How to Become a Chef: Job Description, Salary & Education

We LOVE food here at LearnU! What better way to express our inner fat kid’s enthusiasm for a good meal than with a little ditty about how to become a chef? So if you want to be the next Wolfgang Puck or Cat Cora, you’ve come to the right place. We are super excited to tell you everything you need to know about becoming a chef. Break out the tasting spoons because we about serve up some tasty dish.

How to Become a Chef


Do you want to be a chef? This is a job that will require you to work long hours, late nights, early mornings, weekends and holidays. It can be stressful, exhausting and is super demanding. Are you still reading? Ok, good! Let’s get to it then. Here are the steps to become a chef:

Step 1: Go to Culinary School

A lot of chefs begin their careers by training at culinary schools, colleges or vocational schools. An advantage to training in a culinary arts program is that you will learn from the best, which will also help you to hone in on your skills.

You will also learn about the business and management end too. Both of those areas will come in useful if you decide to open your own restaurant or work your way up in a kitchen.

A degree is not required to become a chef, but you do have the option of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree as well as complete certification courses. These do look good on resumes and loan application for those that want to open a business.

The courses offered through culinary programs are super helpful as well. You can expect to learn about nutrition, culinary techniques, butchery pastry preparation and specialty cuisine practices.

Here are a few examples of schools with culinary arts degrees:

Sorry, we could not find any matching schools

Step 2: Get Working

Getting actual hands on work experience is just as important has going to culinary school. You can’t be an effective and skilled chef if you have no clue how to work in a kitchen and how one is run. When you are a newb in the culinary world you will likely start at the bottom and work your way up. This is a good thing. You may start as a kitchen assistant or a line cook, during which you will learn everything and anything you can. With experience will come advancement and you will eventually work your way up to the position you ultimately hope for.

If climbing the culinary ladder isn’t exactly floating your boat, you have other options. You can try to find an apprenticeship program instead. The American Culinary Federation (ACF) offers aspiring chefs the opportunity to sign on to apprenticeship programs that last about 2 to 3 years. During an apprenticeship you will be able to work full time with experienced chefs and you will certainly gain invaluable experience.

Step 3: Consider Certification

As we already mentioned, having a certification is not required by any state or federal mandates. It’s good for your competitive edge to give it a go, though. Certifications or degrees look really good on a resume and the culinary world is competitive. Why not give yourself the upper hand? You can be awarded certification on many levels from the ACF.

The requirements for certification will vary depending on what you are specializing in. For the most part you will be required to have a combination of education and experience as well as complete a written or practical examination. Some certifications will require you to re-certify every 5 years to keep your credentials up to snuff.

Important Qualities

Being a chef can be a great way to make a living and we want you to have all of the information that you need to be successful. With that in mind, we found out what some of the important qualities are of some of the world’s awesome chefs. We’d like to share those with you now, so take some notes and don’t worry if you don’t have all of these qualities yet, you still have time to learn them!

  • Business skills – If you want to be an executive chef or own your own restaurant you will want to have an understanding of how to run a business. Having some administrative knowledge, accounting and management skill will really help you run your business efficiently and effectively
  • Communication skills – Believe it or not, but communication is actually a huge part of being a good chef. Kitchens can be crazy busy places and everyone needs to know what they are supposed to do. That’s when the chef tells everyone what their assignments are and makes sure that everyone is on the same page
  • Creativity – It takes a good amount of creativity to come up with new and interesting recipes and menu ideas. You’re main goal will be to create menu items that taste fantastic and are interesting enough to make guests come back for more
  • Dexterity – This one pretty much goes without saying. You will be handling lots of knives and hot objects on a regular basis. If you’ve got a case of butterfingers you may want to get practicing now
  • Leadership skills – Leadership and communication somewhat go hand in hand here. You’re going to want to lift your kitchen staff up and motivate them. A great way to do this is through communicating what needs to be done, how it should be done and praising the good work that was carried out
  • Clear senses – You won’t be a very good chef if your taste buds are dull and if your sense of smell isn’t very good. A big part of being a good chef is tasting and smelling the dish as you go
  • Time management skills – This is another big one. We’re sure you’ve heard the expression “too many pots in the fire”, but as a chef this is a pretty true statement. You’ll need to have your timing of things down to a science or you’ll likely be left with cold or burned food


What Does a Chef Do?

