What Cooks Do
Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods.
Cooks work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, private households, and other places where food is prepared and served. They often work early mornings, late evenings, holidays, and weekends.
How to Become a Cook
Most cooks learn their skills through on-the-job training and related work experience. Although no formal education is required, some restaurant cooks attend culinary school.
The median hourly wage for cooks was $12.67 in May 2019.
Overall employment of cooks is projected to grow 10 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Individual growth rates will vary by specialty.
Cooks prepare, season, and cook a wide range of foods, which may include soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.
Cooks typically do the following:
- Ensure the freshness of food and ingredients
- Weigh, measure, and mix ingredients according to recipes
- Bake, grill, or fry meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
- Boil and steam meats, fish, vegetables, and other foods
- Arrange, garnish, and sometimes serve food
- Clean work areas, equipment, utensils, and dishes
- Cook, handle, and store food or ingredients
Cooks usually work under the direction of chefs, head cooks, or food service managers. Large restaurants and food service establishments often have multiple menus and large kitchen staffs. Teams of restaurant cooks, sometimes called assistant cooks or line cooks, work at assigned stations equipped with the necessary types of stoves, grills, pans, and ingredients.
Job titles often reflect the principal ingredient cooks prepare or the type of cooking they do—vegetable cook, fry cook, or grill cook, for example.
Cooks use a variety of kitchen equipment, including broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders.
The responsibilities of cooks vary depending on the type of food service establishment, the size of the facility, and the level of service offered. However, in all establishments, they follow sanitation procedures when handling food. For example, they store food and ingredients at the correct temperatures to prevent bacterial growth.
The following are examples of types of cooks:
Restaurant cooks prepare a wide selection of dishes and cook most orders individually. Some restaurant cooks may order supplies and help maintain the stock room.
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. For more information on workers who prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants, see the profiles on food preparation workers and food and beverage serving and related workers.
Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, cafeterias, businesses, hospitals, and other institutions. Although they typically prepare a large quantity of a limited number of entrees, vegetables, and desserts, according to preset menus, they do sometimes customize meals according to diners’ dietary considerations.
Short-order cooks prepare foods in restaurants and coffee shops that emphasize fast service and quick food preparation. They usually prepare sandwiches, fry eggs, and cook french fries, often working on several orders at the same time.
Private household cooks, sometimes called personal chefs, plan and prepare meals in private homes, according to the client’s tastes and dietary needs. They order groceries and supplies, clean the kitchen, and wash dishes and utensils. They also may cater parties, holiday meals, luncheons, and other social events. Private household cooks typically work full-time for one client, although many are self-employed or employed by an agency, regularly making meals for multiple clients.
Cooks held about 2.6 million jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up cooks was distributed as follows:
|Cooks, fast food||534,000|
|Cooks, institution and cafeteria||420,200|
|Cooks, short order||154,700|
|Cooks, private household||23,800|
|Cooks, all other||21,800|
The largest employers of cooks were as follows:
|Restaurants and other eating places||71%|
|Healthcare and social assistance||7|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||5|
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 long-sleeve shirts, gloves, aprons, and nonslip shoes.
Most cooks work full time. Work shifts can include early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays. Schedules for cooks in school cafeterias and some institutional cafeterias are usually more regular. Cooks working in schools may work just during the school year, typically for 9 or 10 months. Similarly, some resort establishments offer seasonal employment only.
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of cooks.
For information about culinary apprenticeship programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, contact the local office of your state employment service agency, or check the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship program online or by phone at 877-872-5627.
For more information about cooking careers, visit
For information about becoming a personal chef, visit
For career videos on cooks, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Cooks,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/cooks.htm (visited ).