Behind the Dish: Work Life on a Chef's Salary

By Brian Steel,

The last time you sat down for a delicious meal in a fancy restaurant, did you wonder about the chefs who prepared it?  Here at PayScale, we always want to know more about the people who work in one of the 13,000 job titles on which we gather data. This week, in addition to providing chef salary information, we will also explore a day in the life of a chef. Join us as we go behind the dish. 

Meet Jeff Kouba, a former Chef Tournant at Café Boulud in New York City. Café Boulud, a high society, three-star French restaurant on the Upper East Side, is a frequent landing spot for elite businessman, politicians, sports figures and celebrities. However, life in the kitchen at this glamorous restaurant is much less elegant.

Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Foie Gras         

When you walk into the kitchen at Café Boulud, the tension is thick enough to be cut with a chef’s knife. If you dream of being a chef here, you must master each of six stations, including Garde Manger I and II, Entremetier (entrée preparer), Hot Appetizers, Poissonnier (fish cook),  and Saucier (sauce maker/meat cook). Jeff describes the intense ladder to promotion. It is typical to serve six to eight months at each position, says Kouba. In this kitchen, the most pivotal role is the Garde Manger (or, the keeper of the food), an entry-level role. The Garde Manger is responsible for cold preparation of hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, pâtés, salads, oysters, and more. According to Kouba, if you cannot adequately perform the role of Garde Manger, you will never wear the white hat or make a chef's salary.           

There are two shifts at this restaurant; morning and afternoon/evening. Both highly intense shifts run 12 to 14 hours, six days a week.  

The morning shift starts promptly at six a.m. in high-energy fashion with rock music blaring. Kouba describes the anxiety felt as the kitchen staff scrambles to find their stash of knives and kitchen towels. The morning staff is responsible for completing the prep work for both lunch and dinner, as well as cooking and serving lunch. “It’s a struggle to keep up with your responsibilities and you are never ahead,” explains Kouba. On a good day, you will be lucky to head home by six in the evening.

The afternoon/evening shift begins at 11 a.m. with its own set of challenges. You see, at Café Boulud, there are no recipes for the daily specials. Each day, chefs prepare something new, forcing him or her to learn a new dish on the fly. The evening staff relies on the prep work of the morning shift, which can make or break a dinner service. Employees are lucky to leave the kitchen by midnight.

Long Days, Longer Nights

While not all restaurant kitchens are run this way, notes Kouba, they also don’t all have three stars. Café Boulud is unique in their mission to train technically proficient chefs. 

Still, this demanding job takes a significant toll on workers and it's tough to live on chef's salary in New York City. Jeff Kouba chose to leave the restaurant industry because working long hours in a kitchen made his life feel one-dimensional. He had lived in New York City for over four years, yet hardly experienced the Big Apple. Life began to feel cyclical, says Kouba. He began having anxiety dreams about work. “If you want succeed as a chef, you will never get away from long hours and hard work. It was one of the best times of my life and I have no regrets,” states Kouba.

Tell Us What You Think

We want to hear from you! Could you handle the long hours on a chef’s salary? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts. If you are curious about the career paths available in the restaurant industry, head over to our GigZig tool and start exploring. Bon Appétit!

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(Photo credit: Ricardo Liberato/Flickr)








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