Let’s delve into the hierarchy of the kitchen, to decode and differentiate the roles of two of the most critical players - the Head Chef and the Executive Chef. To the outside world, these positions are one and the same, you’ll even see job ads that will try and blend the roles. However much like a well-crafted symphony, a successful kitchen requires every role to be in harmony, and understanding these distinctions can make all the difference.
First off, let's break the ice by considering the numbers. In a survey conducted in 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 160,000 chefs and head cooks in the country. However, there is no discernable data to tell us how many “Executive Chefs” there are in the US. As it goes, the position of Executive Chef is a much rarer title; let’s break it down.
The Head Chef – The Maestro of the Kitchen
Often called the ‘Chef De Cuisine’ or Head Chef, is the heart and soul of the restaurant kitchen's day-to-day operations. As their many interchangeable titles would suggest, they are responsible for the direct management of kitchen staff, ensuring the quality and consistency of dishes, and often playing a hands-on role in food preparation.
As of 2022, the average salary of a head chef in the United States ranged from $52k-$59k per year. In actuality proper Head Chefs are typically paid a lot more in larger cities, the data is again skewed by misused titles such as “Kitchen Manager” or “Lead cook. “ While remuneration may vary based on the restaurant's size and location, it's safe to say that the role demands significant culinary skill and leadership prowess. The Head Chef will oversee hiring, training, ordering, inventory across all stations, vendor relationships, and most importantly the flow of service.
The Executive Chef – The Visionary Strategist
On the other end of the spectrum, the Executive Chef is akin to the CEO of the kitchen. Their role extends beyond the immediate culinary operations and oftentimes is the title of an owner or partner in the business. They are tasked with developing menus, creating and managing budgets, and setting up suppliers. Moreover, they establish the culinary direction and ethos of the restaurant, bringing the brand's culinary vision to life.
The median salary for an executive chef ranges anywhere from $65k to well into six figures. The higher pay reflects the extensive experience and broader managerial responsibilities associated with this role. Many times these roles are blended in a corporate setting into a Food and Beverage (F&B) Director. Depending on the size of the venue, this role could oversee multiple outlets or operations within the company.
The Dance of Distinction
Now, while both roles are undeniably important, it's their interplay that sets the stage for a successful restaurant. Much like how a great dish is more than the sum of its ingredients, a high-functioning kitchen relies on the seamless integration of these two roles. Often the head chef reports directly to the executive chef, however, the executive chef is only able to be effective at their job by relying on the head chef to execute the day-to-day operations.
To put it in an oversimplified analogy, if the kitchen were a pirate ship, the Head Chef would be the First Mate, managing the crew and ensuring everything runs smoothly, while the Executive Chef would be the Captain, charting the course and setting the vision.
In the world of hospitality recruitment, it's our job to ensure that these roles are filled with not just the best talent, but the right talent - those who understand and respect the delicate balance of these distinct roles.
Marc LaPierre is a 10-year veteran of the food and hospitality industry, Certified Staffing Professional, and CEO/Founder of Clock’d + SEEN. From cooking in James Beard award-winning kitchens to opening and managing a nightclub in Mexico, he worked every job in the industry. Today he connects professionals looking to advance their careers with clients eager to find an all-star team.