With the popularity of cooking shows and culinary competitions, you'd think a career in the culinary arts would pay well. Sadly, the opposite is often true. In fact, topping the list of CNN’s “College Degrees That Don’t Pay” is culinary arts, where starting salaries are an estimated $35,900 a year. As with almost any career path, earnings are based on experience, and seasoned culinary artisans attain titles that improve earning potential.
In 2011, chefs and head cooks averaged $46,600 a year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. Because high salaries can sometimes skew the average, median wage is often a better reflection of earning potential. Roughly half of all chefs and head cooks earn $42,350 or more a year. But both figures fail to differentiate the salaries of an executive chef from a sous chef and a chefs de cuisine from a pastry chef. Each culinary artist is paid a different scale.
A chef-owner is usually the highest-paid member of almost any restaurant. As of 2010, chef-owners averaged just over $79,000 a year, found a survey conducted by Star Chefs, a national magazine for culinary artists. This is a decline in pay from the previous year, which was estimated at over $85,000 a year.
Responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of a kitchen and its staff, the executive chef is the next highest-paying position in the culinary arts. Often helping decide the menu, the executive chef averaged almost $75,000 a year in 2010, according to Star Chefs. As was the case for a chef-owner, salaries were down by about $4,400 from the previous year.
Chef de Cuisine:
While the term is sometimes used interchangeably with executive chef, a chef de cuisine organizes, coordinates and supervises the preparation of food as well as the training of food production staff. In larger kitchens, he may head a “department” in the kitchen. On average, this culinary professional earns $55,120 a year as of 2010, according to Star Chefs.
A sous chef is second in command just under the chef de cuisine. Or if no chef de cuisine is on staff, he reports directly to the executive chef. As of 2010, a sous chef averaged just over $41,000 a year, according to the Star Chefs survey.
As the title suggests, a pastry chef is responsible for all pastries and desserts in a restaurant. In 2010, this culinary professional earned an average of about $47,000 a year — down just $1,800 from 2009, according to Star Chefs.
As with the role in a kitchen, the location of the kitchen affects salaries. Stand-alone restaurants, for example, pay the least. In 2010, executive chefs averaged almost $66,000 a year in restaurants — $9,000 less than the average for all executive chefs, according to Star Chefs. Those working in hotel restaurants or catering companies earned much more, averaging $81,000 a year. The highest-paying facility is a private club, such as a country club. In this kitchen, an executive chef earns almost $87,000 a year.