Once you graduate from Culinary School, it’s time to put that money to practical use. What you decide to do with your education depends primarily on two key factors: your personal goals and your Culinary School education. Some of the most popular cooking careers include Executive/Head Chef, Pastry Chef, Sous Chef, Food Preparation Worker, Caterer, Fast Food Cook, Restaurant Owner/Manager, and Sommelier. More than one of these positions may be right for you.
For those who want to stay in the kitchen, any of the above jobs might suit you, except for restaurant owner/manager and sommelier. If you thrive in a high-energy, pressure-cooker type of kitchen, you might enjoy working as a Fast Food Cook or Caterer. If you graduated with an associate’s degree in professional cooking, you will be well-positioned to apply for either job.
Perhaps you spent four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Food and Beverage Management. Chances are your ultimate goal is a career as a restaurant manager or owner.
What do you enjoy more, cooking or baking? You may have to toss a coin to determine whether to pursue a career as a Pastry Chef or Sous Chef. With a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, you have the qualifications for either job.
Whatever career choice you make, you’re ahead of the game because you’re investigating job opportunities in a field that you love. Adults spend more than 70% of their lives working. Aren’t you glad you went to Culinary School so you have a greater chance of spending your 70% doing something you love?
Restaurant groups, chain restaurants, cruise ships, resorts, hotels, and some individual restaurants may have an Executive Chef on staff. Rarely is an Executive Chef behind the line in a kitchen because the role is more supervisory. They concentrate on menu development and preparations, management issues, and business concerns. Executive Chefs finalize plans such as the five-course restaurant meal, cruise ship buffet offerings, and hotel restaurant choices.
For menu development, an Executive Chef creates new recipes and then teaches the staff how to prepare the dishes. As managers, they hire their kitchen staff. In large operations this mean finding and entrusting staff to hire the needed kitchen personnel. Executive Chefs also work closely with their superiors such as restaurant owners, CEOs of resorts, and hotel general managers to keep the business profitable.
Most Executive Chefs have some formal Culinary School training, at least for the management and business end of their work. In addition, they will have extensive experience working in each area of the kitchen to ensure that all systems work smoothly.
It can take ten to twenty years for a mid-level chef to qualify as Executive Chef, but getting there is worth the time and effort. Executive Chef salaries range between $50,000 and $200,000, depending on the restaurant and the location.
In smaller restaurant-related businesses, the Head Chef may also pull double duty as Executive Chef, preparing new recipes, hiring and training kitchen staff, and working on the business in tandem with restaurant owners. The Head Chef is responsible for everything that happens in the kitchen from the time inventory is delivered to when the last dessert plate is cleared from a table.
Many Head Chefs attended Culinary Schools for business and management as well as food preparation in order to receive the proper training for their many-faceted job. The Head Chef oversees all aspects of the restaurant kitchen—from determining how thin to slice the pomme frites to formulating the recipe for a Lyonnais sauce (or creating the recipe as dictated by the Executive Chef), from creating new menu items to purchasing inventory. Head Chefs observe and help the other chefs in the kitchen, even taking an active role in preparations or cooking during restaurant hours, pinch-hitting as Sous Chef or Line Cook as needed.
A Head Chef who operates as “top dog” also works closely with the Sommelier to develop wine lists and create special wine-pairing dinners. The Head Chef may also work the front of the house from table to table, visiting with customers as the Restaurant Ambassador.
To be considered Head Chef material, candidates will have considerable experience working in all stations in the kitchen, along with strong managerial skills and impressive business acumen. Depending on the location, size of the restaurant group, and status of Head Chef (i.e., if the head chef also serves as Executive Chef), the position commands anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 annually.
Pastry Chefs spend their work days in the kitchen baking pies, cakes, cookies, pastries, breads, muffins, and preparing just about any food item barred from most weight-loss programs. In a small bakery, the Pastry Chef often kneads dough, mixes ingredients, rolls out pie crusts, and frosts cakes by hand. In industrial kitchens where commercial bakery goods are made, the Pastry Chef may work a single station doing one specific chore by machine along with other Pastry Chefs stationed at different baking machines.
