How do I Become an Executive Chef?

Gregory Hanson

The position of executive chef is often the most important in a restaurant, and there are several routes that one can follow to become an executive chef. An aspiring executive chef might attend a culinary school and use that experience to secure a position as a midlevel chef at a large restaurant, or to become an executive chef at a small or new restaurant. Another option for someone wishing to become an executive chef is to work up through the hierarchy of a typical kitchen, eventually earning a position as an executive chef. Someone with more daring and greater access to resources could simply open his own restaurant and instantly become an executive chef.

An executive chef.
An executive chef.

An executive chef, sometimes referred to as a chef de cuisine, is in charge of the entire kitchen operation of a restaurant and, often, of all of the administrative functions associated with that restaurant as well. In large restaurants, this is a major responsibility and includes staffing decisions, menu and wine selection, and oversight of the operation of the kitchen. The many responsibilities of this position mean that it is usually occupied by older, experienced chefs, who combine vision, cooking skill, and managerial experience. The position is often the pinnacle of career achievement.

A Chef de Partie, who works with an executive chef.
A Chef de Partie, who works with an executive chef.

One route that allows for the acquisition of the skills needed to become an executive chef begins with an education in a culinary school. These schools have increased greatly in number in recent years, and a degree from such a school does not guarantee a job. Training in a respectable culinary school, however, will provide a student with skill in cooking, menu creation, and kitchen management, all of which are useful for an executive chef. After securing a degree from a culinary school, a student will typically find a position within the hierarchy of a restaurant kitchen and then work his way up. Students who find work in more prestigious or larger restaurants will typically start nearer to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Kitchen experience can be acquired without a formal culinary education, and another path to becoming an executive chef is to acquire a wealth of practical culinary experience. This path will usually start closer to the bottom of a kitchen’s hierarchy but has several advantages. A chef who rises from the ranks of a kitchen will have a thorough understanding of every aspect of the business and will not have needed to incur any personal debt in the process.

A chef with access to capital may elect to found or purchase a restaurant, and thus instantly become an executive chef. This path requires financial backing or personal wealth. It also involves a relatively greater degree of risk, as poor decisions can destroy both a career and a life’s savings, but it can be the fastest path to the position of executive chef.

Chefs working in a restaurant kitchen.
Chefs working in a restaurant kitchen.

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