Cooks often learn very quickly that there is no single path through the ranks of a kitchen. While one line cook may make lateral moves from restaurant to restaurant before advancing, another may climb quickly from line cook to lead to sous chef, all with the same employer.
Nonetheless, if you’re like many culinary students, you have your eyes on the ultimate prize: becoming an executive chef. The opportunity to express your creativity in the kitchen — and the higher income that may come with it — is an exciting goal.
An executive chef is ultimately a leadership role — responsible for overseeing a team of other chefs, building new menus, training kitchen staff, and managing the general operations of the kitchen.
While the path may be winding, there are some common skills and experiences that many executive chefs share. Set yourself up for success by keeping these traits and accomplishments in mind as you progress on your culinary career.
Love of Learning
Becoming an executive chef starts with education. While not all executive chefs have gone to culinary school, they are united in their pursuit of cooking and food knowledge.
Whether one is just starting out or looking to build on their existing skill set, attending culinary school could help those hoping to rise in the ranks. While culinary school students don’t graduate with the title of “chef,” they have the opportunity to learn both kitchen fundamentals and business skills that may help them in their careers.
“I think that students that go to culinary school have an advantage over those that don’t. The students or the cooks that I’ve hired that went to culinary school, I didn’t have to teach them how to brunoise cut a carrot. They knew how to do it.”
Escoffier Chef Instructor John Hummel
Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offers degree and diploma programs in Culinary Arts, Pastry Arts, and Food & Beverage Operations. Some of our diploma programs include courses such as Foodservice Management, Purchasing & Cost Control, and Menu Design & Management, while associate degree programs offer additional courses that could be useful in running a professional kitchen.
Escoffier’s associate degree curriculums, for example, include courses in:
- Restaurant Operations
- Business & Professional Communications
- Foodservice Math & Accounting
As we’ll discuss in further detail below, these “beyond the kitchen” skills may prove nearly as important to the future executive chef as their cooking chops.
Whether a culinarian gets their education in school or on the job, lifelong learning remains important throughout their careers. Chefs need to keep absorbing information about world cuisines, unusual techniques, and industry trends, both locally and nationally.
Plenty of Experience
While education is essential to following a career path in professional cooking, there are no shortcuts. All new cooks, even those fortunate enough to find their first jobs at the finest restaurants, have to learn the ropes of a professional kitchen.
Most executive chefs have worked their way through the ranks of the kitchen, which can take seven to ten years according to Escoffier Chef Instructor John Hummel.
This climb is about more than just proving you can do a job. A strong executive chef can communicate well with the staff because he or she has done their jobs in the past. The chef understands the time and effort required for even the most basic tasks, and knows why it matters that they are all done correctly.
“I think that every professional chef is a balance between lots of experience and lots of education.”
Lance McWhorter, Food Network “Chopped” contestant, Executive Chef & Owner of Culture ETX, and Escoffier Online Culinary Arts graduate
The last stop on the road to becoming an executive chef is often the sous chef position. Up to this point, the cook may have been a shift lead or prep supervisor. But the sous chef will have to manage the kitchen and delegate responsibility on behalf of the executive chef. It’s a completely new skillset to many new chefs, and it must be mastered before a sous chef can hope to become an executive chef.
A Clear Vision
As cooks work their way through the kitchen ranks, they get accustomed to focusing on the here and now. They have to execute these dishes for these tickets in this many minutes. The work is focused and immediate.
The executive chef, however, needs to pay attention to both the tiny details and the big picture. They are responsible for not only each individual plate that leaves the kitchen, but the kitchen’s execution of the overall restaurant concept.
This means that not every great idea can make it onto the menu. If the chef has an idea for a wonderful new dish, but it’s twice as expensive as everything else on the menu, then it won’t be a good fit.
An executive chef has to keep a bird’s eye view on the restaurant concept — while also juggling the management and performance of the kitchen. That’s a lot of balls in the air!
