Culinary Careers: Spotlight on Executive Chefs
By Dawn Viola
An executive chef, also known as chef de cuisine or head chef, is the top supervisor in a private or corporate food environment, overseeing all kitchen operations, including personnel, food production, and budgeting. In catering and restaurant venues, the executive chef also coordinates the standard flow of food with front-of-the-house managers to ensure the best possible service for guests.
What Does an Executive Chef Do?
An executive chef is responsible for nearly all the day-to-day functions of a kitchen, including:
- Recruiting and hiring
- Ordering and purchasing supplies, food, and equipment
- Developing menus
- Researching industry trends
- Budgeting and financial planning
- Food safety systems in the establishment
Depending on the venue, an executive chef can be very hands-on, preparing dishes or finishing the plates to ensure quality standards. Their role may also be more business oriented, with the majority of their time spent outside of the kitchen.
What Do Executive Chefs Do on a Daily Basis?
An executive chef's day begins early, often before the rest of the staff arrives, and can last 12 to 14 hours. Depending on the venue's focus and size, executive chefs first begin with menu planning and purchasing supplies needed for the day, week, or month. Food prep for the day usually begins next, and the executive chef may assist or take on a management role. When the support staff arrives (sous chefs, prep cooks, and front of the house staff), the executive chef can focus her attention on the business side of the industry such as recruiting, menu development, building vendor relations, researching trends, and training staff as needed.
When food service begins, the executive chef oversees and orchestrates the entire operation, ensuring everything runs smoothly by motivating staff and taking care of questions and issues that may arise.
How Many Different Kinds of Executive Chefs Are There?
An executive chef can also be referred to as:
- Food and beverage manager
- Corporate chef
- Chef de cuisine
- Head chef
What Are the Different Settings Executive Chefs Can Work In?
An executive chef can work in any setting that requires cooking, food preparation, food research and development, or food photography and video:
- Restaurants, fine dining, quick service
- Food carts or mobile units
- Catering companies and venues
- Hospital and health care venues
- Military and government venues
- Research and development test kitchens
- Food publications, magazines and book publishers
- Food television production studios
How Will Formal Education Help You Become an Executive Chef?
Chef training certification and degree programs can be found all over the world, with traditional classroom learning, hands-on kitchen training, and online classes available at accredited colleges and universities, trade and technical schools, and continuing education facilities.
Full-time and part-time learning is available, with programs taking as little as 13 months to complete. Certifications are available in culinary and baking, with additional coursework in wine, cheese, pastry, restaurant management, and hospitality. There are also master degree programs specializing in gastronomy. Culinary organizations, such as the American Culinary Federation, offer additional certifications for executive chefs through a series of intensive written and cooking tests.
Culinary certifications and degree programs offer a broad education, preparing students for entry-level positions. Culinary externships and internships offer students the opportunity to experience a range of kitchen positions under the supervision of an executive chef.
How Do These Specialized Degree Programs Give You an Edge in the Industry?
Earning a certificate or degree in culinary provides you with the foundation needed to advance in the industry. This specialized training, along with on-the-job experience in the culinary field, can help develop the skills needed to become an executive chef such as:
- Knowledge of food safety and sanitation in the kitchen
- Financial management and budgeting
- Communication skills
- Leadership skills
- Performance management skills
- Time management skills
- Analytical skills
What Is the Job Outlook for Executive Chefs?
Because the executive chef is ultimately in charge of the kitchen operations, there will always be a need for this role in some capacity. According to the National Restaurant Association, job growth is expected to resume in 2010 following two years of decline. By 2020, the industry is projected to add 1.3 million new job opportunities.
Becoming an executive chef requires extensive food training and management experience. According to StarChefs.com, the average executive chef had 21 years of experience. Because of the highly specialized training needed, executive chef jobs can be challenging to land. Jobs in high-end restaurants are expected to be particularly competitive. The right mix of experience and formal training can help set you apart.
Average Executive Chef Salary
The salary for executive chefs varies widely based on location, type of employer, and years of experience. According to a survey by StarChefs.com, the following salaries were reported by industry employees in 2009:
- Chef/owner: $85,685
- Executive chef: $79,402
- Chef de cuisine: $57,417
- Sous chef: $42,266
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary for chefs and head cooks of $40,090 in 2009 with the middle 50 percent making between $30,080 and $53,310. Landing a job in a top-paying city can net you significantly more. Chefs working in the top paying metropolitan statistical area of New York-White Plains-Wayne NY/NJ had an annual mean wage of $80,940.
Most chefs enter the field based on a love of cooking rather than the promise of a high salary, but those who rise through the ranks to take on the responsibility of an executive chef generally enjoy higher pay and greater job stability than those working as line cooks or even sous chefs. If you want to combine your passion for food with a business role, executive chef degree programs can teach you what you need to know.
About the Author
Dawn Viola is a food writer and award-winning cook. She has a BFA in visual design and worked in the advertising industry as a copywriter and creative director for over a decade before beginning her culinary career. Dawn is a professional member of the American Culinary Federation, Slow Food and Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.