Steps to Becoming a Head Chef

by W. Randy Hoffman
Steps to Becoming a Head Chef
  • Introduction
  • A Brief History of Cooking
  • School Types and Locations
  • Careers
  • Should You Go to Cooking School?
  • Choosing a School
  • Getting into a School
  • Paying for School
  • Course Subjects
  • Supplementing Your Education: Internships
  • After You Graduate: Landing a Job
  • Conclusion
  • Editors Note: The opinions expressed by individuals in this article are personal views that do not necessarily represent those of the businesses or institutions that employ them. Mention of any particular institution in this article does not constitute endorsement of that institution by or vice versa. At the time of publication, these schools listed in this article were sponsors of The Art Institutes, The Institute of Culinary Education, The Culinary Institute of America, and the The Santa Fe School of Cooking.


    Do people like your cooking? Do the dinners you serve make guests say "How lovely!" or "Mean spread, dude!"? Have you worked your way through a recipe book or two? Do people tell you that you ought to be "a chef or something"? Or do you just feel like you could really get into food and hospitality? If the answers to any of these questions are "yes," maybe you should look into attending a culinary program such as those offered by a cooking school or culinary institute. At such a school, you can quickly master culinary techniques that took the chefs of centuries past lifetimes to create and perfect. As at other schools, you can make good friends while studying in a culinary program, but you can also learn the deeper trust and skilled interpersonal organization it takes to function as part of a team in a restaurant or hotel. If you're so inclined, you can learn how to manage such a team. You might even learn how to make dozens of new dishes well enough to dazzle your family and friends, and not just your customers.

    This article is intended to introduce you to cooking schools and culinary institutes, and to give you a few things to think about as you investigate a culinary education and career. We'll start with a bit of history . . . .



    As piles of charred spearheads unearthed at numerous early settlement sites attest, people have been cooking their food for a very long time. At first they only cooked spitted game meats, but then bread was invented, livestock were domesticated, edible plants were cultivated and irrigated, and, most importantly, people started making pottery. Earthenware made it possible to purify water by boiling and to braise and stew dishes, and would eventually allow for baking and pickling. Soon various methods of preserving meats were discovered, as was yeast, and many different cultures began to use herbs for flavoring foods and drinks. When settlements became large enough to allow specialized labor, cooking became a recognized profession.

    The first cooking contest is said to have been held in about 600 B.C., at the instigation of an Assyrian king. The first known cookbook, "Hedypathia" ("Pleasant Living"), was written by a Greek named Archestratus sometime after 400 B.C. Late in the first century A.D., the Roman Emperor Trajan authorized the first professional cooking organization, a bakers' guild. The first inn whose name is still known, Le Grand Saint Bernard Hospice, was founded in Switzerland in 961 A.D.; the first café opened in Constantinople in 1550. 1765 saw the opening of a Paris eatery that was the first establishment to be called a "restaurant" (from the French verb "restoring," as in restoring one's strength and spirits by eating and drinking).

    During all this time, the techniques of cooking had largely been passed down along the ancient lines of family and association: father to son, mother to daughter, master to apprentice, guild brother to guild brother. But in Paris in 1895, Marthe Distell founded the first cooking school to gain an international reputation, Le Cordon Bleu. Since then, similar schools have sprung up around the world, and now teach a large number of culinary professionals their craft.



    Most cities of any size in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia now have at least one school offering a culinary program, as do cities in dozens of other countries worldwide; you can search the directory on our main page and the information in our international page to find one near you. There are four main types of institutions offering culinary education:

    Dedicated cooking schools and culinary institutes: These schools offer only culinary studies -- that's all they do. Examples include The Culinary Institute of America and The Institute of Culinary Education.

    Career schools: These schools offer vocational education aimed at preparing students for any of a variety of career fields. The Art Institutes is one such school with a widely distributed network of branch campuses.

    Traditional colleges and universities: You can minor or major in culinary disciplines at many colleges (including community and junior colleges) and universities, which offer culinary programs as part of a traditional postsecondary education. In Pennsylvania alone, there are dozens of colleges and universities offering culinary programs, from smaller or non-degree-granting ones such as the Academy of Culinary Arts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) to larger ones such as that of Drexel University, which has an entire department devoted to hospitality management.

