A culinary chef is anyone that makes their living in the culinary arts; a very broad spectrum of job descriptions. Some examples would include caterers, restaurant and hotel chefs, and bakery and pastry chefs. Using the loosest interpretation, anyone who cooks and prepares food & drink for a living can be called a chef. However, in everyday usage, chefs that are not working in very upscale, professional kitchens are usually referred to as cooks. Chefs might find employment in unexpected places such as hospitals and retirement centres or other places in the entertainment field, such as cruise ships or even providing food for movie sets, also known as craft services.
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Most chefs have some specialty or preferred area of work, though it may take time for a chef to settle into a particular niche. Frequently, the chefs that are in the highest demand are the ones that are skilled in a great many areas of preparation, with many skill sets that help to coordinate a kitchen. This career is a good choice for the very motivated person who enjoys a challenge and an active workplace, day in and day out. Long hours are almost a given for the average kitchen chef, and working late hours is very common as well. Many restaurants may close at 10:00PM, but their kitchens are not cleaned and prepped for the next day until 2:00AM. Attention to detail is important as well, for following recipes and keeping track of cooking supplies, stock levels, and managerial duties that are often expected of a restaurant chef. Being in good physical shape and maintaining excellent personal hygiene are also important for a position where one can expect to be on their feet at least eight hours a day, lifting heavy pots and kitchen equipment on a constant basis.
Entry level positions will be open to people willing to work hard, perform well, and move up the ladder. However, to bypass some rungs or to jumpstart a culinary career, a degree will certainly help. A wide variety of culinary training exists, ranging from one to four years. Nearly all graduates start their careers as an apprentice to a higher-level chef and work their way up, regardless of education. There are over 550 cooking schools in the United States alone, and more and more employers are expecting academic success from their prospective employees, especially in a tight economy. Of these, just under 70 schools have been accredited by the American Culinary Federation. Most schools offer a range of practical courses (cooking, prep-work, kitchen maintenance and organization) and specialization courses, for those with an eye towards the more lucrative chef work, such as pastry chef and regional and ethnic cuisine experts.
The culinary chef's workplace can be very diverse, ranging from restaurant and hotel kitchens to private chefs and nutritionists for hospitals, and many places in between. This tends to be a field with many possible careers paths. A newly graduated chef might test the waters by working for an established restaurant for a few years before establishing their own restaurant, if they have entrepreneurial leanings. Or, they might choose to start out as a caterer as a second job, while they gain experience and build a customer base before leaving a more established career. A restaurant chef, or "station chef" might work in any of the stations, ranging from preparing cold foods ("pantry chef"), making soup and hot hors d'oeuvres ("entremetier"), fry chef, grill chef, and saute chef ("saucier"). The saucier is oftentimes a semi-managerial position, with seniority over other line chefs. The sous chef, ("under-chef") has seniority over the saucier and other line chefs, and the head chef ("chef de cuisine") has seniority and authority over all of the kitchen workers.
The annual salary of a chef that is just starting out might seem insultingly low (probably somewhere in the low-to-middle 20s) but an experienced and well-established head chef will easily earn into the middle 30s, and a well-rounded executive chef, mid-career might expect to earn over $40,000. A specialty chef, on the other hand, might start their working career in the 30s and work up towards the 50s mid-career. Chefs that work as dietitians, nutritionists, or in other managerial areas average in the $40,000 range as well. Salary range can also vary widely depending on geographical location.
Salaries in large, well-populated urban areas might average 20% more than usual, while salaries in rural, sparsely populated areas might be on average 20% less than the standard rate of pay. Many if not most entry-level chef positions will not immediately offer benefits such as health insurance and retirement planning, but a chef working for an established restaurant, mid-career, can expect to earn these benefits later on.