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Whether our culinary skills limit us to pouring a bowl of cereal or extend to putting the finishing touches on homemade beef bourguignon, we all prepare food. Professional restaurant cooks, however, take food preparation to another level. They do the basic tasks of cooking, of course – braising, blanching, wisking, garnishing, grilling and more. But they’ve also mastered other talents. The best have cool heads and fast fingers to maneuver in a pressure-cooking kitchen – literally – and quickly and efficiently get customers’ orders to the table. They have a nimble imagination for switching up the menu and substituting ingredients, an affable personality for fielding both compliments and complaints and a collaborative spirit for managing and working well with other kitchen staff.
A vibrant foodie culture continues to benefit the dining industry, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 150,100 new openings for restaurant cooks between 2012 and 2022. Cooks with formal training have the best job prospects, and those working as lower-level kitchen cooks (known as line cooks and sous chefs) will see more opportunity, as restaurants attempt to cut costs and avoid hiring head cooks or chefs.
Restaurant cooks make surprisingly low salaries. The median salary in 2012 was $22,030, while those in the top-10 percentile earned $31,630. The lowest-paid earned approximately $16,920. Head cooks and chefs earned more in a year: The highest-paid took home approximately $74,120 in 2012. And it’s no surprise that the cooks who earn the largest paychecks work in epicurean hubs like Philadelphia and Napa, Calif.
This occupation involves more than just stewing and braising. Becoming proficient in cooking styles, techniques and food safety requires training, not to mention considerable experience. It’s common to learn while on the job, but attending an accredited cooking program is recommended, particularly for those who want to turn cooking into a career. It’s also possible to receive certification for various skill levels.
Michael J. Beriau, the executive chef at the White Cliffs Country Club in Plymouth, Mass., has a wealth of pointers for prospective cooks. First, he suggests spending at least a year working in a kitchen (as an assistant or perhaps on cleanup) to get to know the working environment and grow accustomed to the hours. Then, spend another year working as a cook in that same kitchen. Next, go to culinary school: “They also need to have great communication skills, great computer skills and it helps to have a bachelor’s degree in restaurant administration,” he says. “That could launch them ahead of other candidates [with job prospects], maybe by even 12 years.”
The hiring process varies, but Beriau says the first thing he looks for in a potential hire is a well-written résumé for someone who has worked at least two years in the same position. Then, that person might receive a sit-down interview, and if that goes well, a call back for a two-hour practical interview during which he or she will need to prepare both a chicken and fish dish. “I’m not looking for them to knock the dish out the park,” he explains. “I want to find out if the food harmonizes with each other. Does the sauce go well with the dish. We’re also watching over them to judge their preparation skills, their sanitation skills and their temperament.”
|Upward Mobility||good Above Average|
|Stress Level||poor Above Average|
Last updated by Jada A. Graves.