Culinary Career Tips: How to Become an Executive Chef

The transition from culinary arts student or commis chef to head chef can be long and challenging, requiring quite a bit of experience, time, and hard work. If you’re driven and genuinely interested in taking on the monumental task of climbing the culinary leadership ladder, it’s definitely possible.

Here’s a breakdown of what it’s like to be an executive chef and how you can reach your goal.

What is an Executive Chef?

Executive chefs are the highest-ranking chefs at a restaurant or food business.

Sometimes called head chefs, executive chefs manages the inner workings of a restaurant, bar, hotel, or catering kitchen. The difference between a chef and an executive chef comes down to their regular duties and responsibilities. Executive chefs are responsible for all the behind the scenes work, everything from hiring to record-keeping to ordering ingredients; depending on the establishment, they may rarely work with food.

Executive chefs stand at the top of a strict hierarchy of culinary positions and unfortunately there are no shortcuts or tricks to get to the top. While names and specifics can differ from place to place, ultimately executive chef job descriptions follow the same formula.

What Does an Executive Chef Do?

Executive chefs are busy leaders, and the job description comes with hundreds of critical responsibilities that are necessary for maintaining business as usual. Without an executive chef, an establishment would lose its structure. Their main responsibilities may include:

  • Ordering ingredients and equipment
  • Keeping and maintaining account, expense, and tax records
  • Hiring, training, and managing staff
  • Working front of house and acting as the face of the restaurant
  • Developing, test, and standardize recipes
  • Designing menus and plan prices
  • Ensuring kitchen hygiene and sanitation are up to code
  • Maintaining workplace safety
  • Encouraging team morale and positive work attitudes
  • Designing food presentation
  • Reviewing popular purchases
  • Supervising kitchen functions
  • Conducting performance reviews and determining pay raises
  • Taking disciplinary action
  • Ensuring kitchen is working at optimum efficiency
  • Determining future business plans

Executive Chef Skills Needed for Success

While you must have already climbed the culinary ladder to reach executive chef, head chefs don't necessarily use all the skills that they’ve learned over the years. Culinary leadership and management roles are dramatically different in their job descriptions. In order to be an executive chef, you must have:

  • A solid work ethic
  • Strong, impartial management skills
  • Great customer service skills
  • Good hygiene
  • Creativity in food and design
  • The ability to work under pressure
  • Excellent communication skills
  • A clear vision for the future
  • Flexibility when it comes to scheduling shifts
  • The ability to multitask
  • The knowledge and ability to relate to your employees
  • A solid understanding of math and accounting
  • A strong sense of trust and teamwork

Executive chef in kitchen

Rise Through the Ranks

Becoming an executive chef is far from easy; climbing the culinary ladder is a long process that can take up to 7-8 years. Aspiring executive chefs must have a solid education record and years of professional experience if they want to reach their goal.

Head chefs are leaders and managers and therefore must know the business by heart. The only way to acquire this kind of experience is to hold every position from commis chef to sous chef; knowing what every position demands is the best way for an executive chef to succeed in their role. With that said, there’s quite a bit of flexibility for those just entering the industry.

Choose Your Path

There are two paths that you can take to become a chef, and ultimately the choice comes down to how you work and learn best and what kind of time and money you’re willing to spend on your education.

Pick a Program

Obtaining a Culinary Arts degree isn’t necessary to become a chef, but it’s highly recommended if want to eventually reach executive chef. While a standard Culinary Arts degree will prepare you for a career in the food arts, some schools like Oregon Culinary Institute also offer leadership-specific programs to assist you in reaching the top. These programs will teach you the baseline of culinary arts skills needed to be a prep cook, sous chef, pastry chef, and even an executive chef.

Technically entry-level chefs don’t need more than a 2-year degree and a resume of basic experience, but most executive chefs have 4-year bachelor’s degree. A 4-year bachelor’s degree usually gives you an in-depth training in leadership, management, marketing, and accounting skills needed for reaching higher level chef positions. If you want to go above and beyond, you can also aim for a master’s degree in Culinary Arts, which often focuses on business principles, entrepreneurship, and advanced chef skills.

Find a Mentor

Some chefs decide that in lieu of going to school, they will build more valuable experience studying under an established chef. While an apprenticeship provides you with unparalleled hands-on learning experience of the chef lifestyle, you won’t learn the basics all at once; your mentor decides what you learn and when. It’s possible to reach executive chef from an apprenticeship, but the lack of formal training may leave gaps in your skillset. With that said, apprenticeships are still the traditional way of breaking into the Culinary Arts, and despite its less straightforward nature, many chefs swear by it.

Road to the Top

In addition to education and experience, an aspiring executive chef should be well connected and certified to have their best chance at success.

Get Out There

One of the most important ingredients in the head chef recipe is networking. You can’t just apply for an executive chef position at a high-caliber establishment, which is why head chefs often take their first management job at a smaller restaurant. Building your resume and meeting other high-level chefs is crucial for climbing the leadership ladder.

RELATED: 10 Networking Tips for Chefs in the Restaurant Industry

Get Certified

So you’ve done everything right, but you’re stuck in a sous chef position. How do you reach your executive chef goal?

A perfect storm of knowledge, interest, leadership, accounting skills, and sociability is your first step towards reaching the top. You should also obtain a Certified Executive Chef (CEC) designation from the American Culinary Federation. Becoming a CEC is not required, but it will assist you in booking higher-paying jobs at high-caliber culinary establishments. Anyone with a high school diploma and at least three years experience in the kitchen is qualified for a CEC, and maintaining your designation requires recertification every 5 years and proof of continued education.

Study in Oregon

Reaching executive chef status takes years of hard work and perseverance; the process can last the better part of a decade. An exceptional education from an accredited school can prepare you for the long journey ahead. Oregon Culinary Institute can put you on track to reach your goals with our 64-week Hospitality Management AOS Degree. Our AOS degree focuses on preparing aspiring head chefs for management and leadership roles in the Culinary Arts.

Get Crackin’

Enroll in one of our Culinary Arts programs today!