Management & Communication Skills
A successful executive chef must be almost as good with people as they are with food. In fact, some chefs may find they spend more time managing their staff than they do cooking!
Proper kitchen management will involve setting up systems for safety and efficiency. This will include procedures for receiving and rotating product, clear prep sheets, inventory guidelines, and cleaning plans.
It’s also up to chefs to hire, train, and nurture their staff. By providing encouragement and correction where appropriate, chefs can make team members feel valued in the workplace.
That’s why good communication and positive relationships are so important for success. And the most important relationship of all may be with the sous chef. The sous is the executive chef’s right hand. They may be responsible for making schedules, training staff, ordering inventory, and updating recipes.
A trustworthy sous chef will make the executive chef’s life much easier! That means the head chef has to be able to delegate. It sounds easy, but letting go of responsibility is a management task that doesn’t always come easily!
The restaurant business is just that — a business. And as the head of the kitchen, the executive chef has to keep up with the numbers.
This will include managing food costs and preventing waste. It will also include pricing out menu items in a way that earns a fair profit for the restaurant. Some of Escoffier’s on-campus and online programs include courses that teach culinary math and recipe costing as part of their curriculum.
An executive chef may also have to manage labor costs. As the most expensive labor pool in the restaurant, the kitchen must always walk a fine line between too much staff and not enough. At what point in a slow shift do you send someone home? What if there’s a late rush, and now you’re understaffed? It can be a difficult balance to get right.
“Not only are we artists as chefs, but we do need to be conscious of the business side of it. And that structure is so important. Don’t be completely driven by money, but always have that common sense business logic in the back of your head. Because that’s going to carry you.”
Chef Ben Robinson of Bravo Network show “Below Deck”
Chefs must also have some technical skills. They may work with inventory spreadsheets and apps like OpenTable or Toast. So basic computer literacy is required for today’s executive chefs in a way that wasn’t necessary for previous generations.
Passion for Cooking
The path to becoming an executive chef can be a long one. That’s why a passion for cooking is so important.
A dream of financial gain or “being the boss” won’t sustain a young cook through the years ahead. But a genuine love for the craft? Getting up every morning excited for what you’re going to cook that day? Passion and energy are what will keep the future chef focused on their goals.
“I encourage students to explore those passions, read cookbooks like they are textbooks – read about the history of our industry. Explore all those different recipes you see on YouTube and on Instagram and wherever else you see food, experiment.”
Camorrow Jones, Escoffier High School Chef Presenter
Benefits of Being an Executive Chef
So now that we’ve talked about the responsibilities of the executive chef, what are the rewards?
To start, a chef gets to practice their creativity every day when they come to work. They are constantly inventing new recipes and perfecting old ones. Even going out to eat can be a research and development opportunity.
They also get the credit and recognition that comes with a successful menu. This may come in the form of the appreciation of your team or restaurant owner. And for a few, it can come with industry recognition like local or even national awards.
Executive chefs also get to control their own schedules, as long as the restaurant’s needs are met. This may give the chef the chance to give him or herself a regular “weekend” — although it may be on a Monday and Tuesday.
There can also be monetary gain. The executive chef is the highest paid position in a kitchen. And once you’ve mastered the management of a kitchen, you may feel ready to open your own restaurant as a chef/owner.
What is Your Goal?
Not everyone’s goal is to become an executive chef — and that’s just fine! Every person in the brigade de cuisine is important, and some people may be happier as a sous chef or head pastry chef. So if that’s your goal, that’s fantastic.
But for those who want to become an executive chef, the road ahead can start with a quality education. Learn more about Escoffier’s on-campus and online programs to see if your culinary journey should start here.
If you found that article interesting, here are a few more to check out:
- Five Books All Chefs Should Read
- Your First Job in a Professional Kitchen
- How Culinary School Can Help You Write and Implement a Restaurant Business Plan
This article was originally published on December 17, 2015 and has since been updated.