    Recreational schools and programs: You can also study the culinary arts in "recreational" cooking classes, workshops, tours, and vacations, such as those offered by Epiculinary or The Santa Fe School of Cooking These classes/experiences last anywhere from a few hours to a month and won't typically grant college credits or prepare you for a career. But if you want to learn about a particular culinary subject in a casual environment at a chosen time of the year (perhaps in a place you've always wanted to visit!), they might be the right choice for you.



    As our main page points out, in the year 2000 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counted 465,000 jobs for "food-service managers" (including chefs and other members of restaurant and hotel management) in the USA. But just like the cost of your entrée doesn't represent the entire cost of your meal, that figure doesn't reflect the true number of people employed in culinary fields. Cooking schools and culinary institutes can prepare you for a range of careers as tremendous as the most expansive restaurant menu. Here are just a few of the possibilities:

    Chef: This, of course, is the occupation most solidly associated with cooking schools. A chef is expected to not only prepare food, but also manage a kitchen, conduct its business, and keep it running smoothly and profitably. Some work as personal chefs for individual clients and groups of clients; others work in all kinds of dining environments, including (but not limited to):

    • Restaurants, from small cafés and pubs up to large eateries, hotels, cruise ships, and resorts
    • Catering businesses
    • Institutions like schools and hospitals
    • Business cafeterias

    Restaurant and Hotel (Hospitality) Management: If a chef can manage a kitchen, it's only a small step from there to managing some or all of the other operations of a restaurant or hotel. Hospitality managers are employed in the same types of establishments as chefs, and don't necessarily have to run the whole show; they're often employed as food and beverage directors, sommeliers (wine advisors), or in other capacities.

    Food Research: Food companies and restaurant chains are constantly trying to make food products taste better or last longer, reduce their fat content or increase their fiber content, or improve them in a thousand other ways. To do that, they employ research chefs and food chemists who develop new ingredients and new processes.

    Nutrition/Dietetics: Nutritionists and dieticians are frequently part of the staff of health and educational institutions, where they plan meals for patients and students that are nutritious and tailored to meet specific dietary needs. (It's not their fault if students still end up with mystery meat and patients are still presented with tiny dollops of some oatmeal-like substance. Really.) They're also employed by sports teams, wellness centers, pharmaceutical companies, and numerous other businesses that have an interest in shaping their clients' food intake to improve their health.

    Food Sales: Food and beverage companies need people to sell their products to restaurants and hotels; who better to do that than someone trained to work with foods and beverages in a restaurant or hotel setting?

    Food Styling and Media: Think of the chain-restaurant menus or posters you've seen with the too-good-to-be-true picture of some mouthwatering dish on them. Chances are that a food stylist has made the food look that good, and that a food photographer has arranged and taken the picture. It's also safe to assume that a professional food critic has at some point actually eaten the item and written a review of it for a newspaper or Web site. A culinary education can help prepare you for any of these careers.

    Food Training and Instruction: If you can gain a reputation as not only a good chef but also a good person to train with or apprentice for, you might be hired as a school instructor yourself -- maybe even at the same school you graduated from. Companies who market new culinary equipment and processes to food-service professionals also hire chef-instructors to demonstrate their products or to conduct seminars.

    For more information about cooking-school-based careers and how best to prepare for them, see this terrific article by Joe LaVilla.



    What does it take to succeed at a cooking school or culinary institute, and at the careers that such schools can make available to you? Here's what a couple of professionals think.

    Alejandro Granes, a former line cook at the renowned Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, PA, has immediate advice for those who want to work with food. "You have to love the kitchen, to love preparing the food. You can have all the skills in the world, but if your heart's not in it, it's no good."

    Jeff Mack, a Chef-Instructor at Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, AZ, agrees. "You need to have a passion for this." Even if they're aiming for a career in a highly regimented field (as food service often is), students need to "have an open mind; there's always more than one way to do things." For any type of food or hospitality work, he also urges students to think about their physical condition: "Can you be on your feet constantly for eight or ten hours a day?" For aspiring chefs, he adds this consideration of the rigors of working in a restaurant or hotel kitchen: "Can you lift heavy boxes and containers on a regular basis?"

