2011 StarChefs.com Salary Survey Report

by Nicholas Rummell
August 2012

You can pop the Champagne, and maybe even have a sip or two. Just don't guzzle it all ... yet. While 2010 looked a little bleak for the restaurant industry—and for the U.S. economy as a whole—a look at last year shows things have gotten slightly better for chefs and other food professionals.

The StarChefs.com 2011 salary survey—a polling of 1,734 chefs, cooks, and other food and beverage professionals—found average salaries for most job titles increased (in some cases by double digits) over the previous year. For executive chefs, for example, salaries rose from $74,891 to $83,086 (nearly a 10 percent increase), with a median salary of $74,500.

That's reason enough to be positive, and chefs seem to be cheerier about their own economic fates, too. In 2011 the average bonus for industry professionals (those who received a bonus, anyway) was $2,934. Those who expect some kind of bonus in 2012 predict they'll receive an increase of a couple hundred dollars (somewhere to the tune of $3,185).

The uptick for chefs tracks (and in some cases actually surpasses) the U.S. economy's stutter-step recovery this past year. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry has grown more than the overall economy (2.7 percent for restaurants compared to 1.3 percent for the U.S. jobs market), adding 116,000 jobs in the first half of 2012. NRA's June tracking survey found that 20 percent of restaurant owners expected to increase their staff later this year, while roughly 70 percent expected staffing to remain stable.

Additionally, since the economic recovery began in early 2010, the restaurant industry has reported adding more than 560,000 jobs, more than one-third of which were created in the last six months. The food industry—from manufacturers to restaurants—comprises about 15 percent of the total U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic, which makes the job growth in food service that much more comforting.

Of course, depending on your specific venue, gender, even location, you may not be among those who saw pay increases in 2011 (or you may be one of the few whose salary has increased exponentially). Check out the 2011 results below to see where you stacked up.

Job Title 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2009-2010 % Change 2010-2011 % Change
Chef/Owner/CEO - $85,179 $85,685 $79,222 $82,951 -7.5% 3.95%
Executive Chef $77,611 $74,869 $79,402 $74,891 $83,086 -5.7% 9.86%
Chef de Cuisine - $56,367 $57,417 $55,120 $56,627 -4.0% 2.66%
Sous Chef $42,104 $44,205 $42,266 $41,135 $43,130 -2.7% 4.63%
Line Cook $13.07/hr $30,460 $29,662 $28,662 $28,895 -4.0% 0.8%
Pastry Chef $53,017 $46,228 $48,861 $47,024 $57,764 -3.8% 18.6%
Pastry Cook - - - - $27,870 n/a n/a
Chef Instructor - - - - $56,906 n/a n/a
Food & Beverage Manager/General Manager - - - - $75,709 n/a n/a

Venue Title Average Salary (2010) Average Salary (2011) 2010-2011 % change
Catering Executive Chef n/a $73,969 n/a
Catering Chef de Cuisine n/a $50,819 n/a
Hotel Executive Chef $81,039 $71,098 -$9,941 (-14%)
Hotel Chef de Cuisine $55,405 $84,875 $29,470 (+34.7%)
Hotel Pastry Chef $46,547 $52,273 $5,726 (+11%)
Hotel Sous Chef $42,906 $53,376 $10,470 (+19.6%)
Private/Country Club Executive Chef $86,883 $74,714 -$12,169 (-16%)
Restaurant Executive Chef $81,039 $75,156 -$5,883 (-7.8%)
Restaurant Chef de Cuisine $51,114 $82,814 $31,700 (+38%)
Restaurant Sous Chef $39,478 $40,618 $1,140 (+2.8%)

All Salaries Rise in 2011, Some Dramatically

The rising tide in the food industry seems to have lifted most chef careers, including at the lowest and highest ends. Line cooks finally staunched the downward slide in salary that began in 2008 and chef-owners saw a nice keeping-pace-with-inflation average increase of almost 4 percent, much better than the 7.5 percent decrease reported in 2010.

The most dramatic increase, though, was among pastry chefs, who reported on average a tremendous 18.6 percent increase (or an average salary increase of $10,000). That should be reassuring for pastry chefs, who might have felt the pangs of doom from pastry-turned-savory impresario Alex Stupak's declaration that "pastry isn't dead, but it's dying." However, pastry chefs still make significantly less than executive chefs (who averaged $83,086, a big 10 percent jump over 2010) and chefs de cuisine ($56,627).

The smallest increase was, no surprise, among line cooks, who reported a modest $28,895 and most of which are paid hourly rather than salaries. Despite the paltry increase for line cooks, though, it's still progress of a kind—and much better than the year-over-year pay decreases the position has seen recently. We know, we know, huzzah.

