detail, creativity, and a strong business sense. The job of a chef is often fast-paced and can be stressful so you will need to be able to work in these conditions.

Where do chefs work?

Chefs can work in a number of different locations including: private households, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other food service establishments.

What is the job outlook for chefs?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for chefs is projected to grow 25% from 2020 to 2030.

How much can you make as a chef?

The salary of a chef will depend on the area they work in.

  • Executive Chef: $62,000
  • Head Chef: $48,000
  • Sous Chef: $45,000
  • Chef de Partie: $32,000
  • Kitchen Chef: $27,000

Do you need a degree to be a chef?

In general, a minimum of a high school diploma is required to be a chef but some jobs may allow you to work as a chef or cook without a high school diploma. You will need a high school diploma to apply for a culinary program. A culinary associate degree is the most common degree. It generally takes around two years to earn a culinary associate degree.

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