    Granes talks about dedication as well. While his remarks are about making a customer's meal, they're equally applicable in many service and industrial contexts, including responding to a management emergency or tending a critical experiment in a food-research lab. Though you should get immediate attention for the rare serious injury, "if you're chopping and you give yourself a mild cut, or cooking and give yourself a mild burn, you can't just walk away from the meal you're preparing to nurse the injury. You need to be able to quickly wash it, slap an antiseptic and bandage on, and keep going until the job is done."

    Mack cautions those who have misgivings about a culinary career, and can't afford to be trained in the field just as a hobby or sideline: "If you're pretty sure going in that this isn't something you can do for a living, it might be better to spend the time and money on a line of education that suits you better."

    That being said, there are certainly rewards involved in a culinary career beyond just a paycheck. Every day millions of people greatly enjoy well-prepared meals, friendly restaurant get-togethers, and comfortable hotel stays. You can play a major role in bringing people that kind of satisfaction.



    If you really want to attend a cooking school or culinary institute, how do you go about picking one? There are entries for over a thousand schools in our directory, and new entries are added all the time. Here are some guidelines:


    This is a concern for any type of school you want to attend, not just a culinary school. It can be very easy to run into basic day-to-day survival problems if you enroll in a school without considering the strengths and weaknesses of its location.

    Maybe you're considering a school a long ways from home, perhaps an old and prestigious institution in another country, perhaps someplace with lots of beaches and sunshine. (Certainly places with beaches and sunshine are liable to be tourist destinations, and the tourism industry employs a lot of culinary-program graduates.) If you have family or friends in that region to live with, talk to, and/or help support you, that might be a wonderful adventure. But if you don't, you should think realistically about whether you're going to be able to handle all of your expenses, studies, and other responsibilities by yourself, at least until you can make some new friends in the area.

    If you're lucky enough to live near several good schools, which of them is likely to be more convenient for you? Which one is closest to your home? Which one has the best parking and least traffic, or the best access to public transportation? If you'll be working while you study, which one is nearest to your workplace, or to potential job sites?

    If you'll be living away from home while you attend school, you'll want to investigate schools' access to services (stores, restaurants, ATMs, gas stations, Laundromats, schools or daycare if you have children, etc.) and the relative safety of their locations.



    If you're able to do so, visit the campus of any cooking school or culinary institute you're thinking of attending. Do the buildings have adequate lighting, ventilation, heating, and cooling? How good are the kitchens and equipment? How big are the classrooms? Will you be able to practice what you learn -- does the school own a restaurant or hotel, or is there an affiliated restaurant or hotel nearby?



    To determine whether a school makes financial sense for you, you will need to make phone calls, ask careful questions, and make thoughtful comparisons. Most culinary schools are very tight-lipped about the costs of their programs, mainly because there's no standard way of reporting them and it's very easy to make misleading comparisons. Some schools like to talk about costs on a per-semester or per-year basis; others like to talk about the cost for their entire program as a whole. Some schools only want to talk about your tuition costs; others include what you'll have to shell out for the uniforms, shoes, books, knives, fees, and/or other costs. When a school official quotes you a number, make sure you understand what's covered by that number and what isn't.


    Class Size

    Generally, the smaller a school's classes are, the more you'll be able to directly interact with your instructors. However, if the school is a dedicated cooking school rather than a college or university with standardized tuition costs, smaller classes usually also mean more expense for students. Some exclusive schools limit classes to as few as four students per instructor, and their tuition will reflect that. One standard, adhered to by many schools, specifies no more than 18 students per instructor. In larger schools, or for classes held in classrooms rather than kitchens, 25 to 35 students per instructor is probably closer to the norm.


    Length and Type of Program

    Cooking schools and culinary institutes vary greatly in both the length of time it takes to complete their program and graduate, and in what you'll get (certificate, diploma, degree, etc.) for your trouble. In most cases, a shorter program will either be more intensive (that is, you'll have to spend more time per day and/or per week on your studies than you would in a longer program) or more specialized (concentrated on pastry, for example). If a short program is neither intensive nor specialized, don't expect potential employers to think much of it. Nine months of study at one of Le Cordon Bleu's own schools can earn you the well-respected "Le Grand Diplôme Le Cordon Bleu," but some of the non-specialist certificates or diplomas you can get in nine months or less in the USA are of dubious value. By contrast, many one- to two- year programs will confer degrees such as the Associate of Occupational Studies (AOS). Jeff Mack urges students to consider staying in school for a year or more: "The extra time gives you experience in more disciplines and opens up more options for you later."