Overall salaries might have increased in 2011, but broken down by specific venue the picture changes somewhat, especially among specific job titles in each field. At hotels, for example, pay decreased roughly 14 percent among executive chefs but increased 34 percent among chefs de cuisine and nearly 20 percent among sous chefs. A similar trend existed among private and country club chefs and restaurants; at restaurants, executive chef salaries dipped 7.8 percent while chefs de cuisine average salaries rose 38 percent.

School and Staying Power

Of course, the age-old question—is a culinary degree worth it?—seems to be definitively answered, at least in terms of how well chefs are paid. Those who had a culinary degree (1,064 of respondents) reported an average salary of $76,242; those without (669) were paid appreciatively less, at about $68,090. And for those who didn't attend college, take heart: those who got their bachelor's degree reported an average salary of $72,613, a number less than the chefs without college degrees who clocked in at $73,857. (Bear in mind, yearly salary reporting doesn't take into account the monthly toll of dreaded student loans.)

And as far as experience goes, don't hold out for that gold watch. Evidence points to chef pay becoming stagnant over time. In terms of experience, the sweet spot seems to be nine to 12 years in the industry, as those chefs had the highest average salary ($78,039). Salaries dipped in the 16-to-20-years range, and tapered off once a chef had more than 26 years experience. In fact, chefs with 31 to 40 years experience made the least ($68,309), followed closely by chefs with more than 40 years of experience ($69,865).

Of course, the flip side of the education coin is that most chef instructors make just about as much as most chefs de cuisine—and generally have better hours.

Location, Location, Location

Among the most restaurant-intensive markets (San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Portland, and Seattle), the salaries hovered anywhere from $71,000 to $77,000. But it was actually the smaller and medium-sized culinary destinations where salaries were the highest. Las Vegas food professionals had an average salary of $86,911, Miami barely lagged behind at $86,398, and it was in Washington, D.C., where there was the biggest average salary, topping out at $88,549. Conversely, New Orleans got the rawest of deals among culinary destinations; its food professionals made, on average, $59,660, far and away the lowest among major metropolitan areas.

Generally, salaries in the East and West Coasts were higher than in the South and central United States, except for two notable exceptions: Georgia, which led the other states with an average salary of $84,208, and Texas, which followed closely with an average salary of $76,731. California and New York—the two states most represented in the survey—reported average salaries of $74,347 and $72,733, respectively.

Gender, Race Gap Narrows

The glass ceiling in the kitchen for women has been pushed up a bit, but it's still evident. Most notably, far fewer women work in the industry than men. Only 396 women responded to the StarChefs.com salary survey compared with 1,325 men. However, the average salary reported by women was only slightly lower ($71,365) than men ($73,503).

The disparity was more evident in bonuses paid. Only 150 women reported receiving a bonus in 2011, and their average reported bonus was $2,254; on the male side of the spectrum, 719 men reported bonuses to the tune of an average $2,954.

The bonus gap seems to be alive and well when it comes to race, as well. According to our survey, of only about fewer than half of the 61 African-Americans in the survey reported a bonus last year (at an average of $1,706). Hispanics fared better, as those who received a bonus reported an average of $1,873. Asians reported an average bonus of $2,015. And Caucasians, to no real surprise, topped out in the bonus department at an average of $3,054. The gap in salary was less pronounced, but not absent: Caucasians made on average $10,000 more than African-Americans, $3,000 more than Asians, and $5,000 more than Hispanics. But the gap has been closing the past few years, which hopefully means parity is around the corner.

Health Insurance

One of the big headlines in the news the past year has been health insurance, and whether President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should or could be overturned.

Lobbyists for the National Restaurant Association have come out strongly against the law, claiming it threatens "the very slim profit margin on which most restaurants operate." The Supreme Court recently upheld the majority of the law's provisions, including one that requires businesses with 50 or more employees to offer health insurance to full-time employees.

Despite some industry backlash, a sizeable number of restaurants, caterers, and hotels already offer health insurance to their employees and pay for it in many cases, according to the survey. About three-fourths (1,260) of respondents said their employers offered some form of health insurance, and roughly half of those plans are at least 50 percent employer-subsidized.

Still, health insurance is lacking among many restaurants, according to industry critics. According to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a conglomerate of employee unions and non-profits, 83 percent of 630 surveyed industry workers don't receive employer-provided health insurance.

Chefs Come Around (Slowly) to Social Media

Another possible, and more positive, harbinger of the future of restaurants is social media. Diners are starting to flock to Twitter and Facebook to research places to eat and drink, and online services like Yelp and the StarChefs.com's Chefs Picks apps are more prolific. According to our survey, 37 percent (642 of 1,734) food professionals use Twitter, while roughly double that amount use Facebook. And it's not just personal tweets—almost as many chefs said they use social media at work as said they use it at home.