Career, Salary and Education Information

What They Do: Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods.

Work Environment: Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, private households, and other places where food is prepared and served. They often work early mornings, late evenings, holidays, and weekends.

How to Become One: Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training and related work experience. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks attend culinary school.

Salary: The median hourly wage for cooks is $14.00.

Job Outlook: Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 16 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Related Careers: Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of cooks with similar occupations.

Following is everything you need to know about a career as a cook with lots of details. As a first step, take a look at some of the following jobs, which are real jobs with real employers. You will be able to see the very real job career requirements for employers who are actively hiring. The link will open in a new tab so that you can come back to this page to continue reading about the career:

Top 3 Cook Jobs

  • Cook 2 - Full Time - Santa Monica Proper - Los Angeles, CA

    The Cook 2 sets up and provides quality service in all areas of food production for menu items and specials in the designated outlets in accordance with standards and plating guide specifications

  • Pastry Cook/Baker - Interlachen Country Club - Minneapolis, MN

    Pastry Cook /Baker Interlachen Country Club is seeking a pastry cook to join our Pastry Department! We believe in serving from the heart. We are looking for teammates who embody our values of Honesty ...

  • Line - Prep Cook - WEDGEWOOD WEDDINGS - Benicia, CA

    The Wedgewood Weddings Prep/Line Cook participates in the food preparation and culinary execution of our wedding receptions and special events. We are open seven days a week, and we have both daytime ...

See all Cook jobs

What Cooks Do[About this section] [To Top]

Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods, which may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.

Duties of Cooks

Cooks typically do the following:

  • Ensure the freshness of food and ingredients
  • Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
  • Bake, grill, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Arrange, garnish, and sometimes serve food
  • Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, and dishes
  • Cook, handle, and store food or ingredients

Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers. Large restaurants and food service establishments often have multiple menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.

Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example.

Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.

The responsibilities of cooks vary depending on the type of food service establishment, the size of the facility, and the level of service offered. However, in all establishments, they follow sanitation procedures when handling food. For example, they store food and ingredients at the correct temperatures to prevent bacterial growth.

The following are examples of types of cooks:

Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies and help maintain the stock room.

Fast-food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served. For more information on workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.

Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. Although they typically prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, according to preset menus, they do sometimes customize meals according to diners' dietary considerations.

Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.

Private household cooks, sometimes called personal chefs, plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client's tastes and dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other social events. Private household cooks typically work full-time for one client, although many are self-employed or employed by an agency, regularly making meals for multiple clients.

Work Environment for Cooks[About this section] [To Top]

Cooks hold about 2.6 million jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up cooks is distributed as follows:

Restaurant cooks 1,255,600
Fast food cooks 792,300
Institution and cafeteria cooks 410,100
Short order cooks 129,800
Private household cooks 41,400
All other cooks 19,500

The largest employers of cooks are as follows:

Restaurants and other eating places 73%
Healthcare and social assistance 6%
Educational services; state, local, and private 5%

Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, and other establishments where food is prepared and served. They often prepare only part of a dish and coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time. Some work in private homes.

Cooks stand for long periods and work under pressure in a fast-paced environment. Although most cooks work indoors in kitchens, some may work outdoors at food stands, at catered events, or in mobile food trucks.

Injuries and Illnesses for Cooks

Kitchens are usually crowded and filled with potential dangers, such as hot ovens or slippery floors. "Cooks, all other," in particular, have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.

The most common hazards are slips, falls, cuts, and burns, although injuries are seldom serious. To reduce the risks, cooks wear long-sleeve shirts, gloves, aprons, and nonslip shoes.

Cook Work Schedules

Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias are usually more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.

How to Become a Cook[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Cooks near you!

Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training and work-related experience. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.

Education for Cooks

Vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and some colleges offer culinary programs for aspiring cooks. These programs generally last from a few months to 2 years and may offer courses in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and various cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.

Cook Training

Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Trainees generally first learn kitchen basics and workplace safety and then learn how to handle and cook food.

Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may sponsor such programs for cooks. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef.

The American Culinary Federation accredits many academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 17
  • High school education or equivalent

Some hotels and a number of restaurants offer their own training programs.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation for Cooks

Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker, learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.

Advancement for Cooks

The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs, personal chefs, pastry chefs, and culinary administrators, among others. For cooks seeking advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare more complex dishes. Those who learn new cooking skills and who handle greater responsibility, such as supervising kitchen staff in the absence of a chef, often advance. Some cooks may train or supervise kitchen staff, and some may become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.

Important Qualities for Cooks

Comprehension. Cooks need to understand orders and follow recipes to prepare dishes correctly.

Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to use proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Physical stamina. Cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.

Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.

Cook Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median hourly wage for cooks is $14.00. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.58, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.47.

Median hourly wages for cooks are as follows:

Cooks, private household $20.63
Cooks, all other $14.77
Cooks, restaurant $14.43
Cooks, institution and cafeteria $14.38
Cooks, short order $13.73
Cooks, fast food $11.63

The median hourly wages for cooks in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Healthcare and social assistance $14.64
Restaurants and other eating places $13.87
Educational services; state, local, and private $13.78

Pay for cooks varies greatly by region and type of employer. Pay is usually highest in hotels, many of which are located in major metropolitan and resort areas.

Most cooks work full time, although part-time work is common. Work schedules may vary and may include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. In school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias, cooks usually have more regular hours.

Cooks employed in schools may work only during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, cooks employed in some resort establishments work only for seasonal operation.

Job Outlook for Cooks[About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 16 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 480,600 openings for cooks are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment of Cooks

Projected employment of cooks varies by occupation. Some of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession of 2020 after pandemic restrictions had significant effects on the employment levels of cooks.

Population and income growth are expected to result in greater consumer demand for food at a variety of dining places. People will continue to eat out, buy takeout meals, or have food delivered. More restaurants, cafeterias, and catering services will open, requiring more cooks to prepare meals for this increased consumer demand.

In addition, consumers continue to prefer healthy foods and fast service in restaurants, grocery stores, and other dining venues. To prepare high-quality meals at these places, many managers and chefs will require experienced cooks.

Employment of fast food cooks is projected to decline. Efforts to streamline operations are expected to reduce demand for cooks in fast food establishments. For example, automated systems and employment of workers who both prepare and serve food to customers may limit the need for fast food cooks.

Employment projections data for Cooks, 2021-31
Occupational Title Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31
Percent Numeric
Cooks 2,648,700 3,068,000 16 419,300
  Cooks, fast food 792,300 723,200 -9 -69,100
  Cooks, institution and cafeteria 410,100 436,000 6 25,900
  Cooks, private household 41,400 40,700 -2 -700
  Cooks, restaurant 1,255,600 1,715,600 37 459,900
  Cooks, short order 129,800 131,100 1 1,300
  Cooks, all other 19,500 21,400 10 1,900

A portion of the information on this page is used by permission of the U.S. Department of Labor.

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