A Stab in the Heart – Wages & Salaries in the Culinary Industry

Before considering a culinary career, one should consider the following questions:

a)         Why go to culinary school and what can I expect to learn?

b)         What kind of job should I expect to get after culinary school?

c)         Should I get a job in the industry before I commit to culinary school and why?

d)         With a lot of hard work and passion, how many years should I expect to invest before becoming an executive chef?

e)         Should I consider an apprenticeship instead of culinary school?

f)         Should I consider a profession with higher wages and compensation and less personal sacrifice?

When we think about, read about, or see celebrity chefs on TV, we romanticize their careers and assume they make a lot of money. We have questions regarding their annual income, and assume that they are paid handsomely for their hard work and talent. Our assumptions – though correct – are skewed, as celebrity chefs make up only 1% of the culinary industry. And while they do receive high salaries, the other 99% of culinary professionals do not.

  • The average salary for a line cook is between $8.88 and $15.00 per hour.
  •  The median wage for a Sous Chef is $32,000
  • Pastry Chef is $31,000.
  •  An Executive Chef is $50,000

  •  Food servers  actually make more than the average cook; working in the banquet department they make up to $27.00 per hour. Servers that work at high-end fine dining restaurants can easily net upwards of $50k a year. Industry professionals argue that in the United States, cooking is a professional occupation, but being employed as a server is not.
  • Some factors that can affect wages in the culinary industry are: the economic and political climate; the location of the operation and the available labor pool.

Future culinary students do not realize that it takes years of hard work, dedication, determination, and passion to earn a respectable income.  Many culinary students have been misled by the media and believe that like high profile celebrity chefs, they are going to make high earnings when they graduate.  Culinary education is big business in America, and like any other business, culinary schools need high enrollments to stay profitable.  Culinary schools make big promises about future careers in the industry, but they fail to inform students about the struggle and sacrifice they must make to get to the top.
Students who go to culinary school either go to better their culinary skills or simply go looking for personal enrichment. By the time a student has graduated from culinary school, their loans would be about twenty thousand dollars or more depending if he or she receives an Associate’s or Bachelors degree.
The Ultimate Guide to Culinary School.com mentioned that, although a culinary education is obviously a wonderful decision for any budding culinary professional, it’s also an expensive one. No matter where you are going to study, attending culinary school will cost at least two thousand, and can be as  high as thirty thousand a year. Many industry professionals question the wisdom of paying to learn  to cook, and suggest that it would be more prudent to gain that experience from working in the industry.
Becoming a Head Chef or Sous Chef requires extensive experience.  To become an Executive Chef or Sous Chef requires a minimum of at least eight to ten years work experience in various kitchens. When a student graduates from culinary school, chances are that their first job will be an entry-level position as a commis cook or cook III. Advancement to a higher-paying position with more responsibility takes time. Many students who go to culinary school are initially unaware of how hard it is to get that Head Chef position.
Surprisingly many students who attend culinary school leave the industry because of:


  • the long hours
  •  infrequent vacations
  •  strain on relationships
  •  professional cooking is extremely physical and demanding

Wages for line staff in the culinary industry range from $8 an hour for interns to $18 an hour for unionized line cooks. The culinary industry cuts across a wide cross-section of businesses that range from quick service restaurants, catering kitchens, hotel restaurants, fine dining restaurants, hospitals, and cruise ship operations. There is a large disparity in the wages of line cooks depending on the type of food service operation that employs that person.
There are several factors both internal and external that affect wages paid to staff in the culinary industry. In fact internal factors such as:

  •  the profitability of a company
  •  type of food service facility
  •  management policies
  •  Culinary wages are also affected by external factors, which affect the industry as a whole,  such as:
  •  the average wages and salaries of  industry sub sectors
  •  the current political and economic climate
  •  location of the operation
  • compensation packages
  • the availability of labor

All have a direct correlation with the wages paid to culinary line staff.

According to the 2009 StarChefs.com Salary Survey the national industry average for line cooks is $12.90. This median average varies greatly depending on the sector of the industry that cooks are employed in. Line cooks working in fine dining restaurants tend to garner better wages than their counterparts in quick service facilities. Statistics from the survey suggested that the qualifications required to work in upscale food service operations, such as years of experience and education are major contributing factors to this pay difference.

