Professional chefs are experienced cooks who can plan, prepare and make interesting and tasty food for restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels and other businesses. Depending on the role, they might specialize in a type of food such as pastries or handle a full menu. Professional chefs also help maintain the kitchen and may have additional business duties such as marketing or human resources management. Since they can work in a variety of businesses and hold different job titles, a professional chef income can vary widely based on experience, location and work setting. Generally, kitchen chef earnings fall on the lower end of the pay scale, while executive chefs make more for their culinary expertise and leadership duties.
According to May 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional chefs earn an average wage of $49,650, with most earning between $25,020 and $78,570. Job title, establishment, location and experience have an impact on actual pay.
Professional chefs have the responsibility of designing new dishes, creating menus and making tasty food that is cooked safely. When preparing food, they closely follow safety protocols to ensure that all cooking equipment and supplies are sanitary and that the food is cooked to a safe temperature. They also order supplies and ingredients, maintain the cooking tools and equipment and keep track of the inventory. Executive chefs and sous chefs may oversee, direct and train cooks. Self-employed professional chefs have the added responsibilities of marketing themselves to clients, providing customer service and handling scheduling for events. Successful professional chefs are comfortable multitasking in a busy kitchen. They are also creative and have a good sense of what qualities make food taste good.
There are multiple ways to pursue a career as a professional chef. Many chefs are high school graduates who gain their basic cooking skills through line cook positions and become chefs through promotion. Others obtain a formal education through a culinary arts program at a college, university or culinary institute. Chef training programs can range from short-term courses to four-year bachelor's degree programs, and a common component is an externship working in a kitchen. Another option is to participate in a two-year, hands-on apprenticeship through an industry organization. Once experienced, professional chefs can take additional training and obtain a specialty certification through the American Culinary Federation.
While more than half of professional chefs work in restaurants, they can find employment in such diverse places as nursing homes, schools, hotels, casinos, amusement parks and people's homes. These chefs work in a busy kitchen alongside other cooks. Chefs who prefer working independently can start their own businesses and make food for special events for companies and individuals. Due to their increased responsibilities, professional chefs tend to work overtime and have irregular work hours, including on holidays when restaurants can get busy. Self-employed chefs also have to spend additional time handling business tasks.
Years of Experience
As of May 2017, the BLS states that the median professional chef annual salary is $45,950, which means that half make lower earnings and half make higher earnings. The lowest-paid 10 percent of professional chefs make less than $25,020, but the highest-paid 10 percent earn over $78,570. What a chef makes varies by establishment and location. Average chef earnings are $46,100 working at restaurants, $58,170 at lodging facilities and $51,620 in food services. California chefs earn top pay of $52,720 on average, while New Mexico chefs average only $43,510.
Professional chefs can hold different job titles depending on experience and establishment, and their wages typically reflect their experience. For example, PayScale.com reports in October 2018 that kitchen chefs earn on average $26,000 at first and make an average of $31,000 with 10-to-20 years of experience. In contrast, an executive chef salary on average starts around $45,000 but grows to $59,000 with 10-to-20 years of experience.
Job Growth Trend
Increased demand for healthier and higher quality meals will provide professional chefs with 10-percent job growth between 2016 and 2026, notes the BLS. This faster-than-average job growth creates an estimated 14,100 new chef positions. Job prospects and competition vary by work environment and professional background. The outlook is good for chefs since turnover opens up many positions for those with cooking experience. However, chefs who want to work in lodging facilities and high-end restaurants particularly can expect high competition for positions, so they need significant work experience and creativity to stand out.