Career Guide for Cooks

Cooks work under the direction of chefs to prepare and cook meals ordered by customers. There are a variety of levels of cooks working in a restaurant – responsible for different types of dishes or elements of dishes.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a cook.

Cook Summary

  • Many cooks and food preparation workers are young—35 percent are below the age of 24.
  • One-third of these workers are employed part time.
  • Job openings are expected to be plentiful because many of these workers will leave the occupation for full-time employment or better wages.

Working as a Cook

Cooks and food preparation workers prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods—from soups, snacks, and salads to entrees, side dishes, and desserts. They work in a variety of restaurants, as well as other places where food is served, such as grocery stores, schools and hospitals. Cooks prepare and cook meals while food preparation workers assist cooks by performing tasks, such as peeling and cutting vegetables, trimming meat, preparing poultry, and keeping work areas clean and monitoring temperatures of ovens and stovetops.

Specifically, cooks measure, mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes, using a variety of equipment, including pots, pans, cutlery, ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders. Food preparation workers perform routine, repetitive tasks under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food preparation and serving supervisors. These workers prepare the ingredients for complex dishes by slicing and dicing vegetables, and making salads and cold items. They weigh and measure ingredients, retrieve pots and pans, and stir and strain soups and sauces. Food preparation workers may also cut and grind meats, poultry, and seafood in preparation for cooking. They also clean work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware.

Larger restaurants and food service establishments tend to have varied menus and larger kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant or line cooks, each work an assigned station that is equipped with the types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients needed for the foods prepared at that station. Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient prepared or the type of cooking performed—vegetable cookfry cook, or grill cook, for example. Chefs, head cooks, or food preparation and serving supervisors generally direct the work of cooks and food preparation workers.

The number, type, and responsibilities of cooks vary depending on where they work, the size of the facility, and the complexity and level of service offered. Institution and cafeteria cooks, for example, work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts according to preset menus. Meals are generally prepared in advance so diners seldom get the opportunity to special order a meal. Restaurant cooks usually prepare a wider selection of dishes, cooking most orders individually. Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They grill and garnish hamburgers, prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook French fries, often working on several orders at the same time. Fast food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served.

Work environment. Many restaurant and institutional kitchens have modern equipment, convenient work areas, and air conditioning, but kitchens in older and smaller eating places are often not as well designed. Kitchen staffs invariably work in small quarters against hot stoves and ovens. They are under constant pressure to prepare meals quickly, while ensuring quality is maintained and safety and sanitation guidelines are observed. Because the pace can be hectic during peak dining times, workers must be able to communicate clearly so that food orders are completed correctly.

Working conditions vary with the type and quantity of food prepared and the local laws governing food service operations. Workers usually must stand for hours at a time, lifting heavy pots and kettles, and working near hot ovens and grills. The incidence of reported injuries for institution and cafeteria cooks, restaurant cooks, and food preparation workers was comparatively high compared to all occupations, but job hazards, such as falls, cuts, and burns, are seldom serious.

Work hours in restaurants may include early mornings, late evenings, holidays, and weekends. Work schedules of cooks and food preparation workers in factory and school cafeterias may be more regular. In 2008, 31 percent of cooks and almost half of food preparation workers had part-time schedules, compared to 16 percent of workers throughout the economy. Work schedules in fine-dining restaurants, however, tend to be longer because of the time required to prepare ingredients in advance.

The wide range in dining hours and the need for fully-staffed kitchens during all open hours creates work opportunities for students, youth, and other individuals seeking supplemental income, flexible work hours, or variable schedules. Sixteen percent of cooks and food preparation workers were 16 to 19 years old in 2008 and another 18 percent were aged 20 to 24. Kitchen workers employed by schools may work during the school year only, usually for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, resort establishments usually only offer seasonal employment.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

On-the-job training is the most common method of learning for cooks and food preparation workers; however, restaurant cooks and other cooks who want to take on more advanced cooking duties often attend cooking school. Vocational training programs are available to many high school students and may lead to positions in restaurants. Experience, enthusiasm, and a desire to learn are the most common requirements for advancement to higher skilled cooking jobs or positions in higher paying restaurants.

Education and training. A high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs but is recommended for those planning a career in food services. Most fast-food or short-order cooks and food preparation workers learn their skills on the job. Training generally starts with basic sanitation and workplace safety regulations and continues with instruction on food handling, preparation, and cooking procedures.

