Dietary Aides and Cooks

Institution and cafeteria cooks, for example, work in the kitchens of schools,  cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions.

Job openings for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are expected to be plentiful through 2010.

Additional Information | Earnings | Employment | Job Outlook | Nature of the Work | Related Occupations | Significant Points | Training & Advancement | Working Conditions

Significant Points

* Many young people work as chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers-almost 20 percent are between 16 and 19 years old.

* Almost 1 out of 2 food preparation workers are employed part time. 

* Job openings are expected to be plentiful through 2010, primarily reflecting substantial turnover in this large occupation.

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Nature of the Work

A reputation for serving good food is essential to the success of any restaurant or hotel, whether it offers exotic cuisine or hamburgers. Chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are largely responsible for establishing and maintaining this reputation. Chefs and cooks do this by preparing meals, while other food preparation workers assist them by cleaning surfaces, peeling vegetables, and performing other duties.

In general, chefs and cooks measure, mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes. In the course of their work they use a variety of pots, pans, cutlery, and other equipment, including ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders. Chefs and head cooks often are responsible for directing the work of other kitchen workers, estimating food requirements, and ordering food supplies. Some chefs and head cooks also help plan meals and develop menus. 

Large eating places tend to have varied menus and kitchen staffs often include several chefs and cooks, sometimes called assistant or apprentice chefs and cooks, along with other less skilled kitchen workers. Each chef or cook usually has a special assignment and often a special job title-vegetable, fry, or sauce cook, for example. Executive chefs and head cooks coordinate the work of the kitchen staff and often direct the preparation of certain foods. They decide the size of servings, plan menus, and buy food supplies. Although the terms chef and cook still are used interchangeably, chefs tend to be more highly skilled and better trained than most cooks. Due to their skillful preparation of traditional dishes and refreshing twists in creating new ones, many chefs have earned fame for both themselves and for the establishments where they work.

The specific responsibilities of most cooks are determined by a number of factors, including the type of restaurant in which they work. Institution and cafeteria cooks, for example, work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts. Restaurant cooks usually prepare a wider selection of dishes, cooking most orders individually. Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service. They grill and garnish hamburgers, prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, 
often working on several orders at the same time. Fast food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package batches of food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, which are prepared to order or kept warm until sold. Private household cooks plan and prepare meals, clean the kitchen, order groceries and supplies, and also may serve meals.

Other food preparation workers, under the direction of chefs and cooks, perform tasks requiring less skill. They weigh and measure ingredients, go after pots and pans, and stir and strain soups and sauces. These workers also clean, peel, and slice vegetables and fruits and make salads. They may cut and grind meats, poultry, and seafood in preparation for cooking. Their responsibilities also include cleaning work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware.

The number and types of workers employed in kitchens depends on the type of establishment. For example, fast-food establishments offer only a few items, which are prepared by fast-food cooks. Small, full-service restaurants offering casual dining often feature a limited number of easy-to-prepare items supplemented by short-order specialties and ready-made desserts. Typically, one cook prepares all the food with the help of a short-order cook and one or two other kitchen workers.

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Working Conditions

Many restaurant and institutional kitchens have modern equipment, convenient work areas, and air conditioning, but many kitchens in older and smaller eating places are not as well equipped. Working conditions depend on the type and quantity of food being prepared and the local laws governing food service operations. Workers usually must withstand the pressure and strain of working in close quarters, standing for hours at a time, lifting heavy pots and kettles, and working near hot ovens and grills. Job hazards include slips and falls, cuts, and burns, but injuries are seldom serious.

Work hours in restaurants may include early mornings, late evenings, holidays, and weekends. Work schedules of chefs, cooks and other kitchen workers in factory and school cafeterias may be more regular. Nearly 3 in 10 cooks and 1 out of 5 other kitchen and food preparation workers have part-time schedules, compared to 1 out of 7 workers throughout the economy.

The wide range in dining hours creates work opportunities attractive to homemakers, students, and other individuals seeking supplemental income. For example, about 27 percent of kitchen and food preparation workers are 16-19 years old. Kitchen workers employed by public and private schools may work during the school year only, usually for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, establishments at vacation resorts usually only offer seasonal employment.

