How to Become an Executive Chef

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The Executive Chef, or Head Chef, plays a combined creative and managerial role in the kitchen.  In the traditional kitchen hierarchy, the position represents the pinnacle of culinary achievement.  If you have worked in a kitchen, or even in a front of the house restaurant job, you know the weight carried by the designation of Executive Chef.

Hard work is rewarded in most kitchens, and the hospitality industry promotes from within, but the skill set required for a position of this magnitude is not conjured without a Culinary Arts education.  Even if your short-term goal is to work as a line cook, it is likely that your broader aspirations point to the Executive Chef position.

The one in charge, the decision-maker, the leader of the kitchen brigade – What does it take to wear the title, and the whites and toque that go with it? Kitchen chops are essential, but they are nothing without a broad understanding of traditional ingredients and recipes.  Most often, The Head Chef creates and implements the menu, but he is also responsible for training his staff to prepare the dishes properly and consistently. The ability to motivate and inspire line cooks to perform at a high level is an intangible attribute an Executive Chef must possess.

To a certain extent, experience fosters effective kitchen administration, but the complexities of personnel management, budgeting, food cost control, marketing and other business-related concepts requires formal training. Executive Chefs exhibit equal measures of experience and academic discipline within their roles as kitchen bosses.  The position is demanding for even the most qualified candidates, and the chef generally answers only to the general manager or property owner.

executive chefs

As glamorous as the position might seem, in its romanticized version –complete with monogrammed chef’s jacket and impressive headgear, the complement of skills and personal characteristics required to succeed are nonetheless vast in scope.  Take a personal inventory of the strengths you bring to the table, and find a good Culinary Arts or Culinary Management Program to set you on your way.

Celebrity Executive Chefs

The food TV culture has been good to the Executive Chef profession.  Most of the household culinary names are, or were, Head Chefs at some point in their careers.  Rachael Ray is the exception; she likes to call herself a ‘cooker.’

Believe it or not, less-public chefs might spend their time peeling shrimp for the Mother’s Day brunch, or preparing endless series’ of intricate canapés, to be circulated at highbrow cocktail parties. The sampling of chefs that make their livings on TV is small, and before they started raking in the big media bucks, they were the ones peeling the shrimp.

As an aspiring professional, be realistic about your expectations for employment.  Your first job out of an Associate’s Degree Program won’t be as Executive Chef, but that or another degree sets your career in motion. 

Owner/operator is another coveted chef’s role that speaks to kitchen entrepreneurs.  Autonomy and unlimited earning potential lure talented Executive Chefs into ventures as restaurateurs.  Industry notoriety, fame, and wealth follow for some, and for a select few, genuine celebrity is achieved. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay are pop icon chef/owners that have risen to celebrity status, earning millions of dollars along the way.

Executive Chef Job Description

Job descriptions vary somewhat across specific kitchen environments, but fundamentals remain universal in most Executive Chef jobs. As Head Chef, expect to:

  • Develop and implement menus and meal plans that fit the facility, restaurant, or executive chefskitchen needs and goals on a daily basis.
  • Direct and supervise kitchen operations and designated back of the house staff.
  • Train all related staff.
  • Work well as part of a team and contribute to a positive work environment.
  • Maintain a well-stocked inventory, and exercise wise cost control.
  • Engage with peers, colleagues and patrons in a manner that invites interaction and feedback
  • Assist with long-term plans as they relate to cuisine and overall culinary experience.
  • Take Responsibility for all food preparation and handling methods
  • Monitor hygiene and sanitation within kitchen and food-prep environments. 

Education for an Exec Chef

Successful Executive Chefs exhibit a series of traits that facilitate performance in the range of disciplines inherent to the position.  The role of kitchen manager requires good judgement, and a problem solving skill set that enables a successful chef to quickly put out fires in the kitchen – literally and figuratively.  Critical thinking is required to analyze menu successes and manage employee strengths.  Communication skills must be strong, in written and verbal forms require to effectively train staff and shape the direction of the restaurant.

Though some candidates are ‘naturals’ for the position, food fundamentals must be learned; then combined with individual creativity, before menu successes become consistent representations of a chef’s culinary point of view.  Working through the kitchen ranks is possible, in a hospitality industry that promotes from within; but for high-level jobs like Executive Chef, employers prefer candidates with some level of professional education.

executive chef careers

Professional culinary arts and pastry training come from a variety of sources and exist at various levels of achievement.  Diplomas and Certificates are one-year educational credentials that are suited for entry level preparationAssociate’s Degrees provide a greater depth of instruction, through two-year curriculums that contain business management exposure.  Bachelor’s Degrees are acquired in four years, and expand further on culinary training and business practices like budgeting, personnel management and food cost analysis.  Master’s level studies are offered in business disciplines, but culinary institutes also offer advanced chef’s training at this level

Distill your culinary dreams before you launch your education.  If an Executive Chef’s role is in your aspirational matrix, consider an advanced degree at the Baccalaureate level. Combined with some practical experience, the degree prepares you for kitchen management work, as well as a variety of upper-level hospitality assignments outside the kitchen. A natural professional progression takes you from sous chef work to Executive Chef positions.

Where Executive Chefs Work

Professional kitchens employ chefs in a wide variety of environments.  Think outside the box for opportunities that move you toward your ultimate goal. Executive Chefs work at:

executive chef salaries
  • Restaurants - large and small
  • Resorts
  • Convention centers
  • Hotels
  • Casinos
  • Spas
  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Corporate facilities
  • Catering companies
  • Cruise lines
  • White House

Executive Chef Salaries

Chef salaries are influenced by a host of factors, including type of kitchen, region/metro area, experience, economic climate, reputation, and education. Without a doubt, upward salary mobility is enhanced by a comprehensive education, from a reputable Culinary Arts educator. Generally you’ll find Executive Chefs that make anywhere from $36,000 to $59,000.* Larger properties, and entrepreneurial endeavors, provide opportunities for greater earning potential.

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts 11% employment growth for chefs and head cooks in the next decade.

Chefs & Head Cooks Quick Facts
2018 Median Pay $48,460 per year / $23.20 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation 5 or more years
On-the-job Training None
2018 Numer of Jobs 139,000
2018-2028 Job Growth Outlook 11% - much faster than average
2018 - 2028 Employment Change 15,400


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