How do I Become an Executive Chef?

A: Working in the food industry can feel like a Sisyphean chore. Wages are low, hours are long, glory is distant and fleeting. But for anyone who’s serious about working their way up the kitchen ladder, there’s one position that is extremely appealing: working as an Executive Chef. Executive Chef’s are leaders that run kitchens as they see fit, managing equipment, staff, food supply and much more. They are ultimately responsible for anything produced by a commercial kitchen, and a good deal of the issues that can be associated with them. Whether its creating a menu, making sure it’s executed properly, ordering inventory, maintaining safety and sanitation criterion or mandating how dishes are plated, Executive Chef’s are expected to be in control, which is a natural fit for some personalities. If you’re not comfortable setting standards and strictly adhering to them, this isn’t the job for you. Executive Chef’s are Type A personalities with extreme attention to detail and excellent hygiene. If you know you’re up to it, here are some steps you can take to better your chances of becoming an Executive Chef.

Executive Chef’s combine all the skills of seasoned chefs with a keen, disciplined managerial persona. If you have significant cooking experience, but haven’t managed a team, you should aim to increase your leadership skills. Many Executive Chef’s hold Associate or Bachelor degrees. A major in Culinary Arts is a natural fit, but you might want to pair it with another related degree. Remember, Executive Chef’s are primarily managers. If you’re looking for a managerial position, it might make sense to pursue a degree in Business, Restaurant and Culinary Management, Hospitality Administration and Management, or perhaps a Nutrition Sciences program, in addition to a Culinary Arts degree. When building a resume outside of tangible kitchen experience, get creative. Think about your career goals and where you see yourself working as an Executive Chef. Would you want to oversee the restaurant at a hotel? Perhaps consider a major in Hotel and Motel Management. Remember, a degree isn’t everything, but it is extremely common for Executive Chef’s to hold one, especially in the Culinary Arts.

Maybe school isn’t for you. The restaurant business is extremely cutthroat, and margins are small, but one thing it does reward is experience. If you want to work as an Executive Chef, you’ll likely need to work in a variety of positions, in different kitchens, learning as much as you can about technique, myriad cuisines, and different business models in as many places as you can access. Many Executive Chef’s have traveled the world, working in positions they find, mastering skills and moving on to new opportunities. During this time, if you build a reputation as a hard worker, with friends and connections in the industry, you’ll find Executive positions far easier to reach than staying in the same job in the same town.

You should also define what you want to do. Some Executive Chef’s oversee multiple restaurants, each of which has an in house Chef de Cuisine that oversees them closely. Sometimes the Chef de Cuisines is a different position than the Executive Chef. In that case, the Chef de Cuisine handles day to day food operations while the Executive Chef is a more macro manager. Tailoring your experience, education and career path towards one of these positions is important based on your preferences. Regardless, you’ll need to be an inspiring leader that can motivate workers to turn your creative vision into a efficient, well-oiled reality. Work on your people skills. Executive Chef’s are in many ways an emblem of a restaurant, or a restaurant group. You may need to interact with important patrons, investors, and maintain a pleasant public persona that creates a positive working and recreational environment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median pay for “Chefs and Head Cooks” was $43,180 annually, or $20.76 per hour. They estimated there were 146,500 of these positions in the country, and that they will grow by 10% between 2016-26, which is faster than average (approximately 14,100 jobs added). However, these stats, especially in terms of pay, are dependent on many factors. For one, many of the positions added to these stats aren’t Executive Chef positions. Also, clearly being an Executive Chef at a Michelin restaurant in New York City is more stressful than running a BBQ kitchen in Tennessee, but it pays more. The same way you need to figure out what kind of job in the kitchen you want, you should consider what environment you’d do best in as an Executive Chef. Are you looking for a more relaxed, lower stakes atmosphere? That should dictate where you work, in comparison to more traditional, conservative and fancy kitchens.

In the restaurant business, nothing compares to experience. Most Executive Chef’s have at least 7-8 years of previous culinary experience. Get out there and start calculating or managing food and labor costs, creating and pricing menus, leading staff and proving your food preparation abilities. Remember, this is one of the most coveted positions in the industry. If you’re going to get it, it will be because you learned more and worked harder than most.

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