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How to Become a Cook

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

If you’re passionate about cooking, you might have considered pursuing a career as a professional cook. However, becoming a cook can be challenging for those without the right information. This guide simplifies the process, laying down a step-by-step approach to perfecting your culinary skills and becoming a professional cook.

Career Summary

How Much Do Cooks Make?

The average salary of cooks in the United States is roughly US$38,000.

According to Glassdoor, here is the full salary breakdown for cooks in the United States:

  • Entry Salary (US$33k)
  • Median Salary (US$38k)
  • Executive Salary (US$44k)

Compared to the average income of US citizens, this wage falls into the low-income category.

Cook Job Description

A cook is a culinary professional responsible for preparing and cooking food in various foodservice establishments, such as restaurants, hotels, and catering companies. Their main duties include chopping and measuring ingredients, using different cooking techniques, following recipes, and ensuring food safety and sanitation standards.

The cook job description also includes collaborating with the kitchen team to ensure efficient service during busy periods and managing kitchen equipment like stoves and ovens. They may also accommodate special dietary requirements and contribute to the overall success of the establishment by bringing creativity, precision, and passion to the kitchen.

Cook vs Chef

The “cook vs chef” question comes up often. Though used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. A cook prepares and cooks food, following recipes and working under a chef’s supervision. In contrast, a chef is a highly skilled culinary professional who leads the kitchen, manages operations, and is responsible for menu planning and recipe development, often with formal culinary education and extensive experience. This means that with experience, cooks can transition into chef roles.

Culinary Career Progression

  • Entry-Level Cook: This is the most basic position in a kitchen. Entry-level cooks typically have no formal training and are responsible for basic tasks, such as washing dishes, peeling vegetables, and preparing simple dishes.
  • Line Cook: Line cooks have some experience and are responsible for preparing specific dishes or stations in a kitchen. They may also be responsible for training and supervising entry-level cooks.
  • Chef de Partie or Section Chef: After mastering multiple stations, a cook might become responsible for a specific section of the kitchen, such as pastries, sauces, or grilled foods.
  • Sous Chef: Sous chefs are experienced cooks who are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of a kitchen. They may also be responsible for creating menus and training new cooks.
  • Executive Chef: Executive chefs are the top chefs in a restaurant or foodservice organization. They are responsible for all aspects of the kitchen, including food quality, menu development, and staff management.

Pros:

  • Opportunities to experiment with flavors and create unique dishes.
  • The joy of turning a love for cooking into a fulfilling career.
  • Cooks with experience and skills can go on to become executive chefs.
  • The sense of accomplishment of seeing satisfied customers after enjoying your dishes.
  • Cooks can work in various parts of the world, experiencing different cultures and cuisines.

Cons:

  • The job often entails working evenings, weekends, and holidays.
  • Kitchens are fast-paced and demanding during peak hours.
  • Constant exposure to sharp objects and hot surfaces.
  • Entry-level positions may have modest pay in some establishments.
  • Cooks sometimes have to deal with difficult customers.

Useful Skills to Have as a Cook

  • Culinary Techniques
  • Knife Skills
  • Food Safety
  • Creativity
  • Flavor Profiling

Popular Specialties for Cooks

  • Pastry Cook
  • Grill Cook
  • Sauté Cook
  • Fry Cook
  • Vegetarian/Vegan Cook
  • Seafood Cook

How to become a Cook

Cook 5 Steps to Career

Complete High School

Completing high school is the first step in becoming a cook. During this period, students develop essential skills like critical thinking, communication, and time management. While cooking may not be part of the curriculum, students can join cooking clubs or home economics classes to gain exposure. High school education serves as a foundation for further culinary learning and sets the stage for pursuing culinary arts in college or vocational programs. Additionally, practical experience through part-time jobs or volunteering in food-related settings can be valuable during high school.

Get Culinary Education and Training

Culinary training and education is a crucial step in becoming a cook. It involves enrolling in a culinary school, college, or vocational institute to receive formal education and practical experience in the field of culinary arts. The process may culminate in the completion of a culinary degree if you so wish, opening doors to advanced opportunities and a recognized credential in the world of gastronomy.

During culinary training, aspiring cooks learn a wide range of culinary techniques, cooking methods, and kitchen management skills. The training typically includes theoretical classes and hands-on experience in professional kitchens. Students gain knowledge about food safety and sanitation, nutrition, menu planning, and culinary theory.

