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How to Become a Cook

Short-term on-the-job training and work-related experience are the most common ways to become a cook. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks and private household cooks attend cooking schools. Others attend vocational or apprenticeship programs.


Most cooks obtain their skills through short-term on-the job training, usually lasting a few weeks. Training usually starts with learning kitchen basics and workplace safety and continues with food handling and cooking procedures.

Professional culinary institutes, industry associations, and trade unions sponsor formal apprenticeship programs for cooks, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical apprenticeships last 2 years and combine technical training and work experience. The American Culinary Federation accredits more than 200 formal academic training programs and sponsors apprenticeship programs around the country.

Some hotels, restaurants, and the Armed Forces have their own training and job-placement programs.  

Work Experience

Many cooks obtain their skills through work-related experience. They typically start as a kitchen helper or food preparation worker and progress into a cooking position. Some learn by working under the guidance of a more experienced cook.


Independent and vocational cooking schools, professional culinary institutes, and college degree programs also provide training for aspiring cooks. Programs generally last from a few months to 2 years or more. Many offer training in advanced cooking techniques, international cuisines, and cooking styles.  


The American Culinary Federation certifies chefs and culinarians in different skill levels. For cooks seeking certification and advancement to higher level chef positions, certification can show accomplishment and lead to higher paying positions.

Advancement opportunities for cooks often depend on training, work experience, and the ability to do more sophisticated tasks. Those who demonstrate an eagerness to learn new cooking skills and who accept greater responsibility may advance and be asked to train or supervise kitchen staff who have fewer skills.

Some may become head cooks, chefs, or food preparation and serving supervisors.

Important Qualities

Comprehension. Cooks must be able to understand customers’ orders and to read recipes to prepare dishes correctly.

Customer-service skills. Restaurant and short-order cooks must be able to deal with customer complaints and special requests.

Manual dexterity. Cooks should have excellent hand-eye coordination. For example, they need to know the proper knife techniques for cutting, chopping, and dicing.

Sense of taste and smell. All cooks must have a keen sense of taste and smell to prepare food that customers enjoy.

Stamina. The work of a cook can be physically tiring. They must spend a lot of time standing, cooking food over hot stoves, and cleaning work areas.  

Teamwork. Cooks often prepare only part of a dish. They must coordinate with other cooks and food workers.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition