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Chefs, Cooks, and Other Kitchen Workers

A reputation for serving fine food is an asset to any restaurant or hotel, whether it prides itself on "home cooking" or exotic foreign cuisine. Chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers are largely responsible for the reputation a restaurant acquires. Some restaurants offer a varied menu featuring meals that are time consuming and difficult to prepare, requiring a highly skilled cook or chef. Other restaurants emphasize fast service, offering hamburgers and sandwiches that can be prepared in advance or in a few minutes by a fast- food or short-order cook with only limited cooking skills.

Chefs and cooks are responsible for preparing meals that are tasty and attractively presented. Chefs are the most highly skilled, trained, and experienced kitchen workers, although the terms chef and cook are often used interchangeably. Many chefs have earned fame for both themselves and the restaurants, hotels, and institutions where they work because of their skill in artfully preparing the traditional favorites and in creating new dishes and improving familiar ones.

Institutional chefs and cooks work in the kitchens of schools, industrial cafeterias, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a small selection of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, but in large quantities. Restaurant chefs and cooks generally prepare a wider selection of dishes for each meal, cooking most individual servings to order. Whether in institutions or restaurants, chefs and cooks measure, mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes. In the course of their work they use a variety of pots, pans, cutlery, and equipment, including ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders. They are often responsible for directing the work of other kitchen workers, estimating food requirements, and ordering food supplies. Some chefs and cooks also help plan meals and develop menus.

Bread and pastry bakers, called pastry chefs in some kitchens, produce baked goods for restaurants, kitchens, produce baked goods for restaurants, institutions, and retail bakery shops. Unlike bakers who work at large automated industrial bakeries, bread and pastry bakers need only supply the customers who visit their establishment. They bake smaller quantities of breads, rolls, pastries, pies, and cakes, doing most of the work by hand. They measure and mix ingredients, shape and bake the dough, and apply fillings and decorations.

Short-order cooks prepare foods to order in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service. They grill and garnish hamburgers, prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fried potatoes, often working on several orders at the same time. Prior to busy periods, they may slice meats and cheese or prepare coleslaw or potato salad. During slow periods, they may clean the grill, food preparation surfaces, and counters.

Specialty fast-food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package batches of food such as hamburgers and fried chicken, which are prepared to order or kept warm until sold.

Other kitchen workers, under the direction of chefs and cooks, perform tasks requiring less skill. They weigh and measure ingredients, fetch pots and pans, and stir and strain soups and sauces. They clean, peel, and slice potatoes, vegetables, and fruits and make salads. They also may cut and grind meats, poultry, and seafood in preparation for cooking. Their responsibilities also include cleaning work areas, equipment and utensils, and dishes and silverware.

The number and types of workers employed in kitchens depend partly on the size and kind of restaurant. Fast-food outlets offer only a few items, which are prepared by fast- food cooks. Smaller restaurants usually feature a limited number of short-order specialties and ready-made desserts. Typically, one chef or cook prepares all of the food with the help of a short-order cook and one or two other kitchen workers.

Large eating places usually have more varied menus and prepare, from start to finish, more of the food they serve. Kitchen staffs often include several chefs or cooks, sometimes called assistant or apprentice chefs or cooks, a bread and pastry baker, and many less skilled kitchen workers. Each chef or cook usually has a special assignment and often a special job title--vegetable, fry, or sauce cook, for example. Executive chefs or head cooks coordinate the work of the kitchen staff and often direct certain kinds of food preparation. They decide the size of servings, sometimes plan menus, and buy food supplies.

Working Conditions

Many restaurant and institutional kitchens have modern equipment, convenient work areas, and air-conditioning; but others, particularly in older and smaller eating places, are frequently not as well equipped. Other variations in working conditions depend on the type and quantity of food being prepared and the local laws governing food service operations. Workers generally must withstand the pressure and strain of working in close quarters, during busy periods, stand for hours at a time, lift heavy pots and kettles, and work near hot ovens and ranges. Job hazards include falls, cuts, and burns, but injuries are seldom serious.

Work hours in restaurants may include late evening, holiday, and weekend work, while hours in cafeterias in factories, schools, or other institutions may be more regular. Kitchen workers employed by public and private schools may work during the school year only, usually for 9 or 10 months. Vacation resorts offer seasonal employment.


Chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers held 2.8 million jobs in 1990. Short-order and fast-food cooks held 650,000 of the jobs, restaurant cooks 576,000, institutional cooks 406,000, bread and pastry bakers 128,000, and other kitchen workers 1,227,000. About three-fifths of all chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers worked in restaurants and other retail eating and drinking places. One-fifth worked in institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, and nursing homes. The remainder were employed by hotels, government and factory cafeterias, private clubs, and many other organizations. More than 40 percent worked part time.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most kitchen workers start as fast-food or short-order cooks, or in one of the other less skilled kitchen positions that require little education or training and that allow them to acquire their skills on the job. After acquiring some basic food handling, preparation, and cooking skills, they may be able to advance to an assistant or fry cook, but many years of training and experience are necessary to achieve the level of skill required of an executive chef or cook in a fine restaurant. Even though a high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs, it is recommended for those planning a career as a cook or chef. High school or vocational school courses in career arithmetic and career administration are particularly helpful.

An increasing number of chefs and cooks are obtaining their training through high school or post-high school vocational programs and 2- or 4-year colleges. Chefs and cooks may also be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions. An example is the 3-year apprenticeship program administered by local chapters of the American Culinary Federation in cooperation with local employers and junior colleges or vocational education institutions. In addition, some large hotels and restaurants operate their own training programs for new employees.

