Culinary Careers: Spotlight on Fine Dining Chefs
By Jessica Hanley
Fine dining chefs are the artists behind some of the most delectable dishes you've ever tasted. In addition to developing innovative recipes, refining flavor profiles, and creating beautiful plates of food, fine dining chefs also handle many of the day-to-day responsibilities of running a gourmet kitchen.
What Does a Fine Dining Chef Do?
Fine dining chefs work in upscale restaurants, where they are responsible for planning menus, developing new recipes, supervising kitchen staff, and preparing food. Like other workers in the food service industry, fine dining chefs spend long hours in the kitchen. On a given day, a fine dining chef may perform any of the following tasks:
- Create recipes and plan menus
- Determine serving size
- Prepare ingredients and final dishes
- Order supplies
- Teach other cooks to prepare menu items
- Ensure sanitation regulations are met
The specific cooking and management duties of a fine dining chef vary depending on his or her position. Fine dining chefs working in upscale restaurants may hold one of the following positions:
- Sous Chef: The sous chef is the second-in-command after the executive or head chef. The sous chef often helps the head chef prepare food, develop recipes, and manage other cooks.
- Chef de Cuisine: The chef de cuisine is in charge of the culinary operations of a kitchen. He or she supervises food preparation and makes sure each meal meets the exacting standards of a fine dining establishment.
- Executive Chef: Executive chefs oversee the kitchen as a whole, including scheduling, menu planning, ordering, and budgeting. Executive chefs working in hotels or restaurant chains may be in charge of several kitchens.
- Chef/Owner: A chef/owner is a chef who opens his or her own restaurant after acquiring years of experience and culinary expertise. In this role, the chef must oversee budgeting and restaurant operations in addition to food preparation.
- Personal Chef: Personal chefs prepare meals for a single client, often a wealthy individual or family. Personal chefs create menus based on the client's preferences and are responsible for ordering groceries, cleaning the kitchen, and preparing and serving food.
- Master Chef: Master chefs are certified chefs who have reached the peak of culinary experience. To become a master chef, fine dining chefs must pass a rigorous eight day testing period and demonstrate mastery of culinary techniques and theories.
The work environment of fine dining chefs varies slightly depending on their place of employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately half of all chefs work in full-service restaurants, where the kitchen is often hot, crowded, and noisy. Hot stoves, ovens, knives, and slippery floors create a somewhat hazardous work environment, but accidents (including cuts and burns) are rarely serious.
Personal chefs often work alone in a household or commercial kitchen. Their workplace may be less frenzied than a restaurant, but they are generally responsible for all courses of a meal, as well as kitchen maintenance. Whether you want to become a chef de cuisine or a personal chef, fine dining chef degree programs can prepare you to operate safely in the challenging kitchen atmosphere.
In recent years, shows like Top Chef have introduced fine dining to the average American, and celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, and Mario Batali have proved that fine dining chefs can be commercially successful. With the proper training, experience, and determination, fine dining chefs can reach the top of the restaurant field.
How Will Formal Education Help You Become a Fine Dining Chef?
According to the BLS, chefs working in fine-dining restaurants must have many years of experience and training. By attending a postsecondary culinary arts degree program, you can gain the formal training you need to qualify for entry-level chef positions.
Culinary arts schools offer a variety of on-campus and online degree programs. Depending on your interests, you can choose between certificate, associate's degree, and bachelor's degree programs in culinary arts, pastry arts, and restaurant management. While a pastry arts degree may prepare you to work in a patisserie or as a pastry chef, an associate's or bachelor's degree in culinary arts more directly relates to a career as a fine dining chef.
Students of culinary arts degree programs spend much of their time in the kitchen learning proper knife and food preparation techniques. In the classroom or online, students of fine dining chef degree programs learn about menu planning, nutrition, purchasing and inventory, portion control, food storage, and public health. To complement students' hands-on experience in the kitchen, many culinary arts degree programs require students to complete an internship in a commercial kitchen.
Though experience is crucial in the restaurant industry, employers also value training. By graduating from an accredited culinary arts degree program, you can prove to employers that you have the technical skills and knowledge needed to excel in the workplace.
What Is the Job Outlook for Fine Dining Chefs?
According to the BLS, over 11 million Americans worked in food preparation and serving jobs in 2009, and the food service and accommodation industry is expected to grow by 7 percent from 2008 to 2018. This growth combined with the high turnover rate among restaurant employees means that overall job opportunities for chefs should be good through 2018. However, fine dining chefs hoping to work in upscale restaurants should expect significant competition.
Though the recent recession caused many Americans to reign in their restaurant spending, a survey conducted by the culinary magazine Star Chefs indicates that the salaries of chef/owners, executive chefs, chefs de cuisine, and pastry chefs rebounded in 2009 after taking a dip in 2008.
Average Fine Dining Chef Salary
Salaries for fine dining chefs vary greatly depending on experience, location, and type of establishment. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for chefs and head cooks in 2009 was $40,090. Chefs working in hotels tended to earn more than those in full-service restaurants, and chefs in the New York City metropolitan area had the highest mean annual wage at $80,940.
In its salary survey, Star Chefs reported the average 2009 wages for the following types of chefs:
- Chef/Owner: $85,685
- Executive chef: $79,402
- Chef de Cuisine: $57,417
- Pastry Chef: $48,861
- Sous Chef: $42,266
- Line Cook: $29,662
Earning a living as a chef requires dedication, perseverance, and passion. If you want to become a fine dining chef, formal training can lay the foundation for a successful, lasting career.
About the Author
Jessica Hanley is a writer pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing. Her previous experience includes marketing for the Penguin Young Readers Group and teaching writing to students of all ages. Jessica received a B.A. in English from Stanford University.