While a formal education may not be necessary to work in a neighborhood bakery, having a Culinary Schools certificate or diploma is handy for aspiring bakers hoping to work in restaurants and hotels. They may begin their careers working under more senior employees but over time, they may have the opportunity to advance from taking direction on baking Boston cream pies to creating new dessert offerings. Many Pastry Chefs carve niche careers for themselves by narrowing their focus to specific cuisines such as gluten-free desserts, specialty cupcakes, and wedding cakes. For the corner bakery chef, the rewards come from the work itself, as salaries don’t extend far beyond the mid-$20,000 range. But for the executive Pastry Chef in a major hotel group, the wages shoot up to $60,000 to $80,000.
The term Sous Chef translates from the French as “the under chief.” In plain terms, the Sous Chef serves as second-in-command to the Head Chef, often taking that role when the Head Chef isn’t in the kitchen. Sous Chef needs to be a Jack- or Jill-of-All-Trades as chef, manager, and trouble-shooter. Most Sous Chefs have a Culinary Schools associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree. When not supervising the line cooks, working with the expediter, or conferring with the Head Chef, the Sous Chef will probably work a sauté pan, grill, or some other kitchen station during restaurant hours. If problems arise, be it a nonfunctioning burner or turf war between line cooks, the Sous Chef may be called upon fix broken equipment or restore the peace.
The Sous Chef is generally responsible for carrying out the protocols determined by the Head Chef. This may include ordering inventory, helping plan new menus, and teaching the kitchen staff how to operate new equipment and prepare new recipes.
Many Sous Chefs consider their tenure as Head- or Executive Chef-in-Training, most likely spanning several years. In the meantime, the Sous Chef enjoys a significant amount of authority in the kitchen as well as a great deal of creative license. Sous Chefs command a salary of anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000.
Food Preparation Worker
If you’ve just received your first Culinary Schools diploma or certificate, you may find a job very quickly as a Food Preparation Worker. And while the job may not be as glamorous as that of a Sous Chef, it provides an integral component in the successful working kitchen. No cooking or sautéing can occur until the Food Preparation Worker has completed his or her tasks.
Food Preparation Workers complete daily tasks that may include making sauces, chopping vegetables, cutting meat in specific weights, skinning chickens, trussing game hens, deboning and filleting fish, and boiling lobsters—all within a strictly enforced deadline. In addition, Food Preparation Workers may spend a few hours working with inventory, going through boxes of fresh produce, meats, fish, and restaurant supplies to store and distribute throughout the kitchen. They also help line cooks and sous chefs with their chores.
Food Preparation Workers may also be responsible for general kitchen logistics like making sure all stations are fully stocked and taking several sweeps through the kitchen to clean and organize all areas. Salaries for Food Preparation Workers may start as little more than minimum wage. But Food Preparation Workers who perform their jobs well may find themselves in prime position to rise in the ranks of the kitchen through in-house promotions.
To become a successful professional caterer, students need a Culinary School bachelor’s degrees in catering. Think of the Caterer as a manager/chef responsible for a small floating restaurant—one that changes dimensions depending on how many people will be served, where the serving will occur, the menu, and transport considerations.
Caterers must develop tailor-made menus for their clients and be able to prepare the meals. Well-established Caterers may plan several menus at a time for different events. To earn a good reputation, Caterers must be able to act as marketing and advertising gurus to promote their business, then exercise strong customer relations skill to attract and retain a healthy customer base.
The Caterer must be able to manage and direct support staff such as on-site managers, food servers, bartenders, and transporters. Time management is also key; catering events require careful planning to set up the kitchen, prep and cook the food, transfer it into appropriate containers to maintain the right temperatures, load the catering trucks, drive to the event, set up the kitchen at the event, serve, clean up, and then leave the premises at a specified time.
Caterers just starting out may find they are spending more money on building their business than they receive in salary. But that initial investment may eventually bring in take-home pay upwards of $50,000 a year.
Fast Food Cook
Fast Food Cooks never seems to get enough credit for their work. Many people think they do little more than flipping burgers or removing fry baskets full of French fries from the deep fryer.
