The Ultimate Guide to Building a Career in Culinary Arts: Tips, Education, and Job Opportunities

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Do you have a passion for food? Then a career in the culinary industry could be the perfect fit, and this is a great time to get into this field. The National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry report shows that the industry is on a growth trajectory. The workforce grew by 500,000 jobs in 2023, officially surpassing pre-pandemic employment. This has led to a labor shortage, with 80% of employers reporting difficulties filling open positions.

In short, there are ample opportunities to start and grow a career in the culinary world. If you’re ready to find employment in this dynamic industry, the tips and information below will help you decide how to go about it. 

Types of culinary careers

Before you can start to build a career in the culinary industry, you first need to consider which of the many career options in this field would be right for you. Not every culinary professional works in restaurants. The truth is, knowledge of food and culinary techniques is valuable in a range of roles. Here are some of the top culinary careers you might want to pursue.



Average salary: $51,500 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

Where cooks are the people who follow recipes and prepare food in kitchens, chefs are the ones who develop those recipes and oversee their execution. This is normally a leadership position, making skills like communication, delegation, and decision-making important for success. They’re also normally the ones who hire, schedule, manage, and fire the kitchen staff. On the food side, they need to understand ingredients, food cost, and inventory management. 

To become a chef, most people start out as a line cook or similar kitchen position to gain experience before moving up into the role. There are also different types of chef within many restaurants, such as sous chef, pastry chef, or executive chefs who take charge of the entire back-of-house. There are also personal chefs, who prepare meals for clients at events or in their home rather than in a restaurant. While some personal chefs work for companies, others are independent, making this a good option for food entrepreneurs.


Recipe developer

Average salary: $53,400 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

If you want a culinary profession that’s not focused on making meals for customers, then recipe developer could be a good fit. These professionals create dishes, sometimes for restaurants but also for TV shows and publications like magazines and cookbooks. 

This requires an ironclad knowledge of flavor profiles and cooking techniques since they need to not just prepare dishes, but explain how they’re made so others can replicate it. Understanding of food safety is critical, too–nobody wants to work from a recipe that’s going to make people sick. Many recipe developers start off working in a commercial kitchen, though others take a path from culinary school straight into this role.


Food stylist

Average salary: $73,300 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

Have you ever wondered who makes food look so good in advertisements, TV shows, and cookbooks? The answer is probably a food stylist. To excel in this role, you’ll need to be an expert in both food and aesthetic design and be able to pay close attention to details. Food stylists often collaborate closely with other professionals, like photographers, chefs, or prop and set designers, so teamwork and communication are important skills as well. 

Food stylists don’t need to be exceptional cooks, but they do need a basic culinary background, especially if their food will be eaten as well as looked at. They often start their career with practice as an intern then move up into more independent roles as they gain skill and experience.


Restaurant owner

Average salary: $83,800 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

Lots of people dream of opening their own restaurant. While restaurant owners don’t always come from the culinary world, or may get their start in front-of-the-house roles like server or bartender, it can also be the pinnacle of a career as a cook or chef. Restaurant owners need all of the skills of a chef and more. They usually take a high-level role in the business, overseeing the staff and operations rather than being involved in the day-to-day cooking, though there are chef-owners who do both.

While anyone with enough money can buy a restaurant, making one succeed is a different story. Many successful restaurateurs start off working in other kitchens, often getting leadership experience as a restaurant manager or executive chef.


Health coach, dietician, or nutritionist

Average salary: $69,300 per year
Minimum education: Bachelor’s degree

If you want to focus on the nutrition side of the culinary field, a job as a dietician or nutritionist could be the answer. These careers are at the intersection of the wellness and culinary industries. Many work with clients one-on-one to help them achieve their dietary goals, while others work in facilities like schools or long-term care facilities. 

To be an effective health coach, you need skills from both the food side and the healthcare side of the career. Many will start with an education in nutrition, which often culminates in becoming a Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN).



Average salary: $36,900 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

If you’re more into sweets than savory cuisine, a job making desserts could be right up your alley. Baking requires a slightly different skill set than cooking. Making desserts both look and taste great requires a knowledge of food chemistry and cooking techniques, as well as design and decoration skills. Many bakers are also experts in pastry arts, and often create a range of delicious products for diners in restaurants or to sell directly to customers. 

The career path for a baker is often similar to that of a chef. The steps may start with a degree in Baking & Pastry Arts, though others jump right into working in dessert kitchens or bakeries and work their way up the hierarchy.


Cooking instructor

Average salary: $60,500 per year
Education required: Bachelor’s degree

Someone needs to train the chefs of tomorrow, and that person could be you with a career as a cooking instructor. These professionals work directly with students, teaching them how to execute dishes, improve their knife skills, and master the other key skills of cooking excellent food. They often work in culinary schools, but may also work independently, for example running cooking classes focused on local cuisine for tourists. 