Culinary training provides a strong foundation for aspiring cooks, helping them refine their skills and develop a deeper understanding of various cuisines. It also offers an opportunity to specialize in specific culinary areas, such as baking and pastry arts, international cuisine, or culinary management.

Culinary training is not only about learning recipes but also about honing creativity, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities. It allows cooks to explore their passion for cooking and prepares them for a successful career in the culinary field. After completing culinary training, some cooks may choose to seek additional certifications to showcase their expertise, such as obtaining a food safety certification like ServSafe.

Do I Need a Culinary Degree to Become a Cook?

No, you do not necessarily need a culinary degree to become a cook. While formal culinary education can be beneficial and provide a strong foundation of skills and knowledge, it is not the only path to becoming a cook.

What are the Benefits of Obtaining a Culinary Degree?

While a culinary degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a cook, it can be important for several reasons. First, a culinary degree provides a comprehensive and structured education in various culinary techniques, cooking principles, and kitchen management. It offers a well-rounded foundation that covers essential skills, food safety, and nutrition.

Second, having a culinary degree can make you a more competitive candidate in the job market. Some higher-level culinary positions, such as executive chef or sous chef in reputable restaurants or hotels, may prefer candidates with a formal culinary education.

Third, culinary programs often include valuable hands-on experience through internships or externships, which allow students to work in real-world kitchen settings under the guidance of experienced chefs. This practical training can enhance your skills and confidence in the kitchen.

Lastly, a culinary degree may provide networking opportunities, allowing you to connect with industry professionals, potential mentors, and future colleagues. These connections can open doors to job opportunities and career growth.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Culinary Arts Degree?

The duration to obtain a culinary arts degree can vary depending on the type of program you choose and your educational path. Generally, there are three main types of culinary arts programs:

  • Certificate/Diploma Programs: These programs are shorter in duration, typically ranging from a few months to a year. They offer focused training on specific culinary skills and are suitable for individuals looking for a quick entry into the culinary field.
  • Associate Degrees: Associate degree programs in culinary arts usually take about two years to complete. These programs provide a more comprehensive education, covering various culinary techniques, kitchen management, and general education courses.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees: Bachelor’s degree programs in culinary arts typically take about four years to complete. These programs offer an extensive and in-depth education in culinary arts, along with general education requirements.

Keep in mind that the actual time to complete a culinary arts degree may vary depending on factors such as the institution’s schedule, whether you study full-time or part-time, and any transferable credits you may have from previous education.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Culinary Degree?

The cost of getting a culinary degree depends on a few factors, including the type of program, the institution you choose, and your location. Here’s an overview of the approximate costs for different types of culinary programs:

  • Certificate/Diploma Programs: These programs are generally more affordable than associate or bachelor’s degree programs. The cost ranges between $17,550 and $47,000, depending on the program’s duration and the culinary school’s reputation.
  • Associate Degrees: Associate degree programs in culinary arts may cost between $35,000 and $56,000. The cost will vary based on the school’s location, program duration, and additional fees.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts can be more expensive, with costs ranging between $47,000 and $120,000. Prestigious culinary schools or universities may have higher tuition fees.

Keep in mind that the cost of culinary education is not limited to tuition fees alone. You should also consider the cost of living if you need to relocate for your culinary program and any additional expenses for books, culinary tools, uniforms, and other supplies.

Can I Become a Cook Through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a cook through online education, although it may have some limitations compared to traditional in-person culinary programs. Online culinary education has become increasingly popular, and there are various platforms and institutions that offer virtual cooking classes and culinary courses.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Better Cook?

The internet has made life easier in countless ways. With just a few clicks, we can now find answers to almost any question, learn new skills, and access a vast array of resources.

