Chef 101: How to Get a High-Paying Job in the Kitchen

Forget culinary school. Get a restaurant gig first, say veterans.

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On a recent routine visit, a purveyor walked into Jesse Cool's Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, Calif., and told the restaurateur he was thinking of leaving a job on his family's organic farm to attend cooking school. Cool, a 33-year industry veteran, gently advised him first to see if he could live on a fraction of his wages for three years.

"I told him he had two choices, that he could go to school and spend a lot and learn a lot, or that instead of going to school, he could spend three years getting paid low wages and just work in kitchens and learn," Cool says. "If you walk into a kitchen and say, 'I want to spend six months here as a prep cook. I want to work hard and learn,' those of us in the business are grateful."

Cool, who also runs the Cool Cafe at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, and the JZ Cool Eatery & Wine Bar, also in Menlo Park, adds that if you're investing the time to learn and if you choose well, you can learn the basics by working.

To school, or not to school, is no small debate in the industry. "If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you kind of have to go to school, but cooking is a trade. I'm sorry, but it's a blue-collar job," says Dory Ford, executive chef for the Portola Restaurant and Cafe and in-house catering service at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

According to a survey of 1,730 kitchen professionals released in May by the industry insider website, the average starting salary for a line cook in 2007 was $13.07 an hour, while the average salary for an executive chef was $77,611.

In 2007, executive sous chefs earned an average of $55,679, sous chefs $42,104, and pastry chefs $53,017, according to the survey. Executive chefs at country clubs or private dining operations earned the most of those in the categories surveyed (an average of $87,068 a year), followed by hotel executive chefs ($86,066), fine dining executive chefs ($78,348), and upscale casual executive chefs ($69,708).

Longevity is the key to bringing in those top salaries. Of those surveyed, chefs averaged between 15 and 20 years in the industry, while executive chefs earning six figures had more than 24 years of experience.

Will school or working on the job help you reach that level?

"When I think about modern cooking school education, I've got young kids getting out of school carrying $60,000 in debt and they come into my office and I tell them, '$9.50 to $10 an hour to start.' And they're being told by cooking schools they'll start out making $15 an hour," Ford says.

Ford says he was expelled from cooking school because he worked too many hours at an outside job. He is now pursuing his master's certification from the Culinary Institute of America.

Ford says he has talked some people out of going to cooking school for reasons similar to Jesse Cool's and recommends that anyone who wants to get a culinary school education, to work in the industry first.

If school isn't your thing, you can still obtain knowledge by taking specific classes in sauces, charcuterie, pastry, or the like, he says.

"I have had [culinary] students who have done well and those who didn't do well, and I've had employees with no experience do well. It's all about individual personality," Ford says "I look for passion, whether they've gone to school or not, because then I know they will pay attention, that their answer will always be, 'yes, chef.' "

At the School of Culinary Arts of Kendall College in Chicago, Dean Christopher Koetke acknowledges that culinary education is an expensive investment. Tuition for full-time study runs about $7,000 a quarter. Bachelor of arts students with at least a 2.5 GPA receive a $1,500 scholarship each quarter for their third and fourth years of study.

"Doing culinary education correctly is an expensive proposition, and we believe you have to put in significant time. You can't shorten the cycle," Koetke says. "We have classes that purposefully put the student under a fair amount of stress and comprehensive exams that are very serious.