The primary responsibilities of professional chefs are well known: to create interesting new dishes and serve them to eager patrons. Equally as important are their management duties. They preside over their kitchens, overseeing budgets and ordering supplies. They also hire subordinate cooks and kitchen staff, assign them schedules and monitor their tasks. Salaries for professional chefs vary according to a number of factors, including employer and location.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 90,300 professional chefs and head cooks in the U.S. as of May 2011, and they earned an average income of $46,600 per year. The lowest 10 percent of earners made $24,770 a year or less, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned $74,060 a year or more.
Employers and States
The biggest employers of chefs and head cooks were full-service restaurants, with 44,120 jobs. The mean annual income here was $44,870. Traveler accommodations ranked second with 11,480 positions paying an average of $52,800 a year. Deep sea, coastal and Great Lakes water transportation boasted the highest average compensation at an annual $73,010. Amusement parks and arcades were next with mean pay of $67,580 per year. The state with the highest average pay was New York at an average of $67,950 a year. It was followed by New Jersey at $60,460. The lowest paying state was Idaho at an average of $30,600 a year.
Only in the movies does an individual’s culinary talent rocket him to the top of the kitchen hierarchy, supported by the adulation of restaurant critics. Although a few become professionals by attending culinary arts schools or graduating from universities, most reach their status through work experience. Job level is thus a big factor in salaries. For example, individuals might start out as fast-food cooks, who learn on the job how to prepare an unvarying menu quickly. They averaged $18,720 per year as of May 2011, according to the BLS. Cooks might then move into preparing short-order dishes to earn a mean $21,280 yearly before working in restaurants, where lower-level cooks average an annual $23,410. In large eateries, with well-defined hierarchies, they can learn from experienced chefs, thus gaining the culinary skills needed for the highest salaries.
The BLS expects the number of jobs for chefs and head cooks to show little or no change from 2010 to 2020. That's well below the 14 percent projected growth rate for all occupations. Population growth will drive up demand for new dining venues and experiences. However, many eateries are using lower-level cooks to save money, which depresses employment opportunities. The best jobs will go to chefs with many years of work experience and a good dose of creativity. Competition will be fiercest at upscale restaurants and hotels because of their high salaries.