Although most cooks and food preparation workers learn on the job, students with an interest in food service may be able to take high school or vocational school courses in kitchen basics and food safety and handling procedures. Additional training opportunities are also offered by many State employment services agencies and local job counseling centers. For example, many school districts, in cooperation with State departments of education, provide on-the-job training and summer workshops for cafeteria kitchen workers who aspire to become cooks.

When hiring restaurant cooks, employers usually prefer applicants who have training after high school. These training programs range from a few months to 2 years or more. Vocational or trade-school programs typically offer basic training in food handling and sanitation procedures, nutrition, slicing and dicing methods for various kinds of meats and vegetables, and basic cooking techniques, such as baking, broiling, and grilling. Longer certificate or degree granting programs, through independent cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, or college degree programs, train cooks who aspire to more responsible positions in fine-dining or upscale restaurants. They offer a wider array of training specialties, such as advanced cooking techniques; cooking for banquets, buffets, or parties; and cuisines and cooking styles from around the world. Some large hotels, restaurants, and the Armed Forces operate their own training and job-placement programs.

Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may also sponsor formal apprenticeship programs for cooks in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 formal academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeship programs around the country. Typical apprenticeships last 2 years and combine classroom training and work experience. Accreditation is an indication that a culinary program meets recognized standards regarding course content, facilities, and quality of instruction.

Other qualifications. Cooks and food preparation workers must be efficient, quick, and work well as part of a team. Manual dexterity is helpful for cutting, chopping, and plating. These workers also need creativity and a keen sense of taste and smell. Personal cleanliness is essential because most States require health certificates indicating that workers are free from communicable diseases. Knowledge of a foreign language can be an asset because it may improve communication with other restaurant staff, vendors, and the restaurant’s clientele.

Certification and advancement. The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs in different skill levels. For cooks seeking certification and advancement to higher-level chef positions, certification can help to demonstrate accomplishment and lead to higher-paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks and food preparation workers depend on their training, work experience, and ability to perform more responsible and sophisticated tasks. Many food preparation workers, for example, may move into assistant or line cook positions or take on more complex food preparation tasks. Cooks who demonstrate an eagerness to learn new cooking skills and to accept greater responsibility may also advance and be asked to train or supervise lesser skilled kitchen staff. Some may become head cooks, chefs, or food preparation and serving supervisors.  Others may find it necessary to move to other restaurants, often larger or more prestigious ones, in order to advance.

Employment as a Cook

Cooks and food preparation workers held 3.0 million jobs in 2008. The distribution of jobs among the various types of cooks and food preparation workers was as follows:

Cooks, restaurant 914,200
Food preparation workers 891,900
Cooks, fast food 566,000
Cooks, institution and cafeteria 391,800
Cooks, short order 171,400
Cooks, private household 4,900
Cooks, all other 18,000

Two thirds of all cooks and food preparation workers were employed in restaurants and other food services and drinking places. About 16 percent worked in institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, and nursing care facilities. Grocery stores and hotels employed most of the remainder.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for cooks and food preparation workers are expected to be good because of high turnover and the need to replace the workers who leave these occupations. The enjoyment of eating out and a preference for ready-made meals from a growing population will cause employment of these workers to increase, but slower than the average rate for all occupations over the 2008–18 decade.

Employment change. Employment of cooks and food preparation workers is expected to increase by 6 percent over the 2008–18 decade, more slowly than the average for all occupations. People will continue to enjoy eating out and taking meals home. In response, more restaurants will open and nontraditional food service operations, such as those found inside grocery and convenience stores, will serve more prepared food items. Other places that have dining rooms and cafeterias–such as schools, hospitals, and residential care facilities for the elderly–will open new or expanded food service operations to meet the needs of their growing customer base.

Among food services and drinking places, special food services, which include caterers and food service operators who often provide meals in hospitals, office buildings, or sporting venues on a contract basis, are expected to grow the fastest during the projection period. These companies typically employ large numbers of cafeteria and institution cooks and other cooks who perform cooking duties; employment in these occupations is expected to grow 10 percent (about as fast as the average) and 16 percent (faster than the average), respectively.

