Chefs prepare snacks and meals for others to enjoy at home or in establishments like restaurants and hotels. The highest level of chef is the executive chef, who is responsible for all other workers in the kitchen. It can take up to a decade to reach this level of culinary skill, expertise and leadership.
Basic Educational Requirements
Some chefs who eventually become executive chefs are able to do so solely through hands-on, on-the-job training. However, many aspiring executive chefs go to culinary school to hone their skills. Some chefs opt for shorter associate degree programs, which last two years. Chefs learn the basics of culinary arts in these programs. Bachelor's degree programs, which take four years, cover more material about culinary business administration and expose the chef to more cooking techniques. Although these programs are available at traditional colleges and universities, you also can enter similar programs through the military. Apprenticeships similar in length to associate's degree programs may replace going to a university or college.
Rising Up the Ranks
Chefs exist on multiple levels, the most basic of which is the commis or apprentice chef. Other levels in order of progression include chef de partie (line cook), expediter and sous chef (second in command). In some cases where a company has multiple restaurants or food locations, "executive chef" does not refer to the head chef in one kitchen, but rather to the chef that oversees the head chefs at all the company branches. In this instance, you must also be a chef de cuisine (head chef) prior to advancing to executive chef. How long it takes to progress through these levels depends largely on your talent. Some chefs become executive chefs in as little as three years, but five is more realistic.
Other Factors Influencing Speed of Progression
In addition to the length of your training and natural culinary and business ability, how fast you progress through the chef levels depends on where you work. Some areas have a greater demand for chefs than others, meaning that there are more job opportunities that allow you advance. If demand for chefs is low in your region, you may have to wait until an executive chef takes another job or retires before you have a shot at the position. It also can take longer to become a head chef if you have to accommodate life circumstances -- for example, if you have to take time off to care for a sick relative.
In some rare cases, you may get into an executive chef job in as little as three years after starting your formal training, depending on how much cooking experience you have and the needs of your employer. Considering both your college or university training or apprenticeship and the time it takes to work up the ranks, most people can get to the executive chef level in 10 years if they work hard. Most employers offering executive chef jobs require at least five years of experience.