As a chef you will take the lead in preparing food as well as direct the kitchen staff and handle any additional food related duties. Let’s take a more in depth look at what your daily duties will be as a chef:

  • Make sure that all food and ingredients are at the peak of freshness
  • Oversee and manage the daily activities and duties of the cooks and supporting food prep staff
  • Create recipes and manage the menu to bring the best dining experience to your guests
  • Ensure that the serving sizes of dishes and quality of food are up to par
  • Order supplies, inspect equipment and make sure that all of the areas in the kitchen are super clean and functioning properly
  • Hire, train and manage kitchen staff from the bottom to the top
  • Make sure that everyone in the restaurant is practicing safe and sanitary kitchen practices

There are different types of chefs and each has a slightly different job description. These are some examples are the types of chefs:

  • Executive chef and chefs de cuisine: These chefs are pretty much the commanders of the kitchen. They are in charge of coordinating what the rest of the chefs and cooking staff are doing and what they are cooking. These chefs do cook, but they have a lot of responsibilities to attend to and may not get to show their stuff as often as they’d like.
  • Sous chefs: Sous chefs are the assistant to the head chef. They are also there to make sure the kitchen staff is getting the job done and they get to do more of the cooking than the head chef usually does
  • Private household chefs: These chefs usually work for one person at a time and on a full time basis. Corporate executives, presidents, diplomats and celebrities are often employers of private chefs

How to Become a Chef without Culinary School

It’s totally possible to become a chef without ever stepping foot into a culinary school. It may make the process of finding a job a little more difficult, but you can still get where you want to go.

In place of culinary school you can take cooking classes that are offered at community colleges or community centers. You can also check with local restaurants for any open line cook or kitchen help positions. You’re still likely to learn a lot just from being in a kitchen environment and you’re bound to pick up some great tips and tricks.

Using your own kitchen as a place to learn will be key as well. You can find numerous tutorials and recipes online that will allow you to improve your skills too. Cooking for your family and friends is a good way to get feedback and test out new dishes and techniques. It will take a lot of work and dedication to become a chef without any culinary schooling, but you can do it!

How Much Does a Chef Make?

We supposed that you are wondering how much you’re going to make and if it will be worth the oven burns, sauce covered clothes and weary body after a long shift. Well we can’t exactly tell you if it’s worth it, but we can tell you what the salary expectations for chef’s is currently. Over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) site we go!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics had the answer to our question as predicted. According to the BLS and as of May 2013, the median salary for a chef is $42,490 annually or $20.43 an hour if you’d like to look at it that way. The BLS also reports that 10% of chefs earn $24,160 annually and we can assume that these earners are new to the field with less experience. There are also figures for the top 90% of earners, which we can also assume that these folks have more experience and may have been around the chopping block a time or twelve.

There are always going to be fluctuations in salary within positions and there are usually a variety of facts that may be responsible for it. The state, city and type of restaurant that you are employed at are all very likely reasons for salaries to fluctuate. Experience and schooling will also likely play a part as well. At least having the data from the BLS providing a national median gives us a better idea of what to expect, right?


Influential Chefs You Should Know About

The culinary world is full of wonderfully creative men and women that have redefined out chefs cook and how diners eat. We combed the internet high and low to find some influential chefs that fit the bill. We feel good about our choices and hope that they provide a little fire under your kettle.

Charles Trotter

Charles Trotter didn’t always intend to become a chef as his degree in political science would dictate. After he finished school, he worked in over 40 restaurants in Europe and the United States. He was inspired to open his own restaurant by Fredy Giradet’s in Luasanne, Switzerland. Trotter spent a good amount of time conceptualizing his first foray into the food world and finally opened Charlie Trotter’s in 1987. He was a pioneer at the time with his decision to only use locally sources food, which is now a standard for many restaurants. His restaurant was also one of the few Chicago based places to be noted in the Michelin guide, which soon made it a major food destination in the city. Sadly, Trotter’s 2012 decision to close the eater to travel paled his legacy. Trotter unexpectedly died in 2013 leaving his imprint on food and dining in Chicago.

Julia Child

We can’t even type her name without hearing ‘bon appetite” in her signature sing-song voice. You’d pretty much have to be living under a rock not to know about the incomparable Julia Child and if that is the case, it’s time to resurface to learn about her. Julia didn’t even think about becoming a chef until she turned 32, but she definitely managed to make a name for herself and bring French cuisine into the mainstream during her career. Since her passing in 2004 she remains a staple influence in the culinary world.

Anthony Bourdain

We are Anthony Bourdain fans over here and it’s likely because we like a bad boy and he is known as a culinary hellion. His no holds barred attitude about everything from food to Paula Dean has impacted the way foodies and chefs alike think, cook and eat. He put Brasserie Les Halles on the map during his time as executive chef and it’s still hard as heck to get a reservation there because of his cred. We now know Tony as a writer and television personality, but being a chef is always where his heart is.

