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Learn to Cook Professionally: Career Info and Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a professional cook. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about training, job duties and licensing to find out if this is the career for you.

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A professional cook works works in a kitchen preparing food for service. They can work in a variety of establishments in the food service industry. Many get on-the-job training, but professional culinary education programs are available.

Essential Information

Professional cooks prepare a variety of food in restaurants, schools, hospitals and other places where food is served. Their jobs involve preparing food per order or in large quantities by cleaning, cutting, cooking and storing food. The amount of training necessary for becoming a professional cook varies according to the type of position and establishment in which one works.

Required Education On-the-job training
Other Requirements Cooking schools for advanced positions
Projected Job Growth 4% from 2014-2024*
Median Salary (2015) $23,100 annually for restaurant cooks*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Opportunities for Professional Cooks

Professional cooks work in the food service industry as restaurant and take-out cooks, short order cooks, cafeteria cooks and food preparation workers. In general, all aspiring cooks must work their way up the culinary ladder. Beginners work basic, entry-level kitchen positions as busboys, assistant cooks or line workers in restaurants. These positions generally involve routine work that requires less skill, such as washing and cutting produce, cleaning work stations and monitoring oven temperatures.

With experience, entry-level cooks take on more responsibility and prepare menu items, focusing on salads, appetizers, side dishes, deserts and finally entrees. After years of experience, further training and demonstrating an ability to take on more complex cooking tasks, cooks may become head cooks, chefs or executive chefs in restaurants and other food service establishments. Advancement is also possible by moving to a bigger, busier or more up-scale restaurant.

Head cooks and chefs may become restaurant managers, instructors of culinary training programs or open up a restaurant or catering business. The American Culinary Federation offers professional certification, a credential that can help chefs advance to higher-level positions and earn better salaries.

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Job Description

The responsibilities of cooks vary depending on the type of position and the size of the establishment. In general, professional cooks are responsible for cutting, mixing, seasoning and decorating food items using a variety of ingredients and kitchen equipment. Cooks work long hours, including nights and weekends, and are on their feet for long periods of time with few breaks. Some cooks work in high stress environments, especially those in large, busy restaurants, while others work in slower, smaller kitchens, such as in grocery stores and cafeterias.

Chefs, head cooks and food preparation supervisors are responsible for the daily operation of the business and manage all cooks in the kitchen. Their duties include preparing kitchen schedules and ordering food and kitchen supplies. They have more opportunities to use their creativity and knowledge of food to create new recipes and design menus.

Training Information

On-the-job training is the most common way to learn how to cook. Certain types of cooks can get jobs with little or no former training and without a high school diploma, such as short order cooks and fast food cooks. However, restaurant cooks and others wanting to take on more responsibilities typically have a high school diploma and postsecondary training. In high school, students can take cooking classes offered at their school and get a job in a restaurant to learn how restaurants operate.

Lasting anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, training programs are offered in vocational or trade schools, cooking schools and college degree programs. Some large hotels, restaurants and the Armed Forces run their own training programs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), a growing number of chefs take part in training programs sponsored by independent cooking schools, culinary institutes or culinary art departments.

Training programs concentrate on hands-on cooking practice and may include courses in nutrition, menu planning and food handling and storage procedures. Students commonly complete an apprenticeship or internship where they are mentored by a head cook or chef. Certificate and degree programs offered by cooking schools, culinary institutes and colleges may also offer specialty training in fine-dining, ethnic cuisines and cooking for large groups, such as banquets, buffets and parties. Those wanting to work as restaurant managers or restaurant owners often take business classes as part of their training.

Professional cooks are usually trained on-the-job, but programs are available to train cooks, which may also aid in career advancement. Training programs may be part of employment with a hotel or restaurant, or may be part of a cooking school or college degree program. In addition to cooking skills, the job requires long hours, physical stamina and an ability to handle stressful situations.

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