Career path breakdown: from Line Cook to Executive Chef
Ambitious chefs who hope to run or own a restaurant one day know that there are several roles they need to experience before they reach the top. Maureen Drum Fagin, Director of Career Services at the Institute of Culinary Education, explains the different stages of a chef’s career, as we also break down average salaries along the way.
Chefs usually start out as line cooks, typically beginning with the garde manger station where they prepare cold foods. “That is the cold side of the line, so they're not yet dealing as much with heat and timing,” Drum Fagin says. From there, they may progress to sautéing, grilling, or frying, depending on the size and layout of the kitchen.
Line cook salary range: $15,075-$40,440 a year*
Line cook median salary: $24,730
The next step is to become a sous chef. A sous chef supervises the line cooks and may also be involved in setting the line cooks’ schedules. Sous chefs often play a part in hiring, too. Drum Fagin says that when someone applies for a job as a cook, “the sous chef might be the first contact point for setting up the time for them to come in and do a trial and then actually observing them during that trial.”
Sous chef salary range: $30,087-$53,180 a year
Sous chef median salary: $40,521
Executive sous chef
Above the sous chef is the executive sous chef, also known as a chef de cuisine. Drum Fagin explains that this role comes in when an executive chef owns multiple restaurants and needs someone to manage the individual locations. “They're going to need essentially an executive chef, which would be called a chef de cuisine or executive sous chef, in those restaurants in order to oversee the entire operation.”
Executive sous chef salary range: $39,184-$74,091
Executive sous chef median salary: $51,621
The highest level of chef is executive chef, or chef/owner if the chef has a financial stake in the restaurant. The executive chef works closely with the restaurant’s general manager and has a role in all aspects of the business, including staff development, costing items, quality control, and talking to the media. And executive chefs create a vision for their restaurants. “They're the leader in terms of the philosophy and the menu focus,” Drum Fagin says.
Executive chef salary range: $39,283-$85,004
Executive chef median salary: $57,632
Career path for a chef
How long it takes to progress from line cook to executive chef depends on many factors, including how competitive the market is. Drum Fagin says that in markets where restaurants face tight financial pressures, such as in New York City, the rise to the highest level of chef is difficult. Elsewhere, it can sometimes be achieved in less time. “Those in secondary or tertiary markets can make that rise a little more quickly if they've got some good experience under their belts from elsewhere,” she says.
Drum Fagin also notes that those who want to climb the ranks often work in different restaurants at different stages of their career to further their education. “Cooks tend to know after a year or two that they've learned what they can from a certain chef and then typically seek out another perspective, some other chef's philosophy to learn under,” she says. “Being a chef is constantly a learning opportunity.”
* Salaries according to Payscale
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