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Chef Training, Qualifications, and Advancement

Most chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers start as fast-food or short-order cooks, or in other lower skilled kitchen positions. These positions require little education or training, and most skills are learned on the job. After acquiring some basic food handling, preparation, and cooking skills, these workers may be able to advance to an assistant cook position.

chef trainingAlthough a high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs, it is recommended for those planning a career as a cook or chef. High school or vocational school courses in business arithmetic and business administration are particularly helpful. Many school districts, in cooperation with State departments of education, provide on-the-job training and summer workshops for cafeteria kitchen workers with aspirations of becoming cooks. Large corporations in the food service and hotel industries also offer paid internships and summer jobs, which can provide valuable experience.

To achieve the level of skill required of an executive chef or cook in a fine restaurant, many years of training and experience are necessary. An increasing number of chefs and cooks obtain their training through high school, post-high school vocational programs, or 2- or 4-year colleges. Chefs and cooks also may be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions.

An example is the 3-year apprenticeship program administered by local chapters of the American Culinary Federation in cooperation with local employers and junior colleges or vocational education institutions. In addition, some large hotels and restaurants operate their own training programs for cooks and chefs. People who have had courses in commercial food preparation may be able to start in a cook or chef job without having to spend time in a lower skilled kitchen job. Their education may give them an advantage when looking for jobs in better restaurants and hotels, where hiring standards often are high.

Although some vocational programs in high schools offer training, employers usually prefer training given by trade schools, vocational centers, colleges, professional associations, or trade unions. Postsecondary courses range from a few months to 2 years or more and are open, in some cases, only to high school graduates. About 8 to 15 years as a cook is required to become a fully qualified chef. Those who gain experience, including in a supervisory capacity, may become executive chefs with responsibility for more than one kitchen. The U.S. Armed Forces also are a good source of training and experience.

Although curricula may vary, students in these programs usually spend most of their time learning to prepare food through actual practice. They learn to bake, broil, and otherwise prepare food, and to use and care for kitchen equipment. Training programs often include courses in menu planning, determination of portion size, food cost control, purchasing food supplies in quantity, selection and storage of food, and use of leftover food to minimize waste. Students also learn hotel and restaurant sanitation and public health rules for handling food.

Training in supervisory and management skills sometimes is emphasized in courses offered by private vocational schools, professional associations, and university programs. Across the Nation , a number of schools offer culinary courses. The American Culinary Federation has accredited over 100 training programs and a offers a number of apprenticeship programs around the country. Typical apprenticeships last three years and combine classroom and work experience. Accreditation is an indication that a culinary program meets recognized standards regarding course content, facilities, and quality of instruction.

The American Culinary Federation also certifies pastry professionals, culinary educators, and chefs and cooks at the levels of cook, working chef, executive chef, and master chef. Certification standards are based primarily on experience and formal training. Important characteristics for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers include the ability to work as part of a team, a keen sense of taste and smell, and personal cleanliness. Most States require health certificates indicating that workers are free from communicable diseases. Advancement opportunities for chefs and cooks are better than for most other food and beverage preparation and service occupations. Many chefs and cooks acquire high-paying positions and new cooking skills by moving from one job to another.

Besides culinary skills, advancement also depends on ability to supervise less skilled workers and limit food costs by minimizing waste and accurately anticipating the amount of perishable supplies needed. Some chefs and cooks go into business as caterers or restaurant owners, while others become instructors in vocational programs in high schools, community colleges, or other academic institutions.

A number of cooks and chefs advance to executive chef positions or supervisory or management positions, particularly in hotels, clubs, and larger, more elegant restaurants.

Job Outlook

Job openings for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are expected to be plentiful through 2010. While job growth will create new positions, the overwhelming majority of job openings will stem from the need to replace workers who leave this large occupational group. Minimal educational and training requirements, combined with a large number of part-time positions, make employment as chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers attractive to people seeking a short-term source of income and a flexible schedule.

In coming years, these workers will continue to transfer to other occupations or stop working to assume household responsibilities or to attend school full time, creating numerous openings for those entering the field. Job openings stemming from replacement needs will be supplemented by new openings resulting from employment growth, as overall employment of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations over the 2000-10 period.

Employment growth will be spurred by increases in population, household income, and leisure time that will allow people to dine out and take vacations more often. In addition, growth in the number of two-income households will lead more families to opt for the convenience of dining out. Projected employment growth, however, varies by specialty. Increases in the number of families and the more affluent, 55-and-older population will lead to more restaurants that offer table service and more varied menus-resulting in faster-than-average growth among higher-skilled restaurant cooks.

As more Americans choose more full-service restaurants, employment of fast-food cooks is expected to decline and employment of short-order cooks, most of whom work in fast-food restaurants, is expected to grow more slowly than average. Duties of cooks in fast-food restaurants are limited; most workers are likely to be combined food preparation and serving workers, rather than fast-food cooks. In addition, fast-food restaurants increasingly offer healthier prepared foods, further reducing the need for cooks.

Employment of institution and cafeteria chefs and cooks also will grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. Their employment will not keep pace with the rapid growth in the educational and health services industries-where their employment is concentrated. In an effort to make "institutional food" more attractive to students, staff, visitors, and patients, high schools and hospitals increasingly contract out their food services. Many of the contracted food service companies emphasize simple menu items and employ short-order cooks, instead of institution and cafeteria cooks, reducing the demand for these workers.

Related Occupations

Workers who perform tasks similar to those of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers include food processing occupations such as butchers and meat cutters, and bakers.

Sources of Additional Information
Disclaimer: Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information about job opportunities may be obtained from local employers and local offices of the State employment service. Career information about chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers, as well as a directory of 2- and 4-year colleges that offer courses or programs that prepare persons for food service careers, is available from: The National Restaurant Association, 1200 17th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-3097. Internet:

For information on the American Culinary Federation's apprenticeship and certification programs for cooks, as well as a list of accredited culinary programs, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: The American Culinary Federation, 10 San Bartola Dr., St. Augustine, FL 32085. Internet:

For general information on hospitality careers, contact: The International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education, 3205 Skipwith Rd., Richmond, VA 23294-4442. Internet:

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