One advantage of a career as a cooking instructor is that it often has a more traditional daytime work schedule, as opposed to the weekends and late nights many culinary professionals work. You’ll usually have to pay your dues within the culinary industry before getting this role, however. Schools require cooking instructors to have both a degree and several years of kitchen experience.



Average salary: $37,600 per year
Minimum education: High school diploma

Caterers are an adjacent career path to chefs and restaurant owners. They also prepare food directly for customers. The main difference is, they’re hired in advance to serve meals at events like weddings, galas, corporate meetings, conventions, and other parties and gatherings of hungry people. 

A caterer’s job often starts by collaborating with the client to determine their budget and menu. From there, they plan the event, often setting up the seating and serving area as well as preparing and serving the food. Because their role is broader than a chef’s, caterers need skills in customer service, planning, purchasing, and time management, in addition to cooking skills.


Food scientist or food technologist

Average salary: $85,500 per year
Minimum education: Bachelor’s degree

Food science is an interdisciplinary field that combines the culinary world with applied science like chemistry, nutrition, and microbiology. They focus on the development of new food products, typically ones intended for retail sale. This can include everything from choosing ingredients and developing the recipe to writing nutritional information and product labels. Food technologists can also work for organizations like the USDA enforcing labeling regulations on modified food products or newly released items. 

This is one of the culinary career paths with the highest education requirements. At minimum, food technologists need a bachelor’s degree in an area like food science, food engineering, food technology, chemistry, or agriculture, and many also hold advanced degrees. From there, many start off with entry-level roles in food manufacturing, often in areas like food safety and quality assurance. 

Food safety specialist

Average salary: $61,300 per year
Minimum education: Bachelor’s degree

The food people consume doesn’t just need to be tasty–it also needs to be handled, stored, and prepared properly so it doesn’t make consumers sick. This is the main responsibility of food safety professionals. These individuals perform inspections of food service and preparation facilities, along with providing education and training regarding food safety, writing food handling manuals, and similar things to ensure food is safe to eat. 

The first step to a career in food safety is a four-year degree. Some states also require certification, or offer optional certificate programs that can help advance your career. Along with knowledge of food safety standards, regulations, and best practices, these professionals need a sharp eye for detail and strong communication skills.


Preparing for a culinary career

As you can see, there are a plethora of jobs available in the culinary field–and that list above is far from comprehensive. The specific steps you’ll take to prepare for your career will vary depending on your specialization. There are some common steps in this process across areas, however, which can be smart initial moves to make as you’re dialing in on what kind of culinary career you want to build.


Typical education and training for culinary careers

The culinary industry is unique in that there are a variety of well-paying roles that don’t require any formal education. Hands-on experience is often more important to employers than whether you hold a degree, and there are plenty of executive chefs and restaurant owners who worked their way up from dishwasher or prep cook. 

That said, if you know that you want to pursue a culinary career, getting a degree or certification can open up doors and speed up your career progress. Going to a college program or culinary school is a chance to make connections within the food industry, as well as to lay the foundation of skills and knowledge you’ll need to excel.

For chefs, caterers, and other food prep professionals, a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts from a culinary school is the most common education. Other students pursue a degree in hospitality management or business, particularly if their end goal is to own or run a restaurant. For those in food science or safety, it’s common for candidates to earn degrees such as food science, biology, chemistry, or agriculture. 

A college degree isn’t the only way to access the expertise to grow a culinary career. There are also a number of professional certifications available. The American Culinary Federation is the top certifying organization for kitchen team members, offering certificates including Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC), Certified Executive Chef (CEC), Personal Certified Chef (PCC), and Certified Master Pastry Chef (CMPC), among others. 

For food technologists or food safety professionals, The Institute of Food Technologists offers the Certified Food Scientist (CFS) certification, the only global certificate specific to food science. Many state agencies also offer food safety certifications for team members at all stages of their career. Dieticians, meanwhile, can become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) through the American Nutrition Association. In many states, this certification is one of the ways to obtain state licensure for your practice.


Culinary internships and apprenticeships

While education is a good first step, most food businesses also look for hands-on learning on an ideal resume. This can come from working entry-level roles in the field, but for those who are serious about pursuing a culinary career, an internship can be a smart move. Culinary internships can open up experiences like travel to other countries to study their cuisines, or working under a world-renowned chef to gain their insights.

The American Culinary Federation offers the ACFEF Apprenticeship program that combines class instruction with on-the-job experience, and can lead to ACF certification. For a student or recent graduate, Handshake is a great website to search for these opportunities. If you want to travel abroad, Global Experiences has a robust listing of intern postings around the world in a variety of professions. You can also find internship and apprenticeship opportunities on job boards like Indeed, or by reaching out to community organizations in your area.