The culinary operations that compete in similar sub sectors of the industry such as Darden Restaurants Inc. and Outback Steakhouse, Inc. (both casual dining restaurant chains) will reflect comparative pay scales, $10.48 to $9.90 respectively, but will differ from wages offered in another sub sector of the industry. A Line Cook starting at a fast food restaurant such as McDonalds or Burger King in the state of Florida will earn from $7.25 to $ 8.88 an hour.

The current economic and political climate has a direct impact on the profitability of all food service operations. This in turn affects the wages the industry will be able to pay.  As the cost of running a food service operation continues to rise; in part because of production, food costs, shipping and transportation costs, companies will look for solutions to reduce expenses. One solution is to adjust the ratio of fixed costs to variable costs with regard to wages versus salaries. In fact, companies, may seek to reduce the number of salaried employees (fixed costs) and increase the number of contract workers (variable costs). Contract workers are becoming more prevalent, especially in large hotels that import labor on J1 visas under contract for periods of six months to a year. The cost of labor is a major overhead expense and food service operations are constantly seeking for ways to minimize this cost.

The worldwide recession has caused the job market in most hospitality industries to contract as consumers spend less on recreation and focus more on conserving income. The U.S. Department of Labor gives an example of the effect of the recession on the travel and tourism industry which “lost 200,000 jobs in 2008.

Another major factor affecting culinary wages is the location of the food service operation. The average wages of line cooks working in similar positions will vary greatly from state to state. For example, average wages for line cooks range widely from: $9.97 in Michigan, $10.75 in Florida, $10.87 in New York to a high of $11.48 in California. This variance results from the cost of living in each state, minimum wage standards for the state, state taxation policies, and population density.

Wages in the state of Alaska are much higher than wages in New York because of the relatively small labor pool living in Alaska. States or cities that have expensive standards of living such as San Francisco in California will also tend to pay higher wages for similar positions to compensate for higher living costs. Also state taxation policies vary by state and affects income as employees paychecks pay a percentage of income to the states’ coffers. Taxation in one state may be higher than another which will greatly affect the net income of residents of that state. Urbanization and labor migration which swells the population of a large metropolis like New York City can drive wages downwards as the supply of labor surpasses the number of available jobs.

Also the rising cost of compensation packages such as health care, bonuses, paid vacation time and other benefits is another factor affecting wages in the culinary industry. Wages, salaries and benefits are considered the biggest expense for many restaurant operators, accounting for about one-third of every dollar in sales, and increasing health care costs could put a pinch on salary increases in the future.” It is a common industry practice for businesses to circumvent this problem by paying the staff higher wages, but offer limited or no compensation to its employees. This is extremely common in “stand alone restaurants,” where profits can be slim and overheads high. Culinary operations that offer compensation packages tend to skew in the opposite direction, paying lower wages to its employees. Unions have played a key role in negotiating acceptable compensation packages for all categories of food service staff. Therefore unionized food service facilities such as those in large hotel chains tend to have better staff retention, compared to non-unionized operations.

            States that have a large immigrant labor pool, especially those that have a shadow work force of illegal immigrants such as in Texas, New York, California and Florida tend to pay less because of the constant supply of cheap labor. In addition culinary operations which depend on tourism for income and are highly seasonal, such as theme parks and hotels, that utilize the constant supply of cheap labor to reduce overhead expenses. This increases profitability for the company, but has the negative effect of driving wages downwards in those sectors. Immigrants to
the United States in search of work gravitate to food service and culinary jobs because of the low skill and qualification levels needed to enter the industry. The prevalence of immigrants in culinary operations, most of who work for menial pay, may stem from their desire to earn an income as they try to assimilate into their new communities.Culinary schools are big business; the reality for students seeking work after graduation is that, immigrants depress wages and that 65% of culinary graduates will not work in the industry, due to financial hardships.  Statistics indicate that less than 20% of culinary graduates will be promoted to a Sous Chef position and that only a hand full will become an Executive Chef.  Culinary professionals work long hours, (8-14 hours a day), most weekends, and most holidays.  They sacrifice a lot to become successful including ; having very little personal time with their families. The media glamorizes the culinary industry in television shows, books and magazines, but the industry is also plagued by low wages, abuse, discrimination and politics. Working in a kitchen is rigorous, repetitive, sweaty and fast paced physical labor and is not for every one.

Culinary schools should seek to deliver value to students by offering programs that can prepare students for growth beyond the kitchen and into other areas of the industry; such as front of the house, sales, merchandising, or retail. Culinary schools should shift the focus from mainly cooking classes; to a more balanced curriculum that can give the students necessary skills to become more marketable when they enter the industry.



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