Here are some web resources to help you improve as a cook:

  • Serious Eats: This website offers in-depth articles, recipes, and cooking techniques backed by scientific explanations. It covers a wide range of cuisines and cooking styles.
  • America’s Test Kitchen: Known for its thorough recipe testing and product reviews, America’s Test Kitchen provides detailed cooking tutorials and instructional videos.
  • ChefSteps: This website offers comprehensive video courses on various culinary topics, including sous vide cooking, pastry arts, and advanced techniques.
  • The Kitchn: The Kitchn is a popular cooking and home lifestyle website that offers recipes, cooking tips, and kitchen hacks.
  • BBC Good Food: This website provides a vast collection of recipes, cooking tips, and culinary guides from various cuisines around the world.
  • Food52: Food52 offers recipes, cooking advice, and a community-driven platform for sharing culinary experiences.
  • Great British Chefs: This website features recipes and tips from some of the UK’s leading chefs, allowing you to explore British culinary excellence.

These specific web resources provide a wealth of information, instructional videos, and recipes to help you enhance your cooking skills and culinary knowledge. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced cook, these platforms offer valuable insights to elevate your culinary abilities.

Gain Experience

Cooking is a hands-on, sensory activity that goes beyond just following recipes. You need to really immerse yourself in it to master the craft. This is why it is important to gain a bit of experience through internships. Internships provide a unique opportunity to be immersed in the fast-paced and dynamic environment of a professional kitchen.

During internships, you learn from seasoned chefs who serve as mentors, guiding you through the intricacies of various cooking techniques, proper knife skills, and efficient kitchen organization. Their guidance helps you develop a deeper understanding of the culinary world that goes beyond what you can learn from a cookbook or online tutorial.

What Are Internship Opportunities for a Cook?

Internship opportunities for a cook can vary depending on the culinary field and the type of establishment.

Here are some common internship opportunities for aspiring cooks:

  • Restaurant Internships: Many restaurants, from fine-dining establishments to casual eateries, offer internships for aspiring cooks. During these internships, you will work in the kitchen, assist in food preparation, learn cooking techniques, and gain hands-on experience in a professional culinary setting.
  • Hotel Culinary Internships: Hotels with restaurants often have culinary internships where you can work in various kitchen departments, such as the main kitchen, pastry kitchen, or banquet kitchen. These internships expose you to a wide range of culinary tasks and offer insights into large-scale food production.
  • Catering Companies: Interning with a catering company provides experience in off-site food preparation and catering events. This opportunity allows you to learn about menu planning, event logistics, and working in dynamic settings.
  • Bakery and Pastry Internships: For those interested in baking and pastry arts, internships in bakeries or pastry shops offer hands-on experience in baking techniques, pastry preparation, and cake decorating.
  • Culinary Schools: Some culinary schools have internships as part of their curriculum, allowing students to gain practical experience while earning their degree or diploma.
  • Farm-to-Table Internships: Interning at a farm-to-table restaurant or farm can give you insights into sourcing local, sustainable ingredients and connecting with the farm-to-table culinary philosophy.
  • Culinary Apprenticeships: Apprenticeship programs, often offered by culinary organizations or industry associations, provide structured on-the-job training and mentorship from experienced chefs.
  • Cruise Ships or Resorts: Culinary internships on cruise ships or at resorts allow you to work in diverse culinary settings, serve a wide range of cuisines, and cater to guests from around the world.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Cook?

As a cook, you will learn a diverse set of skills that are essential for success in the culinary world. These skills encompass both technical abilities in the kitchen and interpersonal traits crucial for thriving in a fast-paced, team-oriented environment.

Here are some of the key skills you can expect to learn as a cook:

  • Culinary Techniques: You will master a wide range of cooking techniques, such as chopping, sautéing, grilling, baking, braising, and more. Learning these foundational skills is crucial for preparing a variety of dishes.
  • Knife Skills: Knife skills are fundamental for any cook. You will learn proper knife handling, various cutting techniques, and how to safely and efficiently work with different types of knives.
  • Food Safety and Sanitation: You will acquire knowledge about food safety practices, including proper food handling, storage, and hygiene, to ensure the safety of both customers and fellow kitchen staff.
  • Menu Planning: You will learn how to design and create menus, considering factors like seasonality, ingredient availability, and customer preferences.
  • Time Management: Cooking in a professional kitchen demands excellent time management skills. You will learn how to coordinate multiple tasks simultaneously and maintain efficiency during busy service periods.
  • Attention to Detail: The secrets of the best recipes are in the details. That is why precision and attention to detail are vital in cooking. You will learn to ensure accurate measurements, proper seasoning, and impeccable plating.
  • Flavor Profiling: Understanding the intricacies of flavors, balancing tastes, and developing your palate are essential skills that elevate your dishes.
  • Communication and Teamwork: Working in a kitchen requires teamwork and collaboration. You will learn to function as part of a cohesive team, communicating effectively and assisting and supporting each other to deliver high-quality dishes.
  • Creativity: Cooking is an art, and as a cook, you will learn to express your creativity through dishes, experimenting with ingredients, and presentation.
  • Customer Service: In some culinary roles, such as those in open kitchens or catering, you may have direct interactions with customers. You will learn customer service skills to ensure a positive dining experience.
  • Organizational Skills: Keeping the kitchen organized and maintaining a clean work area are essential skills that contribute to an efficient and productive kitchen.