What Does Bobby Flay Say? Watch this Video See

Take an extra 3 and a half minutes to watch this video that we found on YouTube. In the video, world famous chef, Bobby Flay lays it all out for us. He talks about how to become a professional chef and even describes his own journey to do so. It’s always nice to have the perspective of someone that has been through the paces and come out the other side. It’s worth watching, so do it! You can watch the video right below or by clicking here to go to the YouTube website.

“Chefisms” – Funny Things That Come With Being a Chef

The cooking world is like no other and the same goes for working as a chef. Take a look at some of the funny things that will become part of your life once you enter into a kitchen.

  • Blue Paper: The blue paper dispenser that is in the kitchen will quickly become your best friend and you will likely develop an obsession with it. Cut your finger? No problem, just wrap it in blue paper. Feeling sweaty? No problem, mop your brow with blue paper. Spilled something? No problem, blue paper to the rescue. The day will come when the blue paper dispenser is empty and you will weep a little inside.
  • Backs, Backs, Backs and More Backs: On an average day you will say, shout and hear the word “backs” more times that you’d think was humanly possible. This will become such a normal part of your daily lexicon that you’ll soon be shouting it at strangers on the street, people in the store and even at your dog.
  • The Outside World is a Weird Place: Life in a kitchen is full of constant hustling and bustling. There is only one speed in a kitchen and that is hyper speed. When you step out into the regular world after a shift or on your day off, it can feel a bit like you ran into a wall. Everything seems like it moves in slow motion and you’ll likely be left wondering why the heck it takes people so long to do anything.
  • Meet Your Kryptonite – Say Hello to Cling Wrap and Tin Foil: Sure, all of us regular Joes think that these two things are great and super useful. To a chef they are pure evil and designed just to make your life difficult. Ok, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you catch our drift. The day that you triumph over the cling wrap, will be a day that you tell your grandkids about.
  • Spoons, Glorious Spoons: We know that you probably think we are totally nuts now, but spoons are a seriously hot commodity in a kitchen. Once you get your hands on a spoon, do not, we repeat do not let it out of your sight…Ever! You’ll use spoons to taste, stir, ladle and scoop a variety of things. Trust us, guard your spoons as if they were your children.
  • What is This Doing in My Pocket: At the end of the day you are likely to find some pretty odd stuff hanging out in your pockets. It won’t be uncommon to reach into your pocket and pull out spoons, cling warp, tin foil and of course blue paper.
  • Why Am I Doing This: There will be days when you are so bone achingly tired and bleary eyed that you will seriously wonder why you chose this as a profession. Some days an office job with a comfy chair will seem like heaven. Then you will remember that you chose to be a chef because you love food, you love to cook and you want other people to feel, see and taste that passion in every course you serve them.
  • The Reason You Are Doing This: You will remember exactly why you are doing this when your Head Chef pays you a compliment or when a quest raves about a dish. This is why you go home exhausted, brain dead and smelly. This is why you sleep for a few hours and get up to do it all over again.

Final Grade

Take your apron off and put your knives down, kiddos! It’s time for our final grade on becoming a chef!

Degree vs. Debt: B

We are going to go with a middle of the road response here mostly because you don’t have to spend a ton on a degree or certificate since it’s not required. The salary expectation for chefs isn’t too bad and any loans that you take out for school will be doable when it comes time to pay them back.

Difficulty of Degree: A

Well for starters, you don’t actually have to earn a degree to become a chef and even when you do, it’s not too hard. It’s a lot of work, but nothing too labor or brain intensive. In fact, it seems like it might be a pretty fun way to earn a degree.

Happiness Quotient: B-

Sometimes you will love this job and sometimes you won’t. Being a chef is more than just a job and can almost be seen as a lifestyle choice. You will eat, sleep and dream food. The long hours, less than stellar pay and job growth are not so hot. There is another side of the coin though. You get to do what you love and provide people with excellent food. Those are two major pluses in the happiness category.

Job Outlook: C-

All we have to say about the job outlook for chefs is: ouch. Seriously, we are not going to try to demi glace this for you. The BLS is only projecting that the job growth for chefs to be about 5% from 2012 to 2022. That’s much lower than the average for all other occupations and that’s a pretty big bummer if you ask us.

Sources and Recommended Reading

We’ve got sources for you to sample and we hope you have the tasting spoons ready! As we are sure you can imagine, there was next to zero chance of giving you every finite detail that we wanted to about how to become a chef. We are making up for it though and leaving a breadcrumb trail for you to follow. Click away to see what other interesting bits of information that is out there for you!

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