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Chefs, cooks and food preparation workers held more than 2.8 million jobs in 2000. The distribution of jobs among the various types of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers was as follows:

Food preparation workers 844,000
Cooks, restaurant 668,000
Cooks, fast food 522,000
Cooks, institution and cafeteria 465,000
Cooks, short order 205,000
Chefs and head cooks 139,000
Cooks, private household 5,200

Almost 60 percent of all chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers were employed in restaurants and other retail eating and drinking places. About 20 percent worked in institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, and nursing homes. Grocery stores, hotels, and other organizations employed the remainder.

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Training and Advancement

Most chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers start as fast-food or short-order cooks, or in other lower skilled kitchen positions. These positions require little education or training, and most skills are learned on the job. After acquiring some basic food handling, preparation, and cooking skills, these workers may be able to advance to an assistant cook position.

Although a high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs, it is recommended for those planning a career as a cook or chef. High school or vocational school courses in business arithmetic and business administration are particularly helpful. Many school districts, in cooperation with State departments of education, provide on-the-job training and summer workshops for cafeteria kitchen workers with aspirations of becoming cooks. Large corporations in the food service and hotel industries also offer paid internships and summer jobs, which can provide valuable experience.

To achieve the level of skill required of an executive chef or cook in a fine restaurant, many years of training and experience are necessary. An increasing number of chefs and cooks obtain their training through high school, post-high school vocational programs, or 2- or 4-year colleges. Chefs and cooks also may be trained in apprenticeship programs offered by professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions. An example is the 3-year apprenticeship program administered by local chapters of the American Culinary 
Federation in cooperation with local employers and junior colleges or vocational education institutions. In addition, some large hotels and restaurants operate their own training programs for cooks and chefs. People who have had courses in commercial food preparation may be able to start in a cook or chef job without having to spend time in a lower skilled kitchen job. Their education may give them an advantage when looking for jobs in better restaurants and hotels, where hiring standards often are high. Although some vocational programs in high schools offer training, employers usually prefer training given by trade schools, vocational centers, colleges, professional associations, or trade unions. Postsecondary courses range from a few months to 2 years or more and are open, in some cases, only to high school graduates. About 8 to 15 years as a cook is required to become a fully qualified chef. Those who gain experience, including in a supervisory capacity, may become executive chefs with responsibility for more than one kitchen. The U.S. Armed Forces also are a good source of training and experience.

Although curricula may vary, students in these programs usually spend most of their time learning to prepare food through actual practice. They learn to bake, broil, and otherwise prepare food, and to use and care for kitchen equipment. Training programs often include courses in menu planning, determination of portion size, food cost control, purchasing food supplies in quantity, selection and storage of food, and use of leftover food to minimize waste. Students also learn hotel and restaurant sanitation and public health rules for handling food. Training in supervisory and management skills sometimes is emphasized in courses offered by private vocational schools, professional associations, and university programs.

Across the Nation, a number of schools offer culinary courses. The American Culinary Federation has accredited over 100 training programs and a offers a number of apprenticeship programs around the country. Typical apprenticeships last three years and combine classroom and work experience. Accreditation is an indication that a culinary program meets recognized standards regarding course content, facilities, and quality of instruction. The American Culinary Federation also certifies pastry professionals, culinary educators, and chefs and cooks at the levels of cook, working chef, executive chef, and master chef. Certification standards are based 
primarily on experience and formal training.

Important characteristics for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers include the ability to work as part of a team, a keen sense of taste and smell, and personal cleanliness. Most States require health certificates indicating that workers are free from communicable diseases.

Advancement opportunities for chefs and cooks are better than for most other food and beverage preparation and service occupations. Many chefs and cooks acquire high-paying positions and new cooking skills by moving from one job to another. Besides culinary skills, advancement also depends on ability to supervise less skilled workers and limit food costs by minimizing waste and accurately anticipating the amount of perishable supplies needed. Some chefs and cooks go into business as caterers or restaurant owners, while others become instructors in vocational programs in high schools, community colleges, or other academic institutions. A number of cooks and chefs advance to executive chef positions or supervisory or management positions, particularly in hotels, clubs, and larger, more elegant restaurants.

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Job Outlook

Job openings for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are expected to be plentiful through 2010. While job growth will create new positions, the overwhelming majority of job openings will stem from the need to replace workers who leave this large occupational group. Minimal educational and training requirements, combined with a large number of part-time positions, make employment as chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers attractive to people seeking a short-term source of income and a flexible schedule. In coming years, these workers will continue to transfer to other occupations or stop working to assume household responsibilities 
or to attend school full time, creating numerous openings for those entering the field.