These skills collectively form a strong foundation for a successful culinary career. As you gain experience and expertise, you will continue to refine and enhance these skills, leading to growth and advancement in the culinary field.

Get Additional Certifications (Optional)

Obtaining additional certifications in the culinary field can be a valuable way to enhance your skills, showcase your expertise, and open doors to new career opportunities.

Here are some examples of certifications you can pursue as a cook:

  • ServSafe Food Handler Certification: The ServSafe Food Handler Certification is a widely recognized credential that demonstrates your knowledge of food safety and sanitation practices. This certification is essential for anyone working in the foodservice industry, including cooks, to ensure safe food handling and minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.
  • Certified Culinarian (CC) – American Culinary Federation (ACF): The Certified Culinarian certification from the ACF is designed for entry-level culinary professionals. It validates your foundational culinary skills, including knife skills, cooking techniques, and safety procedures. This certification is an excellent starting point for cooks looking to establish their culinary credentials.
  • Certified Pastry Culinarian (CPC) – American Culinary Federation (ACF): The Certified Pastry Culinarian certification is specific to pastry and baking professionals. It demonstrates your skills in creating and presenting a variety of desserts, bread, and pastry items.
  • Certified Dietary Manager (CDM) and Certified Food Protection Professional (CFPP): The CDM certification demonstrates that the holder has the knowledge and skills necessary to manage foodservice operations in a variety of settings. On the other hand, the CFPP certification demonstrates the knowledge and skills necessary to protect food from contamination.

What’s the Career Outlook for Cooks?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of cooks is projected to grow 16 percent from 2021 to 2031. The growth rate is much faster than the average for all occupations in the United States. Also, more than 480,000 openings for cooks are expected each year, on average, over the decade.

The trend of dining out, opting for takeout, or ordering food delivery drive this growth. With the emergence of new restaurants, cafeterias, and catering services, there will be a heightened need for cooks to cater to this rising demand.

Cook Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Cook?

As a cook, you can explore various job opportunities in the culinary industry.

Here are some common job opportunities for cooks:

  • Line Cook: A line cook works on a specific station or line in the kitchen, such as the grill, sauté, or fry station. They prepare and plate dishes during service, ensuring a smooth flow of orders.
  • Prep Cook: A prep cook is responsible for preparing ingredients, such as chopping vegetables, marinating meats, and portioning items to assist the line cooks during service.
  • Breakfast Cook: A breakfast cook specializes in cooking breakfast dishes such as omelets, pancakes, and breakfast meats.
  • Pastry Cook: A pastry cook specializes in baking and creating a variety of desserts, pastries, and bread. They are skilled in dough preparation, cake decoration, and creating sweet treats.
  • Grill Cook: A grill cook is responsible for cooking meats, vegetables, and other foods on a grill or open flame. They excel at managing grill temperatures and ensuring proper cooking times for various dishes.
  • Sauté Cook: A sauté cook specializes in sautéing, where food is cooked quickly in a small amount of oil or butter. They are adept at creating flavorful dishes with rapid cooking methods.
  • Fry Cook: A fry cook focuses on frying foods, such as French fries, chicken, or tempura. They must maintain the correct oil temperature and ensure crispy and properly cooked items.
  • Banquet Cook: A banquet cook works in catering or large event settings. They prepare and serve food for banquets, weddings, conferences, and other gatherings, often in high volumes.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan Cook: A vegetarian/vegan cook focuses on preparing plant-based dishes, catering to individuals who follow vegetarian or vegan diets.
  • Seafood Cook: A seafood cook excels in cooking various types of seafood, including fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, often with specialized techniques to highlight the delicate flavors of the seafood.