Full-service restaurants also will continue to attract patrons and grow in number, but not as fast as the previous decade. As restaurants increase their focus on the carryout business, cooks and food preparation workers will be needed to compete with limited service restaurants and grocery stores. Employment of restaurant cooks is expected to show average growth (8 percent).

Limited service eating places, such as fast-food restaurants, sandwich and coffee shops, and other eating places without table service, also are expected to grow during the projection period, as people place greater emphasis on value, quick service, and carryout capability. This will generate greater demand for fast-food cooks. Employment of fast food cooks is expected to increase by 7 percent (average growth).

Employment of private household cooks should grow 4 percent, or more slowly than the average for all occupations, and employment of short-order cooks is expected to grow by less than 1 percent, which represents little to no change.

Food preparation workers are expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations, or 4 percent. As restaurants and quick service eating places find more efficient ways of preparing meals–such as at central kitchens that may serve multiple outlets or in wholesale and distribution facilities that wash, portion, and season ingredients–food preparation will become simpler, allowing these lower-skilled workers to take on more varied tasks in a growing number of eating places. Additionally, foods requiring simple preparation will increasingly be sold at convenience stores, snack shops, and in grocery stores, which also will employ food preparation workers.

Job prospects. In spite of slower-than-average employment growth, job opportunities for cooks and food preparation workers are expected to be good, primarily because of the very large number of workers that will need to be replaced because of high turnover. Because many of these jobs are part time, people often leave for full-time positions. Individuals seeking full-time positions at high-end restaurants might encounter competition as the number of job applicants exceeds the number of job openings. Generally, there is lower turnover for full-time jobs and at established restaurants that pay well.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Cooks and food preparation workers 35-2000 2,958,100 3,149,600 191,500 6
Cooks 35-2010 2,066,200 2,220,000 153,800 7
Cooks, fast food 35-2011 566,000 608,400 42,400 7
Cooks, institution and cafeteria 35-2012 391,800 429,700 37,900 10
Cooks, private household 35-2013 4,900 5,100 200 4
Cooks, restaurant 35-2014 914,200 984,400 70,300 8
Cooks, short order 35-2015 171,400 171,500 100 0
Cooks, all other 35-2019 18,000 20,900 2,900 16
Food preparation workers 35-2021 891,900 929,600 37,800 4
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded

Earnings for Cooks

Earnings of cooks and food preparation workers vary greatly by region and the type of employer. Earnings usually are highest in fine dining restaurants and nicer hotels that have more exacting work standards. These restaurants are usually found in greater numbers in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Median annual wages of cooks, private household were $24,070 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,030 and $36,590. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $16,230, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $56,280.

Median annual wages of institution and cafeteria cooks were $22,210 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,850 and $27,460. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,220, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33,050. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of institution and cafeteria cooks were:

General medical and surgical hospitals $25,070
Special food services 23,550
Community care facilities for the elderly 22,910
Nursing care facilities 22,140
Elementary and secondary schools 20,460

Median annual wages of restaurant cooks were $21,990 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $18,230 and $26,150. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $31,330. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of restaurant cooks were:

Traveler accommodation $25,570
Other amusement and recreation industries 24,760
Special food services 24,180
Drinking places (alcoholic beverages) 22,210
Full-service restaurants 21,770
Limited-service eating places 19,060

Median annual wages of short-order cooks were $19,260 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,280 and $23,450. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,740, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $27,630. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of short-order cooks were:

Full-service restaurants $19,600
Drinking places (alcoholic beverages) 19,550
Grocery stores 19,540
Other amusement and recreation industries 18,720
Limited-service eating places 17,910

Median annual wages of food preparation workers were $18,630 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,180 and $22,500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $27,440. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest number of food preparation workers were:

Grocery stores $19,580
Full-service restaurants 18,580
Limited-service eating places 16,790

Median annual wages of fast-food cooks were $16,880 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $15,470 and $19,240. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,090, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22,080. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest number of fast-food cooks were:

Grocery stores $19,180
Full-service restaurants 17,250
Limited-service eating places 16,820
Gasoline stations 16,640

Some employers provide employees with uniforms and free meals, but Federal law permits employers to deduct from their employees’ wages the cost or fair value of any meals or lodging provided, and some employers do so. Cooks and food preparation workers who work full time often receive typical benefits, but part-time and hourly workers usually do not.

In some large hotels and restaurants, kitchen workers belong to unions. The principal unions are the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union and the Service Employees International Union.

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