Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training and work-related experience. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.
Vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and some colleges offer culinary programs for aspiring cooks. These programs generally last from a few months to 2 years and may offer courses in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and various cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.
Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Trainees generally first learn kitchen basics and workplace safety and then learn how to handle and cook food.
Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may sponsor such programs for cooks. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef.
The American Culinary Federation accredits many academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:
- Minimum age of 17
- High school education or equivalent
Some hotels and a number of restaurants offer their own training programs.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker, learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.
The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs, personal chefs, pastry chefs, and culinary administrators, among others. For cooks seeking advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.
Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare more complex dishes. Those who learn new cooking skills and who handle greater responsibility, such as supervising kitchen staff in the absence of a chef, often advance. Some cooks may train or supervise kitchen staff, and some may become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.
Comprehension. Cooks need to understand orders and follow recipes to prepare dishes correctly.
Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to use proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.
Physical stamina. Cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.
Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.
What Cooks Do
Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods, which may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.
Cooks typically do the following:
- Ensure the freshness of food and ingredients
- Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
- Bake, grill, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
- Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
- Arrange, garnish, and sometimes serve food
- Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, and dishes
- Cook, handle, and store food or ingredients
Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers. Large restaurants and food service establishments often have multiple menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.
Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example.
Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.
The responsibilities of cooks vary depending on the type of food service establishment, the size of the facility, and the level of service offered. However, in all establishments, they follow sanitation procedures when handling food. For example, they store food and ingredients at the correct temperatures to prevent bacterial growth.
The following are examples of types of cooks:
Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies and help maintain the stock room.
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. For more information on workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.
Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. Although they typically prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, according to preset menus, they do sometimes customize meals according to diners’ dietary considerations.
Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.
Private household cooks, sometimes called personal chefs, plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client’s tastes and dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other social events. Private household cooks typically work full-time for one client, although many are self-employed or employed by an agency, regularly making meals for multiple clients.
The median hourly wage for cooks was $12.67 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.06, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.27.
Median hourly wages for cooks in May 2019 were as follows:
|Cooks, private household||$18.21|
|Cooks, all other||14.79|
|Cooks, institution and cafeteria||13.34|
|Cooks, short order||12.09|
|Cooks, fast food||11.30|
In May 2019, the median hourly wages for cooks in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Healthcare and social assistance||$13.55|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||12.52|
|Restaurants and other eating places||12.40|
Pay for cooks varies greatly by region and type of employer. Pay is usually highest in hotels, many of which are located in major metropolitan and resort areas.
Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias are usually more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.