Chef's wages vary considerably. Wolfgang Puck's 12 restaurants brought in $12.2 million last year, The Food Channel's Emeril Lagasse made $7 million, and the 'enfant terrible of French cooking' Jean-Georges Vongerichten went home with $3 million.
And then there's the "real" world: The median hourly earnings of chefs two years ago was $13.43, with the lowest 10 percent making less than $7.66 an hour, and the top 10 percent plucking down a healthy $25.86 hourly wage.
So there you go: Unless you're one of the blessed food wonders of the world with plenty of backing from top sponsors you're most likely going to fall in the latter group of those head chefs making anywhere from the unacceptably low, "you gotta be kidding" pay scale to the, "yeah, I can get by on that" wage.
A lot depends on what part of the country you're working. Executive chefs in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston are going to make significantly more than those in Mobile, Alabama or Mesa, Arizona. Population aside, it's the deep pockets of the customers in those former locales that make the difference.
Another big factor is what type of establishment you work in. Highbrow, four-star-rated restaurants are going to earn you a much fatter paycheck (and, in turn, demand your best performance!) than Granny's Supper Shack that opens only when Granny's not down with a hangover or the Pizza Palace whose main attraction is its "certified chef" that can twirl a round of dough over his head.
At some places, the relatively low wages may be offset by the employer paying for the uniforms (yes! The tall white cap and white jacket!) and free or reduced-priced meals. But this is strictly arbitrary; Federal law allows meals and uniforms to be deducted from wages if the employer so chooses something to definitely take into consideration when you're interviewing.
And benefits (health insurance, sick days, etc.) are only for full-time employees, so part-timers need to figure out another way of meeting medical bills and avoid getting sick.
Unions for chefs do exist. These unions include membership not only of chefs, but all kitchen workers, down to the dishwashers and busboys. The largest are the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). HERE recently merged with the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees (UNITE) to form UNITE HERE, and represents 440,000 active members and more than 400,000 retirees throughout North America.
The SEIU represents 1.7 million working people and 120,000 retirees. So when you are considering employment, you might want to learn whether or not the establishment you're looking at is a member of one of these powerful unions.
Now you know what a real, red-blooded American chef earns. If the beginning wages don't scare you off, you may truly be one of the Chosen Few destined to "chef" your way through life.
One thing to remember is that although starting salaries look meager, a reputable chef with some solid experience say six or seven years under his or her belt, can make around $120,000 per year on average. So knuckle down, take your licks, and get going you're a chef, right? Go get cooking!
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