    Culinary education at a college or university can be a certificate or diploma program, or it can be part of a two- or four-year degree program, often in the form of a major or minor in culinary arts, food sciences, hospitality management, and the like. Some schools even offer postgraduate education (Master's degrees) in culinary and related disciplines. If you would like to go into a career that requires more grounding in science, such as food chemistry or research, a college or university program is good idea. Also consider that an education at a traditional college or university will involve taking "core courses," probably including some English, math, science, computers, and arts & humanities. While this might not get you into a well-paying job in the shortest possible time, it might prepare you for life in ways that a career-oriented school might not.



    It's always a good idea to attend an "accredited" school. To be accredited, the school's finances, facilities, faculty, and procedures have to have been investigated by an educational standards organization and found to meet those standards. In the USA, colleges and universities are accredited by one of the regional accreditation organizations recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation; dedicated cooking schools and culinary institutes are accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT). Many culinary programs in the USA are also accredited by the Accrediting Commission of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), which advocates high standards for culinary education. Outside the USA, accreditation will vary in its availability and meaningfulness; investigate carefully.

    It should be noted that while many American schools affiliated with the Career Education Corporation (CEC) tout their connection to Le Cordon Bleu (naming their programs "Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts" and so forth), Le Cordon Bleu does not accredit these schools. Instead, the "Le Cordon Bleu" designation means that these schools use the Le Cordon Bleu "system." CEC itself, not Le Cordon Bleu, is responsible for assuring that its affiliated schools adhere to the system's standards.



    The relative reputations of different cooking schools and culinary institutes are hard to assess. ACF accreditation is a good recommendation, but that's just a start. For any given school, it's easy to ask how much industry experience the instructors have, how many awards they've won, and so forth; it's probably a better idea, though, to ask where their alumni are working and how well they're doing there.



    Once you've settled on a few schools that you'd really like to try to get into, you'll need to apply for admission. Many schools post their admissions process and admission form on their Web sites, where they can be reviewed and from which they can be downloaded. When you apply, you'll probably need to provide proof that you have a high- school diploma or GED. If you'll be attending a culinary program at a college or university, they'll also want at least your high-school transcripts (if those are available), SAT or ACT results, and probably some references. SAT scores probably won't be as important if you'll be attending a cooking school or culinary institute, but most schools of this type will want to get an idea of what kind of student you'll make before they'll even look at your application. Some such schools will ask you to come in for an interview; others will ask you to write an essay, or do some other task that shows them what kind of person you are and what potential you might have. Be prepared for this.



    Unless you're one of the lucky few with the financial wherewithal to pay for your schooling out of your own pocket, you'll need some kind of financial aid. Attending any college or university culinary program, or any cooking school or culinary institute that meets certain federal educational guidelines, will qualify you to receive standard government grants and loans (such as the Stafford and PLUS loans). There are also numerous scholarships available for culinary students, as well as other types of loans. For links to all sorts of financial-aid information, see our financial aid page.



    In a cooking school or culinary institute, you'll study all kinds of foods and the techniques and tools you'll use to prepare them, including such specialties as baking, pastry-making, confectionery (candy-making), etc. You'll probably also learn some of these subjects (and this is certainly not an exhaustive list):

