What Cooks Do

Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods. This may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.


Cooks typically do the following:

  • Check the freshness of food and ingredients before cooking
  • Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
  • Bake, roast, grill, broil, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
  • Garnish, arrange, and serve food
  • Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware
  • Cook, hold, and store food or food ingredients

Large restaurants and food service establishments often have varied menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.

Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example. Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers.

Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.

The responsibilities of cooks vary with the place at which they work, the size of the facility, and the complexity and level of service offered. 

The following are examples of types of cooks:

Institution and cafeteria cooks 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. Because meals are usually prepared in advance, cooks seldom take special orders.

Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies, set menu prices, and plan the daily menu.

Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually 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 food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, to be kept warm until served. For more information on workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.

Private household cooks and personal chefs plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client’s tastes and dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other social events. Private household cooks typically work for one full-time client. Some private household cooks and personal chefs are self-employed or employed by a private cooking company, regularly making meals for clients.

How to Become a Cook

Short-term on-the-job training and work-related experience are the most common ways to become a cook. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend culinary schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.


Independent and vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and college degree programs provide training for aspiring cooks. Programs generally last from a few months to 2 years. Some programs offer training in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and cooking styles. To enter these programs, candidates may be required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Depending on the type and length of the program, graduates generally qualify for entry-level positions as a restaurant cook.


Most cooks learn their skills through short-term on-the-job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Training generally starts with learning kitchen basics and workplace safety and continues with handling and cooking food.

Some cooks learn through an apprenticeship program. Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions sponsor such programs for cooks, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical apprenticeships last 1 year and combine technical training and work experience. Apprentices complete courses in food sanitation and safety, basic knife skills, and equipment operation. They also learn practical cooking skills under the supervision of an experienced chef. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeships through these programs around the country. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 17
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Pass substance abuse screening

Some hotels, a number of restaurants, and the Armed Forces have their own training programs.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many cooks learn their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker learning basic cooking skills before they advance to assistant cook or line cook positions. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.


The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs as proficient in different skill levels. For cooks seeking certification and advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to prepare more complex dishes. Those who learn new cooking skills and who accept greater responsibility often advance. Some cooks may train or supervise kitchen staff who have fewer cooking skills.

Some may become head cooks, chefs, or food service managers.

Important Qualities

Comprehension. Cooks must be able to understand customers’ orders and follow recipes in order to prepare dishes correctly.

Customer-service skills. Restaurant and short-order cooks must be able to deal with customers’ complaints and special requests.

Dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand–eye coordination. For example, they need to know the proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Physical stamina. The work of a cook can be physically tiring because cooks spend a lot of time standing in one place, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.

Sense of taste and smell. Cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare meals that customers enjoy.

Teamwork. Cooks often prepare only part of a dish. They must coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time.

Job Outlook


Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations




Cooks and food preparation workers








Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Individual growth rates will vary by specialty.

People will continue to eat out, buy takeout meals, or have food delivered. In response, more restaurants will open and cafeterias, catering services, and nontraditional food-service operations, such as those found inside grocery stores, will serve more prepared food dishes. These circumstances will increase demand for cooks.

Employment growth for cooks also should increase as, in an effort to lower costs, many restaurants choose to hire cooks instead of chefs and head cooks, who often have higher wages.

Job Prospects

Overall job opportunities are expected to be good as a result of employment growth and the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. Cooks with training and related work experience will have the best job prospects.

Those who can prepare more complex dishes will have the best job opportunities at restaurant chains, upscale restaurants, and hotels. Candidates seeking full-time jobs at these restaurants will face strong competition because the number of job applicants often exceeds the number of job openings.

Employment projections data for Cooks, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program


35-2010 2,148,500 2,353,700 10 205,300

Cooks, fast food

35-2011 516,900 514,400 0 -2,500

Cooks, institution and cafeteria

35-2012 408,900 462,800 13 54,000

Cooks, private household

35-2013 7,000 6,900 -1 -100

Cooks, restaurant

35-2014 1,024,100 1,174,200 15 150,100

Cooks, short order

35-2015 166,100 166,600 0 500

Cooks, all other

35-2019 25,500 28,700 13 3,200
  Occupation Description Entry-Level Education 2012 Median Pay
Bakers Bakers

Bakers mix ingredients according to recipes to make breads, pastries, and other baked goods.'

Less than high school $23,140
Chefs and head cooks Chefs and head cooks

Chefs and head cooks oversee the daily food preparation at restaurants or other places where food is served. They direct kitchen staff and handle any food-related concerns.'

High school diploma or equivalent $42,480
Food and beverage serving and related workers Food and beverage serving and related workers

Food and beverage serving and related workers perform a variety of customer service, food preparation, and cleaning duties in restaurants, cafeterias, and other eating and drinking establishments.'

Less than high school $18,400
Food preparation workers Food preparation workers Food preparation workers perform many routine tasks under the direction of cooks, chefs, or food service managers. Food preparation workers prepare cold foods, slice meat, peel and cut vegetables, brew coffee or tea, and perform many other food service tasks.' Less than high school $19,300
Food service managers Food service managers Food service managers are responsible for the daily operations of restaurants and other establishments that prepare and serve food and beverages to customers. Managers ensure that customers are satisfied with their dining experience. ' High school diploma or equivalent $47,960

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