Meal Preparation Professional: Career Overview & Requirements

Find out what meal preparation professionals do. See what the education and training requirements are. Learn about career prospects and earning potential to decide if this field is a good fit for you.

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Career Definition for Meal Preparation Professionals

Meal preparation professionals include chefs, short order cooks, cafeteria workers, and caterers. Most meal preparation professionals get their start as prep cooks, cleaning and chopping vegetables, grinding meat and poultry, and preparing ingredients for use by kitchen staff. Prep cooks are often promoted to line cooks, who actually prepare the food; line cooks generally specialize in one area at a time (such as grilling or sauteing) or one type of food (such as fish, meat, or poultry). After mastering each section on the line, he or she may be promoted to sous-chef, the hands-on manager of the kitchen who oversees staff and controls inventory. An executive chef, sometimes known as the chef de cuisine, creates the menu and interacts with restaurant management. Meal preparation professionals are employed throughout the U.S. as personal chefs, corporate chefs, private caterers, fast food cooks, culinary instructors, and pastry professionals.

Head chefs and head cooks Restaurant cooks Short order cooks Fast food cooks Institutional or cafeteria cooks
Required Education High school diploma or equivalent plus on-the-job training; associate's degree in culinary arts preferred by some employers ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '
Job Skills Teamwork skills, communication skills, creativity, an understanding of culinary arts, strong sense of taste and smell, technically skilled with kitchen tools, manual dexterity ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '
Median Salary (2015)* $41,500 $23,100 $20,780 $19,080 $23,960
Job Outlook (2014-2024)* 9% 14% -5% -15% 6%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Educational Requirements

Many employers provide on-the-job training for entry-level positions to applicants with a high school diploma or GED; however, some employers may prefer an associate's degree in culinary arts. Degree programs are offered through vocational schools and culinary institutes and may take 2-4 years to complete. They often include an apprenticeship or internship as well as coursework in food preparation and handling, menu planning, nutrition, and food service management. The American Culinary Foundation (ACF) offers 14 types of voluntary certification based on experience, education, and area of expertise, which may enhance career opportunities (www.acfchefs.org).

Required Skills

Meal preparation professionals must be team players and good communicators who are able to work quickly and accurately in high-pressure situations. They should be creative with an understanding of culinary arts, have a strong sense of taste and smell, and be technically skilled with kitchen tools and equipment such as knives, burners, and ovens. Prep cooks and line cooks must have good hand dexterity and be able to stand for long periods of time in hot, enclosed spaces.

Economic Forecast and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that employment of all cooks will increase 4%, employment of chefs and head cooks will increase 9%, restaurant cook positions will increase by 14%, short order cook positions will decrease by 5%, employment of fast food cooks will decrease by 15%, and institutional or cafeteria cooks will see 6% job growth from 2014-2024 (www.bls.gov). Salaries vary by employer, venue, and position. The BLS reported that chefs and head cooks earned a median annual salary of $41,500 in 2015, while restaurant cooks earned $23,100, short order cooks earned $20,780, fast food cooks earned $19,080, and institutional or cafeteria cooks earned $23,960.

Alternate Career Options

Similar career options in this field include:

Food Service Manager

Food service managers oversee the kitchens and dining rooms of restaurants or related food-serving locations. They hire, train, and schedule staff; keep track of food and supply inventories; uphold health and food safety standards; address customer complaints; and handle financial record keeping. Employers may require education ranging from a high school diploma to a college degree in restaurant or hospitality management. On-the-job training is common, and voluntary professional certification is available. The BLS predicts that the number of food service management jobs will increase at about an as-fast-as-average rate from 2014-2024, with an increase of 5% expected. This occupation paid a median salary of $48,690 in 2015, per the BLS.

Host or Hostess

The job of a host or hostess in a restaurant is primarily customer service-driven. He or she takes or modifies reservations; greets customers when they arrive; shows customers where to sit, hang their coats, or find the restrooms; and offers menus. A host or hostess may also assist customers with special requests, such as planning a party or arranging for a birthday cake. There are no minimum education requirements for employment as a host or hostess; on-the-job training is typical. The BLS reports that jobs for hosts and hostesses who work in restaurants, lounges, or coffee shops are expected to increase 4% from 2014-2024, and that these jobs paid a median hourly wage of $9.22, or $19,180 annually; part-time work is common in this occupation.

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