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Head Chef: Education and Career Facts

The level of experience and education to become a head chef varies. Read ahead to find out what you can study, certification options and where you can apply for employment.

What You Need to Know

Head chefs are responsible not only for cooking but also for managing staff and inventory and keeping the kitchen in smooth working order. In order to do this demanding job well, you'll need several years of experience working in kitchens, as well as formal culinary and food education and safety training.

Education Certificates and associate's degrees in culinary arts in similar fields; bachelor's degrees are also available
Certification Voluntary; American Culinary Federation executive chef or master chef levels
Median Salary (2017)* $45,950 (for all chefs and head cooks)
Job Outlook (2016-2026)* 10% growth ( for all chefs and head cooks)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Where Can I Study?

Experience can be earned in a wide variety of settings, from independent restaurants to hotel kitchens to cruise ships. Often, professionals work their way up through different kitchen jobs, including dishwasher, line chef and sous chef before finding work as a head or managing chef. When it comes time to begin your classroom education, you may choose from certificate and associate's degree programs at community and technical colleges.

What Will I Learn in a Certificate Program?

Certificate programs might range in length from 30 weeks to nine months. Many programs focus their training on techniques from a certain geographic area, like France, while others teach techniques from all over the world. Some schools offer transferable academic credits that can be applied to an associate's degree programs. These course topics may be included:

  • Food safety
  • Culinary fundamentals
  • Soups and sauces
  • Pastries
  • Entrees

What About Degree Programs?

The other option is 2-year associate's degree programs, which combine technical chef training with general education and culinary business courses. Some of your business and general education courses may be taken online, and many schools offer part-time enrollment.

If you plan to someday move away from cooking and towards a full-time management position, you may prefer the associate's degree track. Credits earned in these programs can be transferred into 4-year bachelor's degree programs in business and hospitality. Here are some degree programs you may want to consider:

  • Associate in Applied Science in Culinary Arts
  • Associate in Applied Science in Culinary Studies
  • Bachelor of Professional Studies in Culinary Arts
  • Bachelor of Business Administration with a specialization in hospitality management

What About Professional Certification?

The American Culinary Federation offers two levels of certification for an aspiring head chef. You can choose to become a Certified Executive Chef or a Certified Master Chef. The former requires at least five years of experience in a management role in a professional kitchen. You must have supervised the work of five full-time employees in order to meet the requirement. In addition, a high school diploma and 150 education hours, 250 education hours, an associate's degree or the completion of an apprenticeship can be used to meet education requirements. All chef certification levels also require passing courses in food safety, sanitation and nutrition.

The master chef designation is the highest level of certification available in the culinary arts. Prerequisites include certification as an executive chef or culinary educator and letters of recommendation. The examination for this certification is an intensive 8-day practical test.

What Jobs Are Available?

Jobs may be found at five-star restaurants in cities, at resorts or hotel restaurants, at amusement parks, for private corporations, on cruise ships or as private chefs. Head chefs may also start their own restaurants. Many trained chefs eventually work as food critics, restaurant consultants, cookbook authors or in the hospitality industry in management positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for chefs and head cooks as of 2017 was $45,950.