Executive Chef vs Head Chef: What is the difference?


So you want to become a chef? That’s a great decision! A culinary career can be extremely rewarding. As you consider which path to take, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether you want to be an executive chef or a head chef. While the titles sound similar, there are some important distinctions.

In the culinary world, these two careers have different levels of responsibility, earnings potential, and career trajectories. The executive chef takes the highest culinary hierarchy position in a restaurant or hotel. They oversee all kitchen operations and their staff. A head chef has day-to-day responsibility for managing a single kitchen.

In this article, we’ll break down exactly what an executive chef and head chef do in their roles, their average salaries, and the key differences between the two positions. We’ll also give some guidance on which option may be better depending on your career goals and aspirations.

Executive chef

What is an Executive Chef

An executive chef, often referred to as the head of the kitchen, is the culinary artist who sits at the top of the kitchen management hierarchy. This role requires something more, than just being a fantastic cook. This career is about leadership, creativity, and the ability to manage both people and resources efficiently. They are responsible for the overall operation of multiple kitchens in a restaurant chain, hotel, or resort, ensuring that each plate not only tastes exquisite but also looks like a piece of art. They also manage all other chefs and cooks, including sous chefs, head chefs, and line cooks.

Role and Responsibilities of an Executive Chef

Here are some of the key responsibilities that define their role:

  • Menu Development: they are the visionaries behind menu creation, designing dishes that will delight customers and set the establishment apart from competitors.
  • Quality Control: maintaining high standards of food quality and presentation is paramount. The executive chef oversees every dish before it goes out to ensure it meets these standards.
  • Budgeting and Cost Management: they are responsible for managing the kitchen’s budget, including food and labor costs, to ensure the establishment remains profitable.
  • Staff Management: from hiring and training to overseeing kitchen staff, the executive chef ensures the team is motivated, skilled, and working efficiently.
  • Supplier Negotiation: they often negotiate with suppliers to procure the best ingredients at the most favorable prices.
  • Compliance: ensuring that the kitchen adheres to health and safety regulations is also a critical part of their job.
  • Customer Satisfaction: they may interact with guests, gathering feedback and making adjustments to dishes or menus based on their preferences.

As we mentioned in the beginning, if you aim for this role, you will be accountable for all aspects of the kitchen from staff management to food preparation. This is a position that requires excellent leadership skills, great organization, and the ability to handle multitasks.

How Much an Executive Chef Can Earn

Just like any other profession, the salary varies widely depending on the location, size of the establishment, and the level of experience. As of January 26, 2024, in the United States, the average salary for an executive chef is $94,815, with a typical range between $81,622 and $109,514. Meanwhile, across the pond in the United Kingdom, the average salary stands at £56,261 as of Feb 12, 2024, with the range typically falling between £35K – £63K.

Factors like the size and caliber of the restaurant, hotel or resort can impact your pay. If you are working in this position at luxury, Michelin-starred, or celebrity restaurants, then you can have a salary of six figures. At elite establishments, you can make $150,000 to $200,000 or more.

Head chef

What is a Head Chef

A head chef is responsible for managing the kitchen operations of a single restaurant or one kitchen within a larger establishment. They are in charge of directing and supervising the cooks and other kitchen staff daily. This role is pivotal in any restaurant, bistro, or hotel, serving as the bridge between the executive chef’s strategic oversight and the hands-on cooking that takes place every day.

They ensure that each service runs smoothly, dishes are prepared to perfection, and that the kitchen operates at peak efficiency. This role requires a blend of culinary expertise, leadership skills, and the ability to maintain high standards under pressure.

Role and Responsibilities of a Head Chef

Let’s take a look at their responsibilities a little closer:

  • Menu planning and development: The head chef is responsible for designing well-balanced menus, incorporating seasonal ingredients and new dishes. This includes researching trends and customer preferences to create appealing offerings.
  • Kitchen staff management: Managing the kitchen team is a core duty for this position. This includes scheduling, assigning tasks, overseeing work, and providing feedback. Besides that, they need to train their staff on culinary techniques and safety practices.
  • Quality control: The head chef is accountable for consistency and high quality in all dishes that leave their kitchen. They monitor preparation, verify correct portions and seasoning, and check presentation before service.
  • Inventory and cost control: Head chefs manage inventory by tracking usage, planning orders, and purchasing supplies. They analyze costs and sales data to meet budget goals.
  • Food preparation: When needed, they prepare menu items and assist cooks during busy services.
  • Kitchen operations: The head chef creates systems that maximize productivity in their kitchen while maintaining cleanliness and organization. They oversee sanitation and enforce safety protocols.
  • Vendor relationships: Head chefs build strong relationships with food vendors and suppliers to negotiate good deals on quality ingredients.
  • Team leadership: With a mix of motivation, discipline and setting the example, an effective head chef leads their kitchen team to work cohesively to execute outstanding service.

How much a Head Chef can earn?

In the United States, the average annual salary for a head chef is $58,655. The total compensation, including tips, bonuses and overtime pay, is approximately $69,881 per year.

For a head chef role in the United Kingdom, the average base pay is £34,411. They may also earn around £3,617 in additional cash compensation annually. This translates to a total pay potential of £38,028. Those just starting out at this position may make around £27,000, while highly experienced head chefs at luxury hotels or Michelin-starred restaurants may earn £50,000 or more.

So what is the difference between an executive chef and a head chef

While both positions are critical to the success of a restaurant’s culinary operations, their responsibilities, scope of work, and positions within the kitchen’s command structure differ significantly. Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone looking to carve out a career in the culinary world, as it helps in setting realistic career goals and paths.

AspectExecutive ChefHead Chef
Position in HierarchyTop of the kitchen hierarchy, overseeing multiple kitchens in larger establishments or chains.Directly manages the daily operations of a single kitchen.
Main ResponsibilitiesGenerally have a minimum of 5 years of kitchen experience.Strategic planning, menu conceptualization, budgeting, overseeing multiple kitchens, and staff management across kitchens.
Experience/TrainingUsually have 10+ years experience, including as head chef.Generally have a minimum of 5 years kitchen experience.
Earning PotentialAverage salary: $94K (US) / £41K (UK)Average salary: $59K (US) / £34K (UK
Career TrajectoryOften requires extensive experience in various culinary roles, with a focus on management and leadership skills.Can be a stepping stone to an executive chef position, with a strong focus on culinary skills and kitchen management.
ManagementManage multiple cooks and an entire culinary team.Manage a single kitchen staff.

What chef do you want to become?

As you’ve seen, the roles of executive chef and head chef offer distinct paths within the culinary universe, each with its unique challenges and rewards. The question now is, who do you want to become?

The role you choose should align with your long-term professional goals and desires:

  • Become an executive chef if you want to oversee entire kitchen operations across multiple locations. This prestigious role allows you to create menus that set dining trends. As an executive chef, you’ll inspire your teams daily while managing budgets and maximizing profitability.
  • Consider head chef if you aim to master daily kitchen operations in a single locale. This role allows you to balance culinary creativity with practical kitchen management. As a head chef, you’ll ensure service excellence through quality control, staff leadership, and outstanding dishes.

At HRC Culinary Academy, we offer chef training certifications that will help you in getting one of these positions. Our culinary programs will provide the real-world skills and knowledge needed to succeed as a head chef or work your way up to an executive chef role.

Learn more about our career-focused culinary programs and get started on the path to starting a culinary career.

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