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How to Become a Professional Cook in 5 Steps

Find out about the types of jobs you could pursue as a professional cook. Read on to learn more about career options along with the training, education and certification needed.

What Does a Professional Cook Do?

Professional cooks work in the kitchen of a restaurant or other food service business, preparing meals for guests. Senior cooks often have a variety of other duties as well, including working as kitchen managers in charge of directing staff and preparing menus. While preparation of the meals themselves is often part of a professional cook's job, on a day to day basis head chefs, in particular, are often more involved with overseeing sous chefs and other cooks. This could involve training, scheduling and purchasing.

A professional cook's job is likely to vary depending on the type of restaurant they work in. Sous chefs work under head chefs and are responsible for following the food preparation instructions of the head chef. Some people choose to be private chefs, who typically work full-time for a single client.

The following chart provides an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Head Chef Pastry Chef Caterer
Degree Required Associate's degree; bachelor's degree Associate's degree; bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Culinary arts Culinary arts Culinary arts, restaurant management
Key Responsibilities Supervise other cooks; plan meals Developing recipes and preparing hot & cold pastries Work with clients; set up events; prepare and maintain food inventory
Job Growth (2018-2028) 11%* (chefs and head cooks) 11%* (chefs & head cooks) 11%* (food service managers)
Median Salary (2019) $48,460* $44,335** $35,000**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com (2019)

What Is a Professional Cook?

As a professional cook, you'll develop recipes and prepare meals utilizing kitchen equipment such as pots, ovens, cutlery, grills, broilers, blenders and grinders. Other responsibilities include menu planning, ensuring meal presentation and food quality, ordering stock and determining the cost of ingredients. You'll maintain sanitary conditions in compliance with food safety regulations.

Step 1: Research the Job Possibilities

Many options exist if you're interested in working as a professional cook. You may want to consider your specific interests and what type of position appeals to you first to determine the most targeted course of action. For instance, head cooks and executive chefs, while still involved in food preparation, also have many food service management duties. You could also be a personal chef in a private home or work as a pastry chef, creating desserts. Working as a caterer is another possibility.

Step 2: Consider a Postsecondary Program

Many colleges, as well as dedicated institutions, offer programs in the culinary arts. Commonly available through certificate, associate's and bachelor's degree programs, culinary arts studies include topics like cooking techniques, baking theory, stock production, culinary terminology, butchering and professional kitchen management. Some programs allow for concentrated study in areas such as pastry arts or catering.

An undergraduate hospitality or restaurant management degree program could also be useful to an aspiring professional cook. Such programs cover topics like customer service, inventory control, accounting, food production and marketing.

Step 3: Consider an Apprenticeship

Some aspiring professional cooks opt to forgo formal education and instead participate in apprenticeship programs. These programs can provide you classroom instruction along with hands-on cooking experience. They might last up to three years. Professional culinary schools, trade unions and the American Culinary Federation all sponsor culinary apprenticeship programs.

Step 4: Advance Your Career

You'll likely start out in an entry-level position as a line or food preparation cook but, with experience and hard work, you may advance to positions offering greater responsibilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that chefs and head cooks could expect fair job prospects between 2018 and 2028, especially those cooks who also possess business skills (www.bls.gov).

Step 5: Obtain a Certification

After you've gained expertise as a professional cook, you may want to consider earning certification through the American Culinary Federation. The federation offers 14 certifications, including the Personal Certified Chef, Certified Pastry Culinarian and Certified Executive Chef credentials. Certification isn't necessary but may help you obtain a higher position or salary, according to the BLS.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Other careers in the field of culinary arts to consider include food service management and baking. Neither necessarily requires formal education beyond a high school diploma. Bakers follow recipes to create goods such as breads and pastries. Food service managers, on the other hand, have a more operational role in a food business. Their job duties may include directing staff, assessing customer satisfaction, and managing the business to make sure it is thriving financially.