How to Become a Chef or Head Cook
Most chefs and head cooks learn their skills through work experience.
To enter the occupation, chefs and head cooks typically need a high school diploma plus experience. Some attend a culinary program at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or 4-year college. Others learn through apprenticeship programs or in the Armed Forces.
Chefs and head cooks are typically required to have a high school diploma or equivalent to enter the occupation. Although they are not always required to have postsecondary education, many attend programs at community colleges, technical schools, culinary arts schools, and 4-year colleges.
Students in culinary programs spend most of their time in kitchens, practicing their cooking skills. Programs cover all aspects of kitchen work, including menu planning, food sanitation procedures, and purchasing and inventory methods. Most programs also require students to gain experience in a commercial kitchen through an internship or apprenticeship program.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Chefs and head cooks often start by working in other positions, such as line cooks, learning cooking skills from the chefs they work for. Many spend years working in kitchens before gaining enough experience to be promoted to chef or head cook positions.
Some chefs and head cooks train on the job, where they learn the same skills as in a formal education program. Some train in mentorship programs, where they work under the direction of an experienced chef. Executive chefs, head cooks, and sous chefs who work in upscale restaurants often have many years of training and experience.
Chefs and head cooks also may learn through apprenticeship programs sponsored by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, or trade unions. The American Culinary Federation accredits many training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs. Some of the apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Apprenticeship programs generally combine instruction and on-the-job training. Apprentices typically receive both instruction and paid on-the-job training. Instruction usually covers food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. Apprentices spend the rest of their training learning practical skills in a commercial kitchen under a chef’s supervision.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Some states and localities require chefs and head cooks to have a food handler’s certification. For more information, contact your state or local licensing board.
Although not required, other types of certification may lead to advancement and higher pay. The American Culinary Federation certifies various levels of chefs, such as certified sous chefs and certified executive chefs. Certification standards are based primarily on work experience and formal training.
Business skills. Executive chefs and chefs who run their own restaurant need to know how to budget for supplies, set prices, and manage workers so that the restaurant is profitable.
Communication skills. Chefs must convey their instructions clearly and effectively to staff so that patrons' orders are prepared correctly.
Creativity. Chefs and head cooks need to develop and prepare interesting and innovative recipes.
Dexterity. Chefs and head cooks need agility to handle knives properly for cutting, chopping, and dicing.
Leadership skills. Chefs and head cooks must be able to motivate kitchen staff and to develop constructive and cooperative working relationships.
Physical stamina. Chefs and head cooks often work long shifts and sometimes spend entire evenings on their feet, overseeing the preparation and serving of meals.
Sense of taste and smell. Chefs and head cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell in order to inspect food quality and to design meals that their patrons will enjoy.
Time-management skills. Chefs and head cooks must ensure efficiency in meal preparation and service, especially during busy hours.