What Types Of Culinary Arts Jobs Exist?

"I love cooking, and I can spend hours in a kitchen testing recipes and making up new ones. I know I want to pursue a career in the food industry, and I am feeling really inspired to go to culinary school. But variety is really important to me, and I am a little concerned about burnout. What are the different jobs in the culinary arts field? Is it easy to move around between them? What about jobs outside of the kitchen?"

asked by Brendan from Nevada City, California

Yay for inspiration! We need more people who are passionate about and creative with food. There are a lot of ways to pursue your passion but still experience the variety that is important to you. There is space in the food industry for professional advancement and movement, and the most successful chefs are usually the ones with a variety of skills and a lot of adaptability.

Receiving a degree from a culinary school opens a range of possibilities. There are the standard positions like assistant chef, pastry chef and sous chef. But there are other ways to use your degree that require less time in the heat and intensity of a commercial kitchen.

Let’s look at the more obvious careers in culinary arts first. There are the front of house positions like host and server, but if you are pursuing a degree in the field that means you are probably more interested in cooking than in serving. There are assistant chefs, who help plan some of the menus, create dishes to complement the head chef’s entrées, and run particular segments of the meals. They also prep and cook as needed. Pastry chefs are usually graduates from culinary school with at least two years experience working in a commercial kitchen outside of school. They specialize in creating the pastries, deserts, and other baked goods offered by a restaurant or hotel. They sometimes have to work nights or early mornings if there is not a dedicated pastry oven in the kitchen, as usually savory dishes and baked goods cannot be in the oven at the same time. Prep chefs do mostly, well, prepping. Hours and hours of chopping, stirring, steaming, peeling, shredding, and in other ways preparing the ingredients for assembly. This is one of the positions that does not always require a degree, and can offer great training and experience for someone new to the field.

Sous chefs are the right hand of the executive or head chef. People usually need to have at least a few years experience working in a kitchen before being hired as a sous chef. They help run the kitchen, manage the staff, create some of the recipes, order ingredients and help manage the food costs, and run the kitchen when the executive chefs are away. Sushi chefs are specially trained in Japanese cuisine. There are protocols and particular safe handling practices required for working with raw fish, so sushi chefs usually undergo extensive training and apprenticeships, and are paid better than most chefs. And executive chefs are the head honchos of the kitchen. Usually one has to have many years training and experience to become an executive (sometimes called “head”) chef. They oversee the entire menu and have complete creative control of each dish. They choose and develop new recipes, oversee the inclusion of new ingredients and all of the ordering of food and equipment. Executive chefs manage the entire kitchen staff and see to the smooth running of the kitchen. They also tend to spend a lot of time researching, managing the food budget, scouring for new and interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, and staying current with the latest trends in the food industry.

It is possible to move around between positions, and many chefs change it up from time to time to avoid burnout and expand their creative range. Generally it is good policy to stay in a position for two to five years, and always give adequate notice before leaving a position and do your best to be courteous. With as much motion as there is in this industry, you don’t want to burn bridges and end up applying to work for someone that you ditched out on previously.

There are also ways to use your culinary arts degree that involve little or no time in the kitchen. Some larger establishments have general managers, who oversee the business operations, hiring, budget, publicity, and other aspects of running a restaurant or hotel. Some large restaurants also have a beverage director, which involves sourcing, testing, and ordering the wine and spirits that a restaurant or bar carries.

There are also jobs that are completely outside of a restaurant. Catering is a thriving field. As a caterer, you get to choose when and where you work, and the one-off jobs allow for a lot of flexibility. There is also less job security, and more of an independent contractor feel to the work. A steady income can be hard to come by, but the flexibility makes up for the lack of security. Caterers prepare and serve meals for weddings, graduation parties, coming of age and retirement gatherings, celebrations of all kinds, corporate events, and many other occasions. You could also become a personal chef. This entails working for a person or family, creating meal plans in accord with your clients’ dietary needs and preferences, shopping, preparing and sometimes serving the meals. This is also usually an independent contractor position, and while you may end up working steadily for one family for many years, job security is not guaranteed.

Other jobs that would use your culinary arts degree do not involve much cooking at all. You could become a food stylist, preparing visually pleasing dishes for television and film. There are recipe testers, who taste new recipes and give feedback to help chefs and corporations develop marketable recipes. There are also food writers, who work for newspapers, magazines, or independently to review and critique restaurants, recipe books, and other culinary experiences.

There are many ways to use a degree in culinary arts, and many ways to live your passion for food without getting bored or burned out. And with any art, it is your own creativity, dedication, and heart that will let you know if this is the right field for you.

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