For a recent Culinary Schools graduate, the job of Fast Food Cook will prepare the individual for just about any professional kitchen position. The job involves a variety of special skills including coordination, time management, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to work alone as well as with others—often at the same time.
Coordination and time management comes into play throughout the entire shift. Watch any Fast Food Cook behind a griddle and you’ll find him/her negotiating three eggs scrambling, two more sunny side up, hash browns “naked” cooking next to another order of hash browns covered in cheese and onions, rounded out with a few burgers and some vegetable medleys. Even at restaurants like McDonald’s where a considerable amount of preparation has already been done, the Fast Food Cook needs to time the cooking of burgers and fries while keeping an eye out for replenishing pre-prepared foods.
While many fast foods come complete with garnishes (think Big Mac), the Fast Food Cook must be ready to alter items at any time by eliminating special sauces, adding bacon, taking out any ingredients that contain MSG, etc.
Fast Food Cooks work solo behind a grill line or fry station but they have to interact with their coworkers and customers, too. When the Fast Food Cook is working with a server who’s juggling seven tables at once, he or she needs to remain calm and help spread that calm so all cooking and serving is completed in a timely and professional manner.
Fast Food Cooks usually receive hourly wages that begin slightly above minimum wage. Still, the practical experience may prove invaluable for future jobs in more upscale restaurants.
Restaurant Manager or Owner
Many students attend Culinary Schools specifically to pursue a career as a Restaurant Manager or Owner upon graduation. In addition to learning the ropes working the back of the house, the Restaurant Manager or Owner has considerable training in marketing, business, sanitation, and management. In short, the job is to make sure all elements of the restaurant run smoothly. And that means knowing how to do each job in the restaurant.
It’s important to note that while Restaurant Owners also work as managers, the majority of Restaurant Managers don’t own their restaurants. The main difference between the two careers is financial—the Restaurant Owner is responsible for all money going in and out of the establishment including rent, utilities, payroll, supplies, and inventory. More than likely, a Restaurant Owner has worked for several years in a variety of positions in several restaurants. As such, he or she will know—and may be called upon—to work in the capacity of Restaurant Manager.
An important part of the Restaurant Manager Job involves pinch-hitting to assist in any part of the business if staff doesn’t show up or if extra hands are needed; this can mean anything from expediting to washing dishes to taking food orders. When things are running well, a Restaurant Manager spends most of his or her time in the front of the house greeting guests, overseeing the wait staff and host staff, rectifying problems with food orders, and adjusting final checks presented to customers.
The Restaurant Manager needs to have superior business skills. For example, a Restaurant Manager works alone or in concert with the Executive Chef to create menus and price items dependent on the cost of inventory. Managers also may play an integral role in determining staff salaries.
Many restaurants employ more than one manager; often there’s a hierarchy within an establishment that might include floor manager, assistant manager, assistant general manager, and general manager. Salaries vary from the low 20s for floor manager to six figures for the general manager in a four-star establishment.
Most Culinary students take at least an introductory course in wine. And for those working at a pizza place or casual dining establishment, that training may be all that’s needed to recommend a specific offering from the restaurant wine list. Sometimes the simple question of “Red or White?” may suffice.
But in a four-star dining room with a wine list offering several hundred choices, the server will bring in the Sommelier, a wine expert whose primary job is to describe the wines, offer suggestions of wine and food pairings, and decant and pour the wines.
Off the floor, the Sommelier works with the Executive or Head Chef and Restaurant Owner in creating and updating the wine list. This involves balancing a variety of the best wines for that particular establishment at the best prices.
Additional training is required for a career as a professional Sommelier. Training is offered in programs throughout the country including the top accrediting organization, the Court of the Master Sommeliers (CMS).
The CMS Sommelier training program is divided into introductory, certified, and advanced exams; all three courses together cost less than $2,000. Those who have successfully completed the training may be invited to apply for Master Sommelier, an additional course that costs $800. To date, there are only 117 Master Sommeliers in the country.
The majority of Sommeliers can expect to make anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000; Master Sommeliers often command six-figure salaries.
Last Updated: 08/08/2012