Job openings stemming from replacement needs will be supplemented by new openings resulting from employment growth, as overall employment of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations over the 2000-10 period. Employment growth will be spurred by increases in population, household income, and leisure time that will allow people to dine out and take vacations more often. In addition, growth in the number of two-income households will lead more families to opt for the convenience of dining out.

Projected employment growth, however, varies by specialty. Increases in the number of families and the more affluent, 55-and-older population will lead to more restaurants that offer table service and more varied menus-resulting in faster-than-average growth among higher-skilled restaurant cooks. As more Americans choose more full-service restaurants, employment of fast-food cooks is expected to decline and employment of short-order cooks, most of whom work in fast-food restaurants, is expected to grow more slowly than average. Duties of cooks in fast-food restaurants are limited; most workers are likely to be combined food preparation and 
serving workers, rather than fast-food cooks. In addition, fast-food restaurants increasingly offer healthier prepared foods, further reducing the need for cooks.

Employment of institution and cafeteria chefs and cooks also will grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. Their employment will not keep pace with the rapid growth in the educational and health services industries-where their employment is concentrated. In an effort to make "institutional food" more attractive to students, staff, visitors, and patients, high schools and hospitals increasingly contract out their food services. Many of the contracted food service companies emphasize simple menu items and employ short-order cooks, instead of institution and cafeteria cooks, reducing the demand for these workers.

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Wages of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers depend greatly on the part of the country and the type of establishment in which they are employed. Wages usually are highest in elegant restaurants and hotels, where many executive chefs are employed.

Median hourly earnings of head cooks and chefs were $12.07 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.98 and $16.75. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.39, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22.77 per hour. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of head cooks and chefs in 2000 were:

Miscellaneous amusement and recreation services $16.50
Hotels and motels 15.78
Eating and drinking places 11.03

Median hourly earnings of restaurant cooks were $8.72 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $7.35 and $10.33. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $6.30, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $12.43 per hour. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of restaurant cooks in 2000 were:

Hotels and motels $9.97
Miscellaneous amusement and recreation services 9.68
Eating and drinking places 8.57

Median hourly earnings of cooks in fast-food restaurants were $6.53 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $5.90 and $7.53. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.49, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $8.43 per hour. Median hourly earnings in eating and drinking places, the industry employing the largest number of fast-food cooks, were $6.52 in 2000.

Median hourly earnings of short-order cooks were $7.55 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $6.32 and $9.20. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.67, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $10.83 per hour. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of short-order cooks in 2000 were:

Hotels and motels $8.66
Miscellaneous amusement and recreation services 7.94
Eating and drinking places 7.57
Gasoline service stations 6.87
Grocery stores 6.60

Median hourly earnings of institution and cafeteria cooks were $8.22 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $6.70 and $10.24. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.84, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $12.53 per hour. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of institution and cafeteria cooks in 2000 were:

Hospitals $9.37
Nursing and personal care facilities 8.50
Eating and drinking places 8.29
Elementary and secondary schools 7.65
Child day care services 7.52

Median hourly earnings of food preparation workers were $7.38 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $6.28 and $8.81. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.67, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $10.65 per hour. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of food preparation workers in 2000 were:

Elementary and secondary schools $8.14
Hospitals 8.12
Grocery stores 7.90
Nursing and personal care facilities 7.56
Eating and drinking places 6.88

Some employers provide employees with uniforms and free meals, but Federal law permits employers to deduct from their employees' wages the cost or fair value of any meals or lodging provided, and some employers do so. Chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers who work full time often receive typical benefits, but part-time workers usually do not.

In some large hotels and restaurants, kitchen workers belong to unions. The principal unions are the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union and the Service Employees International Union.

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Related Occupations

Workers who perform tasks similar to those of chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers include food processing occupations such as butchers and meat cutters, and bakers.

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Additional Information

Information about job opportunities may be obtained from local employers and local offices of the State employment service.

Career information about chefs, cooks, and other kitchen workers, as well as a directory of 2- and 4-year colleges that offer courses or programs that prepare persons for food service careers, is available from:

* National Restaurant Association, 1200 17th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-3097. Internet:

For information on the American Culinary Federation's apprenticeship and certification programs for cooks, as well as a list of accredited culinary programs, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to:

* American Culinary Federation, 10 San Bartola Dr., St. Augustine, FL 32085. Internet:

For general information on hospitality careers, contact:

* International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education, 3205 Skipwith Rd., Richmond, VA 23294-4442. Internet:

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