Persons who have had courses in commercial food preparation may be able to start in a cook or chef job without having to spend time in a lower skilled kitchen job, and they may have an advantage when looking for jobs in better restaurants and hotels, where hiring standards often are high. Some vocational programs in high schools offer this kind of training. But usually these courses, which range from a few months to 2 years or more and are open in some cases only to high school graduates, are given by trade schools, vocational centers, colleges, professional associations, and trade unions. The Armed Forces also are a good sources of training and experience.

Although curricula may vary, students usually spend most of their time learning to prepare food through actual practice. They learn to bake, broil, and otherwise prepare food, and to use and care for kitchen equipment. Training programs often include courses in menu planning, determination of portion size and food cost control, purchasing food supplies in quantity, selection and storage of food, and use of leftover food to minimize waste. Students also learn hotel and restaurant sanitation and public health rules for handling food. Training in supervisory and management skills sometimes is emphasized in courses offered by private vocational schools, professional associations, and university programs.

Many school districts, in cooperation with school food services divisions of State departments of education, provide on-the-job training and sometimes summer workshops for cafeteria kitchen workers who wish to become cooks. Some junior colleges, State departments of education, and school associations also offer training programs. Cafeteria kitchen employees who have participated in these training programs often are selected for jobs as cooks.

Certification provides valuable formal recognition of the skills of a chef or cook. The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs and cooks at the levels of cook, chef, pastry chef, executive chef, and master chef. Certification standards are based primarily on experience and formal training. The ability to work as part of a team, a keen sense of taste and smell, and personal cleanliness are important qualifications for chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers. Most States require health certificates indicating that these workers are free from contagious diseases.

Advancement opportunities for chefs and cooks are better than for most other food and beverage preparation and service occupations. Many acquire higher paying positions and new cooking skills by moving from one job to another. Others gradually advance to executive chef positions or supervisory or management positions, particularly in hotels, clubs, or larger, more elegant restaurants. Some eventually go into career as caterers or restaurant owners; others may become instructors in vocational programs in high schools, junior and community colleges, and other academic institutions.

Job Outlook

Job openings for chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers are expected to be plentiful through the year 2000. Growth in demand for these workers will create many job openings. There is substantial turnover in many of these jobs because their limited formal education and training requirements allow easy entry, and the large number of part-time positions are attractive to persons seeking a short-term source of income rather than a career. Many of the workers who leave these jobs transfer to other occupations, while others stop working to assume household responsibilities or to attend school full time.

Workers under the age of 25 have traditionally filled a significant proportion of these jobs. The pool of young workers is expected to shrink through the year 2000, however, forcing many employers to offer higher wages, better fringe benefits, and more training to attract and retain workers.

Employment of chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Since a significant proportion of food and beverage sales by eating and drinking establishments is associated with the over-all level of economic activity--workers' lunches and entertainment of clients, for example--sales and employment will increase the growth of the economy. Other factors contributing to employment growth will be population growth, rising family and personal incomes, and more leisure time that will allow people to dine out and take vacations more often. Also, as more women join the work force, families increasingly may find dining out a welcome convenience.

Employment in restaurants is expected to grow rapidly. Increasing demand for restaurants that offer table service and varied menus, particularly more expensive restaurants that offer more exotic foods, will require highly skilled cooks and chefs. the popularity of fresh baked breads and pastries in fine dining establishments should incur continued increase in employment of bakers. However, employment of short-order and specialty fast-food coos is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations because most work in fast-food restaurants, which are expected to have slower growth than in the past.

Employment of institutional chefs and cooks will increase about as fast as average because their employment is concentrated in the educational sector. However, the number of elderly people is expected to result in a rapid increase in kitchen jobs associated with nursing homes, residential care facilities, and other health care institutions.


According to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, median hourly earnings of chefs were $10.20 in 1990, and generally ranged between $9.40 and $10.50. However, many executive chefs earned over $40,000 annually. Cooks had median hourly earnings of $5.95, with most earnings between $5.20 and $7.00. Assistant cooks had median hourly earnings of $5.20, with most earnings between $4.70 and $5.75.

According to the same survey, short-order cooks had median hourly earnings of $4.80 in 1990; most earned between $4.80 and $5.75. Median hourly earnings of bread and pastry bakers were $6.00; most earned within the range of $5.75 to $6.50. Salad preparation workers generally earned less, with median hourly earnings of $4.95; most earned between $4.50 and $5.25. Food preparation workers in fast-food restaurants had median hourly earnings of $4.05, with most earning between $3.65 and $4.95.

Wages of chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers vary depending on the part of the country and, especially, the type of establishment in which they work. Wages generally are highest in elegant restaurants and hotels. Some employers provide uniforms and free meals, but Federal law permits employers to deduct from wages the cost, or fair value, of any meals or lodging provided, and some employers exercise this right.

In some large hotels and restaurants, kitchen workers belong to unions. The principal unions are the Hotel employees and Restaurant Employees International Union and the Service Employees International Union, both AFL-CIO affiliates.

Related Occupations

Chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers handle and prepare food. Workers who perform similar tasks include butchers and meatcutters, cannery workers, and industrial bakers.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about job opportunities may be obtained from local employers and local offices of the State employment service.

Career information about chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers, as well as a directory of 2- and 4-year colleges that offer courses or programs that prepare persons for food service careers, is available from:

The Educational Foundation of the National Restaurant Association, 20 North Wacker Dr., Suite 2620, Chicago, IL 60606.

For information on the American Culinary Federation's apprenticeship and certification programs for cooks, write to:

American Culinary Federation, P.O. Box 3466, St. Augustine, FL 32084.

For information on hospitality careers and a directory of colleges and other schools offering programs and courses in hospitality education, write to:

Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education, 311 First St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20001.

For general career information and a directory of accredited private trade and technical schools offering programs in the culinary arts, write to:

National Association of Trade and Technical Schools, P.O. Box 10429, Department BL, Rockville, MD 20850.


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