    • History: The culinary arts have vastly changed and grown over the years, from their humble beginnings in prehistory to the melding of science and art that we enjoy today. Knowing that history will help you to appreciate culinary traditions, and understand why the world's cuisines and food practices are what they are.
    • Language: The culinary arts use lots of words and phrases derived from French, Italian, and other languages; you'll learn enough of these languages to understand what some key terms mean and be able to decipher other terms as you encounter them.
    • Chemistry: Most of the changes that happen to foods when they're prepared (cooked, fermented, cured, etc.) are the result of chemical reactions. When you understand the chemistry, you'll be better able to predict how dishes will taste and "behave" in various situations.
    • Design: Though how the food tastes is of the utmost importance, it's also essential to have a good "presentation" (a visually appealing arrangement of the food on the serving plate). Making the rest of the dining environment as satisfying as the food doesn't hurt either.
    • Nutrition: While the culinary arts put great emphasis on the "sense appeal" of food, as far as our bodies are concerned food is only useful for providing the chemical building blocks that our bodies need to survive and be healthy. Learning about those building blocks, and how not to lose them when preparing food, benefits you and your customer alike.
    • Psychology: In service industries such as dining and hospitality that involve working closely with other people, it's always helpful to be aware of the ways that people think, how that's reflected in their actions, and what you can do (especially as a manager) to maximize satisfaction and performance and minimize problems.
    • Applied Math: Whether you're going to make a recipe (or adapt it to a larger or smaller batch), order supplies, or figure the tax and add up a customer's bill when the cash registers break down, you need to know what to do with the numbers.



    Many cooking schools and culinary institutes have arrangements to place students in internships with area hotels, restaurants, and other businesses -- sometimes even resorts and cruise lines. For example, you might be able to intern as part of a wait staff, kitchen staff, or catering staff; such assignments, though temporary, can serve as valuable initial experience in a job market that prizes experience. As you investigate schools, it's certainly a good idea to ask where they place interns, and to find out what you can about those locations. (However, don't necessarily depend on the school to place you; many businesses offer internships on their own initiative, without making any arrangements with particular educational institutions.) Keep these questions in mind as you look into internship opportunities:

    • "What am I going to learn here that I can't learn at school?"
    • "Is this job just going to earn me money, or is it actually going give me the kind of experience that will help my career?"
    • Most importantly, "Is this really a place where I want to work?"

    It is occasionally possible for even young and relatively inexperienced students to get internships at very prestigious locations, but be warned that the more highly regarded and upscale a business is, the greater the demands that will be placed on you. Alejandro Granes tells of a friend who interned at the Paris restaurant of Joël Robuçon, one of the world's top chefs: "He signed on for an unpaid three-month stint of working twelve-hour days, six days a week, during which he was to remain impeccably groomed and dressed. He lasted a month, and then he forgot to shave one morning and Robuçon let him go on the spot. But even a month at that restaurant -- what a thing to be able to put on your resume!"



    If you're very fortunate, a restaurant, hotel, or other business will be waiting to hire you as soon as you graduate. But unless the school is extremely prestigious or you've impressed an organization that you've interned with, that's not likely to happen. You'll probably need to do some job hunting.

    Most cooking schools and culinary institutes have job-placement offices that can offer graduates some help. You'll certainly want to check in with them when you get close to finishing your course of study, but don't depend on them to deliver you a job on a silver platter.

    As soon as you take off your graduation cap and gown, you should have a resumé written and ready to go. (It would be hard to beat the excellent advice for resumé construction in this article by JoLynne Lockley.)

    Unfortunately, one of the sad, seldom-spoken truths about the job market is that most jobs aren't filled through want ads, weebsites, or any other method based on responding to job postings. Instead, most jobs are filled by somebody who knows someone who already works at the hiring organization -- someone who can recommend them to the people doing the hiring. The culinary and hospitality industries are no different. So if you want a better shot at getting your foot in the door, start canvassing the people you know.

    Jeff Mack has this one last piece of advice to culinary-school graduates: "Be patient, and be willing to take what you can get. You're not going to be a chef right away. But if you'll take an entry-level job and do your best at it, this is an industry where you really can get ahead."



    We rarely think about how food is such a pervasive part of our lives. How many of your fond memories somehow involve eating, especially eating out? Maybe you remember hanging with your high-school friends at a fast-food place. Or going to a fancy night spot on your first date. Perhaps you enjoy recalling the sit-down buffet by the ocean, where your sister liked everything except the fresh crayfish? Or maybe the reception in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel, where your aunt and uncle danced next to the windows after dinner?

    Obviously we need to eat to survive, but there's more to food than just eating, more to cooking than just heating, and more to hospitality than just greeting people to an away-from-home shelter. Studying the culinary arts can take you beyond simple sustenance and refreshment. It can prepare you for a whole lifetime of giving other people experiences to savor and cherish.

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