These are just a few examples of the job opportunities available to cooks. The culinary industry is diverse, offering various paths for cooks to explore and specialize in different culinary niches.

What Type of Organizations Hire Cooks?

Cooks are in demand across various organizations and industries that involve food preparation and service.

Here are some types of organizations that commonly hire cooks:

  • Restaurants: Restaurants of all types, from fast-food chains to fine-dining establishments, hire cooks to prepare and cook dishes for their customers.
  • Hotels: Hotels with in-house restaurants, banquets, and room service departments require cooks to cater to guests’ dining needs.
  • Catering Companies: Catering companies hire cooks to prepare and serve food at events, weddings, parties, corporate functions, and other gatherings.
  • Cruise Ships: Cruise lines employ cooks to work in the galley and prepare meals for passengers and crew during cruises.
  • Hospitals and Healthcare Facilities: Healthcare institutions, including hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, hire cooks to provide nutritious meals for patients and residents.
  • Schools and Educational Institutions: Schools, colleges, and universities hire cooks to prepare meals for students and staff in cafeterias and dining halls.
  • Corporate Cafeterias: Many large corporations have on-site cafeterias that employ cooks to provide meals for employees.
  • Senior Living Facilities: Senior living communities and retirement homes employ cooks to prepare meals for their residents.
  • Food Trucks: Food truck businesses hire cooks to prepare and serve a variety of dishes from their kitchens on wheels.
  • Food Product Companies: Food manufacturers and test kitchens hire cooks to develop and test new recipes and food products.
  • Event Venues: Event venues, such as conference centers and convention halls, often hire cooks to cater to attendees during events and conferences.
  • Airline Catering: Airline catering companies employ cooks to prepare meals for airline passengers.
  • Military: In military settings, cooks, also known as military culinary specialists, are responsible for preparing meals for service members.
  • Prisons and Correctional Facilities: Prisons and correctional facilities employ cooks to prepare meals for inmates.

In addition to these organizations, some individuals and families hire private cooks to prepare meals in their homes. Whether working in a bustling restaurant, on a cruise ship, or in a healthcare facility, cooks play a crucial role in providing delicious and satisfying meals to cater to the needs of different people.

Top Tips to Balance Work and Life as a Cook

Balancing work and life as a cook can be challenging due to the demanding nature of the culinary profession. Long working hours, weekends, and holidays may be part of the job, but with some strategies and mindful practices, you can achieve a better work-life balance.

Here are some tips to help you balance work and life as a cook:

  • Create a Schedule: Try to establish a consistent work schedule that allows for predictable off days. Communicate your preferences for days off with your employer when possible to plan personal activities and time with loved ones.
  • Prioritize Self-Care: Take care of your physical and mental well-being. Make time for regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and relaxation. Self-care is essential to stay energized and focused in a demanding work environment.
  • Plan Meals in Advance: As a cook, you understand the importance of meal planning. Apply this principle to your personal life by preparing meals in advance for days when you have limited time to cook.
  • Make Time for Hobbies and Interests: Pursue hobbies and activities outside of work that bring you joy and relaxation. Whether it’s reading, painting, or sports, engaging in activities you love can help you decompress and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  • Limit Overtime: While overtime may sometimes be necessary, try to limit it as much as possible. Communicate with your employer about setting reasonable boundaries to avoid burnout.
  • Communicate with Family and Friends: Share your work schedule with your family and friends so they understand your availability. Effective communication helps manage expectations and prevents misunderstandings.

Should I become a Cook?

Becoming a cook can be a rewarding career choice for those who have a genuine passion for cooking and are willing to critically assess the steps involved in pursuing this path. It is essential to consider the education and training requirements, as well as the potential costs and time commitment involved in culinary programs.

Having a passion for cooking is crucial because it will fuel your dedication to mastering culinary techniques and experimenting with flavors. Beyond the technical skills, being a cook requires resilience to handle the demanding and fast-paced kitchen environment. Before making a decision, spend time in a kitchen setting, whether through internships or part-time work, to gain a firsthand experience of the culinary world and to confirm your enthusiasm for the profession.

Remember that cooking is an art that requires continuous learning and improvement, and it offers fulfillment to those who find joy in creating delicious dishes and bringing delight to others through their culinary creations.

Careers Related to Cook


Ibrahim Okunade

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