Who's Who: Chefs, Cooks, Food Prep Workers
Chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods—from soups, snacks, and salads to entrees, side dishes, and desserts. They work in a variety of restaurants and other food services establishments. Chefs and cooks create recipes and prepare meals, while food preparation workers peel and cut vegetables, trim meat, prepare poultry, and perform other duties, such as keeping work areas clean and monitoring temperatures of ovens and stovetops.
Specifically, chefs and cooks measure, mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes, using a variety of equipment, including pots, pans, cutlery, ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders. Chefs and head cooks also are responsible for directing the work of other kitchen workers, estimating food requirements, and ordering food supplies.
Food preparation workers perform routine, repetitive tasks under the direction of chefs and cooks. These workers ready the ingredients for complex dishes by slicing and dicing vegetables, and composing salads and cold items. They weigh and measure ingredients, go after pots and pans, and stir and strain soups and sauces. Food preparation workers may cut and grind meats, poultry, and seafood in preparation for cooking. They also clean work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware.
Larger restaurants and food services establishments tend to have varied menus and larger kitchen staffs. Staffs often include several chefs and cooks, sometimes called assistant or line cooks. Each chef or cook works an assigned station that is equipped with the types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients needed for the foods prepared at that station. Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient prepared or the type of cooking performed—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example. These cooks also may direct or work with other food preparation workers.
Executive chefs and head cooks coordinate the work of the kitchen staff and direct the preparation of meals. They determine serving sizes, plan menus, order food supplies, and oversee kitchen operations to ensure uniform quality and presentation of meals. An executive chef, for example, is in charge of all food service operations and also may supervise the many kitchens of a hotel, restaurant group, or corporate dining operation. A chef de cuisine reports to an executive chef and is responsible for the daily operations of a single kitchen. A sous chef, or sub chef, is the second-in-command and runs the kitchen in the absence of the chef. Many chefs earn fame both for themselves and for their kitchens because of the quality and distinctive nature of the food they serve.
Responsibilities depend on where cooks work. Institution and cafeteria cooks, for example, work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. For each meal, they prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts according to preset menus. Meals generally are prepared in advance so diners seldom get the opportunity to special order a meal. Restaurant cooks usually prepare a wider selection of dishes, cooking most orders individually. Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They grill and garnish hamburgers, prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook French fries, often working on several orders at the same time. Fast-food cooks prepare a limited selection of menu items in fast-food restaurants. They cook and package batches of food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served.
The number and types of workers employed in kitchens also depends on the type of establishment. Small, full-service restaurants offering casual dining often feature a limited number of easy-to-prepare items supplemented by short-order specialties and ready-made desserts. Typically, one cook prepares all the food with the help of a short-order cook and one or two other kitchen workers.
Grocery and specialty food stores employ chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers to develop recipes and prepare meals for customers to carry out. Typically, entrees, side dishes, salads, or other items are prepared in large quantities and stored at an appropriate temperature. Counter assistants portion and package items according to customer orders for serving at home.
Some cooks, called research chefs, combine culinary skills with knowledge of food science to develop recipes for chain restaurants and food processors and manufacturers. They test new formulas and flavors for prepared foods and determine the most efficient and safest way to prepare new foods.
Some cooks work for individuals rather than for restaurants, cafeterias, or food manufacturers. These private household cooks plan and prepare meals in private homes according to the client’s tastes or dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may serve meals. Private chefs are employed directly by a single individual or family or sometimes by corporations or institutions, such as universities and embassies, to perform cooking and entertaining tasks. These chefs usually live in and may travel with their employer. Because of the sensitive nature of their employment, they are usually required to sign confidentiality agreements. As part of the job, private chefs often perform additional services, such as paying bills, coordinating schedules, and planning events.
Another type of private household cooks, called personal chefs, usually prepare a week’s worth of meals in the client’s home for the client to heat and serve according to directions throughout the week. Personal chefs are self-employed or employed by a company that provides this service.
Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).