Cooks and Food Preparation Workers - What They Do

Cooks and food preparation workers prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods—from soups, snacks, and salads to entrees, side dishes, and desserts. They work in a variety of restaurants, as well as other places where food is served, such as grocery stores, schools and hospitals. Cooks prepare and cook meals while food preparation workers assist cooks by performing tasks, such as peeling and cutting vegetables, trimming meat, preparing poultry, and keeping work areas clean and monitoring temperatures of ovens and stovetops.

Specifically, cooks measure, mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes, using a variety of equipment, including pots, pans, cutlery, ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders. Food preparation workers perform routine, repetitive tasks under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food preparation and serving supervisors. These workers prepare the ingredients for complex dishes by slicing and dicing vegetables, and making salads and cold items. They weigh and measure ingredients, retrieve pots and pans, and stir and strain soups and sauces. Food preparation workers may also cut and grind meats, poultry, and seafood in preparation for cooking. They also clean work areas, equipment, utensils, dishes, and silverware.

Larger restaurants and food service establishments tend to have varied menus and larger kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant or line cooks, each work an assigned station that is equipped with the types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients needed for the foods prepared at that station. Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient prepared or the type of cooking performed—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example.

The number, type, and responsibilities of cooks vary depending on where they work, the size of the facility, and the complexity and level of service offered. Institution and cafeteria cooks, for example, 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. Meals are generally prepared in advance so diners seldom get the opportunity to special order a meal. Restaurant cooks usually prepare a wider selection of dishes, cooking most orders individually. Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They grill and garnish hamburgers, 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.

Work Environment

Cooks held about 2.3 million jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up cooks was distributed as follows:

  1. Cooks, restaurant - 1,153,200
  2. Cooks, fast food - 547,800
  3. Cooks, institution and cafeteria - 394,600
  4. Cooks, short order - 124,500
  5. Cooks, private household - 40,900
  6. Cooks, all other - 20,500

The largest employers of cooks were as follows:

  • Restaurants and other eating places - 70%
  • Healthcare and social assistance - 7%
  • Educational services; state, local, and private - 6%

Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, and other establishments where food is prepared and served. They often prepare only part of a dish and coordinate with other cooks and kitchen workers to complete meals on time. Some work in private homes.

Cooks stand for long periods and work under pressure in a fast-paced environment. Although most cooks work indoors in kitchens, some may work outdoors at food stands, at catered events, or in mobile food trucks.

Injuries and Illnesses

Kitchens are usually crowded and filled with potential dangers, such as hot ovens or slippery floors. Cooks, all other, in particular, have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. ("All other" titles represent occupations with a wide range of characteristics that do not fit into any of the other detailed occupations.)

The most common hazards are slips, falls, cuts, and burns, although injuries are seldom serious. To reduce the risks, cooks wear gloves, long-sleeve shirts, aprons, and nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most cooks work full time, although part-time work is common. Work schedules vary and may include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. In school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias, cooks usually have more regular hours.

Cooks who are employed in schools may work only during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, cooks who are employed in some resort establishments work only for seasonal operation.

Education & Training Required

A high school diploma is not required for beginning jobs but is recommended for those planning a career in food services. Most fast-food or short-order cooks and food preparation workers learn their skills on the job. Training generally starts with basic sanitation and workplace safety regulations and continues with instruction on food handling, preparation, and cooking procedures.

Although most cooks and food preparation workers learn on the job, students with an interest in food service may be able to take high school or vocational school courses in kitchen basics and food safety and handling procedures. Additional training opportunities are also offered by many State employment services agencies and local job counseling centers. For example, many school districts, in cooperation with State departments of education, provide on-the-job training and summer workshops for cafeteria kitchen workers who aspire to become cooks.

When hiring restaurant cooks, employers usually prefer applicants who have training after high school. These training programs range from a few months to 2 years or more. Vocational or trade-school programs typically offer basic training in food handling and sanitation procedures, nutrition, slicing and dicing methods for various kinds of meats and vegetables, and basic cooking techniques, such as baking, broiling, and grilling. Longer certificate or degree granting programs, through independent cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, or college degree programs, train cooks who aspire to more responsible positions in fine-dining or upscale restaurants. They offer a wider array of training specialties, such as advanced cooking techniques; cooking for banquets, buffets, or parties; and cuisines and cooking styles from around the world. Some large hotels, restaurants, and the Armed Forces operate their own training and job-placement programs.

Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions may also sponsor formal apprenticeship programs for cooks in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 formal academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeship programs around the country. Typical apprenticeships last 2 years and combine classroom training and work experience. Accreditation is an indication that a culinary program meets recognized standards regarding course content, facilities, and quality of instruction.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Cooks and food preparation workers must be efficient, quick, and work well as part of a team. Manual dexterity is helpful for cutting, chopping, and plating. These workers also need creativity and a keen sense of taste and smell. Personal cleanliness is essential because most States require health certificates indicating that workers are free from communicable diseases. Knowledge of a foreign language can be an asset because it may improve communication with other restaurant staff, vendors, and the restaurant's clientele.

Cooks and Food Preparation Workers - What They Do - Page 2

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