Interview with a ...
BLS Fast Facts: Chefs and head cooks
- May 2013 employment: 107,730
- 2012–22 projected growth: 5 percent
(slower than average)
- May 2013 median annual wage: $42,490
- Education and training typically required: High school diploma or equivalent, plus 5 or more years of experience in a related occupation
- May 2013 top-employing industries: Restaurants and other eating places, traveler accommodation, special food services, other amusement and recreation industries, and grocery stores
What do you do?
I own a catering and food consulting business. My staff and I prepare meals for social and business events.
But I don’t own a kitchen. I use either a shared commercial kitchen, called an incubator, or an establishment’s kitchen if there’s one available.
Knowing my costs and budget before getting to the kitchen is key. The client gives us a budget, so the challenge is figuring out what food we can make that will keep to the budget and still make a profit.
As a food consultant, I help people improve their business and cooking skills. For example, I teach my clients the cost of producing food and how to price it.
How did you prepare for your job?
I apprenticed with the American Culinary Federation. During that program, I worked in a hotel’s kitchen. I was fortunate that the hotel reimbursed me for my education. I ended up working there for 7 years.
I think apprenticeships offer a great way to get your education, because you get paid, hands-on experience along with your studies. But apprenticeship programs don’t seem as popular anymore. Most people now go into a culinary arts program, where students specialize in only one part of the kitchen.
What was the apprenticeship like?
My apprenticeship was eye opening. It lasted 3 years, with 6- to 8-week rotations through the various stations in the kitchen. You learn every aspect of the kitchen and culinary business, such as making sauces, butchering meats, and baking pastries. By the time you rotate through every station once, you have a better idea of what you’re doing.
The apprenticeship allowed me to work with a regular, experienced crew. You have to build relationships with the crew so they know you’re interested in more than cutting vegetables. If you show the interest, then most times someone will help you. But it’s up to the apprentice to take the initiative.
I also learned many of the business skills I use now use. For example, you have to buy ingredients so you become aware of the costs of making food. We also had a class on how to price a menu and account for the cost of our time.
How did you start your own business?
I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After I had my first child, I realized that I wanted to spend more time with my family and still work with food.
I started my catering business while working in the hotel. Early on, I took a business writing course offered by the Small Business Administration. Years later, I found a business partner, got a business license and bank loans, and made agreements with importers for products like chocolates and jams. My partner and I eventually became the intermediary, buying products in bulk and redistributing them to clients in the local area.
Describe your first job.
In high school, I worked at a deli, scooping ice cream and slicing meats and cheeses. I didn’t know anything about culinary arts back then, but I knew I liked food.
Later, I read about a graduate of a culinary program, and it really hit me that I wanted to cook. That’s when I realized that I could have a career as a chef. No one told me I could do that!
What do you like most about the work?
Seeing people clean their plate, scrape it, and still want more is a great feeling. It makes all the work worthwhile.
Cooking also lets me express my creativity and knowledge in so many ways and for so many people. And I love learning about different cuisines.
Any surprises along the way?
What surprises me still is the amount of time and effort it takes to prepare food. This career requires stamina. The hours are very demanding, and you get tired standing up all day.
Eventually, you price yourself out of the market, replaced by someone younger and cheaper. You need to have an exit strategy to keep yourself competitive outside the kitchen. Your body won’t let you stay in there forever.
What are your future career plans?
I want to help women join the food industry. Women make up a lot of the culinary students, but the kitchens are still dominated by men. I want to inspire girls to take this journey. It’s possible for them to be executive chefs or even own a business.
What’s your best advice?
Finish your education and get certified. Doing so shows you’re dedicated to your craft. It sets you apart as a professional. There are certifications for pastries, nutrition, management, health safety, and more. You should be proficient in more than one role.
You should also get out into the community so people know you. Don’t get stuck doing the same thing all the time. Network, and share recipes and techniques with other chefs. There’s a lot you can learn from others.
And enjoy yourself! It’s a great career that won’t ever die out. People need to eat, and sharing a meal can change a lot of hearts.
Dennis Vilorio, "Chef," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2015.