Building a professional network in the culinary industry

Networking is important for career growth in any field, but it’s an especially critical part of a culinary professionals’ career journey. Most aspects of the culinary world mean working in a team environment, and recommendations from current staff can help a company decide you’d be a good fit for it. Having friends in the industry can also help you find out about great opportunities, stay up-to-date with current culinary trends, and generally be better prepared for a job search or interview. 

The good news is, the social aspect of the culinary industry means you’ll start building these network connections from your first day on the job. Make a point of building professional bonds with your coworkers starting with your first job in the profession, and maintain these connections as you move on to other roles. Social media makes this easier than ever in the past if you’re not able to see the person regularly face-to-face.

Professional events are another excellent place to make new professional connections. Each area of the field has its own array of dedicated conferences, conventions, workshops, and other opportunities for learning and meeting new people. 

These events are often organized and hosted by professional organizations, so that’s a good first place to check for things you can attend in your area. For example, the American Culinary Federation holds the annual ACF National Convention, as well as other events like culinary competitions, a MasterCraft Summit series, and a webinar series. Taking part in a cooking competition can be an especially great way to get your name out there and show your skills at the same time. 

For those in food science or safety, the annual Pittcon Conference and Exposition is the largest in the industry, and gives attendees an opportunity to learn about the newest food technology and developments while meeting other professionals from all over the world. For dieticians or nutritionists, the American Society for Nutrition holds an annual meeting, as well as other professional development events throughout the year. 

Even if you didn’t attend culinary school, colleges and universities with culinary programs in your area can be a potential networking tool. This doesn’t always mean taking courses, though that can be a way to expand your network, too. These programs also often will host events for both students and community members, and taking part in a conference, retreat, or other type of gathering can be a great opportunity to connect with others in the industry.


Tips for navigating the job search for culinary positions

Searching for a job in the culinary arts can be a bit different than in other industries. While you can find some jobs in restaurants, hotels, and other food businesses on job boards, many aspects of the food industry are still old-school in this regard. Walk-in job searching is still fairly common, especially for early-career kitchen roles like dishwasher or prep cook. 

Because of this, the first step in a successful culinary job search is often to simply take a walk around your neighborhood. Bring a stack of resumes that you can leave with the manager of any places that interest you. Look for vacancy or “now hiring” signs on the doors of food service establishments. If there is a particular restaurant you would love to work at, stop in at the host stand and ask if they’re hiring.

For culinary school graduates, your university is another great place to start your job search. Many schools have a career office for recent graduates and alumni. This can be an effective way to find out about opportunities that are outside your immediate location, or jobs at more industrial facilities like food manufacturing plants, where you might not be able to just walk in and ask about employment. 

The professional organizations mentioned above can be a great tool for this, too. Becoming a member often gives you access to features like job boards, member forums, or member directories, which can be helpful for connecting with both other professionals and new opportunities.

While job boards aren’t as universally used in the culinary arts as other industries, they can still be a great place to look for a new role. There are dedicated job sites for culinary careers that can be more useful than all-purpose sites like LinkedIn and Indeed. These include:

  • Culinary Agents – Networking and career growth platform that specializes in connecting candidates with employers like resorts, hotels, restaurants, and other food service businesses
  • Good Food Jobs – This site aims to satisfy the hunger for meaningful work. They have curated lists of resources like courses and degree programs in addition to open positions
  • Poached – Site that enables hospitality and restaurant managers to quickly hire professionals across the United States
  • Qwick – Restaurant and hospitality job board for both freelancers and people seeking full-time employment
  • Sirvo – One of the top-rated sites for restaurant and hospitality employment, with an easy-to-use app that makes finding and applying for jobs a breeze


Advancing your career in the culinary arts

Careers in the culinary arts can be exciting and rewarding, in part because of the variety of career paths that you can take. The flip side of this variety, though, is that there’s no one correct way to advance your culinary career.


The more experience you gain in the industry, the more doors will open for you. Once you’ve spent some time working hands-on in an entry-level role, you can take advantage of those same strategies outlined above to find your next position. The higher up the ladder you go, the more useful your professional network is likely to be in finding the next rung to climb to.

Bristol Associates, Inc. is an executive search firm with over 55 years of excellence in recruiting nationwide. Bristol specializes in recruiting for the Casino Gaming; CBD; Facility and Concession; Food and Beverage Manufacturing; Healthcare; Hotel and Resort; Nonprofit; Restaurant and Foodservice; and Travel, Tourism, and Attraction industries.

If you’re interested in working with Bristol Associates, click here if you’re an employer or here if you’re a candidate.

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