Career Profile: Institutional Cook
Eating is necessary for life, but it can also be enjoyable. When food is well prepared and delicious, it can make meals fun, besides providing the energy that people need. Institutional cooks help to prepare good and nutritious meals for people in schools, hospitals, and restaurants.
Many people learn how to cook for themselves and their families, but being an institutional cook is different. Often, people in this field have to prepare meals for a hundred people or more, and they have to be able to cook all kinds of different meals.
School or university kitchens usually have more limited menus than at restaurants, but cooks might have to make different meals for people with allergies or other health problems. At a seniors’ home, many of the issues could be the same, but the menu would likely be different than for younger people. At restaurants, cooks have to be prepared for all kinds of different meals, according to what people order.
The job can involve a lot of pressure, especially around standard mealtimes. Some of the work can be done earlier in the day, but much of it has to wait until the last minute. For example, eggs usually have to be cooked and brought to the table right away, but cooks can usually make soup at least an hour or two ahead of time and then reheat it.
Learning to make all of the different types of food is a long and complicated process. Some people find cooking school at a community college to be useful, but others find that students might not really learn what they need to know. Instead, many people learn from other cooks on the job and work their way up in the field.
In some jobs, institutional cooks are among only a few people working in the kitchen. They might do everything from washing dishes to cooking complicated dishes. In other places, people might start as dishwashers before working their way up to being cooks. Some of them might become line cooks, preparing one or two types of food as they learn how busy kitchens work. Wages for line cooks usually begin at about $22,000 per year and can increase to $30,000.
Becoming a head cook or chef is the goal for many people working in kitchens. Generally, salaries for head cooks start at about $26,000 and can go to $59,000, but people’s pay depends on where they work. In some small schools, for example, institutional cooks might earn less than they would at a larger place.
Being an institutional cook can be a challenging but good job. Being able to feed people can be satisfying, but it can also be stressful when the mealtime rush comes. It can also be dangerous at times when people work over hot stoves and chop food with sharp knives. The hours can be long, and sometimes institutional cooks have to start very early in the morning or work late. Still, they learn valuable skills that they can use at home. If you like to work with food, you might want to think about becoming an institutional cook.
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