In Depth Look at Becoming an Executive Chef

CulinaryEd Columnist
May 19, 2011

If you have a passion for creating delicious food, you may be looking for a way to translate your creativity into a culinary career. Becoming an executive chef can be challenging, but the rewards are well worth it.

What is an Executive Chef?

An executive chef is at the top of the food chain in the restaurant kitchen and uses culinary experience to direct the work of the kitchen staff. By coordinating the preparation of meals, the executive chef ensures that the kitchen runs smoothly and that diners receive the best quality food in a timely manner.

A Day in the Life of an Executive Chef

An executive chef is responsible for making sure that the food coming out of the kitchen is consistent in both quality and presentation. Keeping a kitchen in working order is a huge task, and the executive chef is responsible for details like:

  • The Menu. An executive chef not only runs the kitchen, he or she also plans the menu. This requires careful consideration of food availability during different seasons. Menu planning also means determining portion sizes and deciding on daily or weekly specials.
  • Inventory. Once the menu is set, an executive chef must consider all of the supplies that are necessary to create the meals. Doing inventory and placing orders can be time consuming, but is an essential component of the restaurant business.
  • The Kitchen. Before and between meals, an executive chef directs all the necessary prep work and makes sure the kitchen is ready to run as efficiently as possible. When customers start placing orders, the chef oversees the preparing and plating of the food.
  • Safety. A commercial kitchen can be hot and cramped, and an experienced chef knows to be careful of burns, cuts, and falls. An executive chef is responsible for making sure the kitchen staff is working in a safe and sanitary environment.


Getting the Job

Working as an executive chef requires experience, both with culinary techniques and business practices. As with most culinary careers, an executive chef usually begins at the bottom by working in a kitchen as a line cook or a prep cook. Many restaurants also seek candidates with a culinary education. Although going to culinary school may not be required, a culinary degree will provide you with the skills you'll need to become an executive chef.

  • In addition to basic culinary skills, an executive chef needs experience with baking as well as wine and beverage service.
  • Many chefs specialize in a regional cuisine and stay up on hot trends by reading culinary magazines and journals.
  • Executive chefs must also be familiar with management practices and local safety and sanitation requirements.

Because an executive chef is in charge of all kitchen operations, the day is long and may involve early mornings or late nights, holidays, and weekends. Although the work can be difficult, there are many positions to be filled, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of job openings to increase steadily in the future.

An executive chef at a busy restaurant can expect to make between $48,000 and $80,000 a year, depending on experience and location. For many chefs, the ultimate goal is restaurant ownership, in which case the rewards can be much greater.

On the Job

Executive chefs aren't confined to restaurant kitchens, and opportunities are available at hotels and corporate dining establishments. A talented executive chef may also advance to a supervisory position over multiple kitchens of a restaurant or hotel chain.

Executive Chef Profile

Cristeta Comerford is a great example of an executive chef who's using her skills in an unusual place. In 2005,Comerford became the first woman to be named White House Executive Chef.

Comerford started her culinary career with a bachelor's degree in food technology, and she gained experience working at restaurants such as La Ciel in Austria and at the Westin Hotel in Washington D.C. Her hard work and experience gave her the training she needs to design and prepare meals for state dinners, holiday events, and White House luncheons.

Whether you're aiming for the White House or a small restaurant in your hometown, the job of an executive chef may be perfect for you. By combining practical work experience with a culinary education, you can get the skills you need for this rewarding culinary career.

Where do I get more information about culinary education programs?

Take a look at culinary schools located in the states below, and request more information from those to be able to form an informed opinion:

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            Professional Culinary Arts
            • Hands-on culinary education with focused attention on each student
            • An ACCSC School of Excellence with multiple “Best Vocational Cooking School” awards*
            • 15,000 graduates, including celebrities like Bobby Flay, David Chang, and Christina Tosi*
            • Programs in Culinary Entrepreneurship, Professional Culinary Arts, Professional Pastry Arts, and much more
            • Campuses in New York and Silicon Valley with nearby housing available
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            Culinary Arts Professional
            • A part of the Select Education Group (SEG).
            • Offers several scholarship and financial aid opportunities for students who qualify.
            • California campuses accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), and accreditation for the Salem campus from the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET).
            • 4 Campuses located in Clovis, Modesto, and Redding in California, and Salem, Oregon.
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            Culinary Arts (AS)
            • Alumni have appeared in reality competition shows such as Top Chef and Project Runway.
            • Has a team of about 4,000 faculty members focused on helping students tap opportunities in a marketplace driven by ideas.
            • Offers programs in design, media arts, fashion, and culinary.
            • Provides program coordinators who work with students to ensure they have the learning materials, assignments, facilities, and faculty to get the most out of the program.
            • Over 50 campus locations nationwide.
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            B.S. in Hospitality Management
            • There's still time to apply to Grand Canyon University and pursue your education. Learn more today!
            • Study on your schedule - GCU offers many programs 100% online to fit your busy lifestyle.
            • GCU offers a variety of opportunities to reduce the cost of furthering your education. Campus students may qualify for scholarships, while online students can take part in limited special offers.
            • A regionally accredited university, GCU also holds specialized accreditations and approvals for some of our core program offerings.
            • Degrees in business, education, nursing, humanities and social sciences, theology and more. Find the degree that fits you.
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