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How to Become a Professional Chef in 5 Steps

A professional chef prepares and cooks a variety of foods for public consumption. These foods include soups, appetizers, salads, side dishes, entrees, desserts and breads. Typically, professional chefs have extensive work experience along with formal training from a culinary institute or college.

What is a Professional Chef?

Professional chefs perform a variety of responsibilities related to the preparation of food. Many chefs may be the head of a kitchen in a restaurant and specialize in the preparation of a particular type of cuisine, like Italian, Japanese, or Mexican. Other chefs may own their own restaurant and be in charge of the creation and updating of the menu. Some chefs are also heavily involved in the management of the restaurant and are generally in charge of the rest of the kitchen staff. They also are in charge of ordering ingredients and keeping the kitchen well-stocked. The following table provides additional details for this career:

Degree Required Completion of training program; apprenticeship helpful
Education Field of Study Culinary arts
Key Responsibilities Designing menus, creating new dishes, cooking variety of foods, directing other cooks
Job Growth (2018-2028) 11% (for chefs and head cooks)*
Median Salary (2018) $48,460 (for chefs and head cooks)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Research Professional Chef's Duties and Education

A master at the medium of food, a professional chef prepares dishes that comfort, energize and inspire while nourishing patrons' stomachs and pleasing their palates. A professional chef creates menus, prepares food and manages kitchen employees. Professional chefs typically have a great sense of smell and taste, a high level of creativity and a flair for experimentation to ensure their menus are successful. Some professional chefs work their way up to this position after starting out as entry-level restaurant workers; however, it is more typical these days for a professional chef to have formal training through an apprenticeship or a program offered by a culinary institute or college.

Step 2: Prepare During High School

Take relevant high school classes, such as computers, English, mathematics, business, food handling and safety along with cooking, if available. Check to see if your community has chef-training programs. To obtain experience in the industry, try to get a job in a restaurant.

Step 3: Route 1: Work Your Way Up

One way to become a professional chef is to start at the bottom of the career path and work your way up. You can start in the kitchen as a dishwasher or bus person. You may be able to get a job as a chef's assistant if you have prior restaurant experience. Your first cooking job will usually consist of cleaning, peeling, gutting, chopping and filling a variety of foods at a very fast pace with great accuracy. Next, you will be responsible for preparing soups, appetizers and salads. The next step is the line cook, where you prepare items based on food type and or the type of cooking, such as grill cook or sauté cook.

Second to the executive chef is the sous chef, who continues working on the line but has the added responsibility of supervising other kitchen employees. The top of the professional chef ladder is the executive chef. As an executive chef, you will manage the entire kitchen, design the menu, create and test ingredients and recipes and order all of the stock for the kitchen. It may take you several years to work your way up to the top.

Step 4: Route 2: Finish an Apprenticeship

Enter an apprenticeship program accredited by the American Culinary Federation Foundation Accrediting Commission (www.acfchefs.org). Most apprenticeships are either 2- or 3-year on-the-job, full-time training programs, and apprentices must complete at least 12 courses in subjects that are culinary-related. Apprentices are paid and can earn an optional culinary arts associate degree. The American Culinary Federation's (ACF's) website has all requirement details and locations of programs.

Step 5: Route 3: Complete Formal Training

Trade and vocational schools offer basic culinary training. Community colleges, culinary institutions and private cooking schools offer 2- or 4-year programs in culinary arts or hospitality. Students in these programs may train to work in upscale or fine-dining restaurants and may learn a number of training specialties. In a professional chef training program, you'll likely take basic classes in safety and sanitation, culinary arts fundamentals and nutrition, as well as specialty classes in subjects like:

  • Food presentation
  • Soups and sauces
  • Spices
  • Meats and butchery
  • Vegetarian cuisine
  • Garde-manger
  • Baking and pastry
  • International dishes
  • Italian cuisine
  • Mediterranean cuisine
  • Asian cuisine

ACF offers a number of certifications, such as culinary educator, personal chef or pastry professional. Certification may help a chef to advance or obtain a higher salary.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Individuals who are interested in the restaurant business but not in cooking may be able to find a job as a food service manager, a role in which they would be in charge of all the managerial and day-to-day tasks that come with running a restaurant. There are also jobs available in general food preparation or as a cook, which would involve less responsibility. For those who have a specific interest in preparing desserts or breads may want to become bakers or pastry chefs.