What is a sous chef?

If you're interested in culinary careers but don't have much kitchen experience, you may have asked yourself: What is a sous chef? The short answer: they're responsible for everything that goes on in the kitchen.

For the long answer, we'll back up a little bit. Have you ever wondered how famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver manage to run restaurants while also owning other businesses, appearing on TV shows, and writing cookbooks? The answer is simple: They don’t. 

Most of the time, these chefs are executive chefs, a position that’s almost like the CEO of a kitchen. Not all executive chefs are famous, of course — but they are all responsible for coming up with the vision for a restaurant or kitchen. To bring that vision to life, though, they depend on a team. And the person who leads that team is the sous chef.

1. Sous chefs at a glance

2. What is a sous chef responsible for?

3. The path to becoming a sous chef

4. Working your way up to sous chef

5. What is a sous chef's salary?

6. Start your journey on Instawork

1. Sous chefs at a glance

One answer to the question "What is a sous chef?": they're the second in command. If an executive chef is the CEO of a kitchen, then a sous chef is almost like the vice president. The sous chef is the executive chef’s right hand in the kitchen and takes a hands-on approach in running it. It’s up to them to make sure everything goes smoothly. Between managing the team and coordinating daily activities, sous chefs have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders.

Sous chefs oversee everything that goes on in the kitchen. To achieve this, they need strong skills in areas like inventory and cooking techniques. Like line cooks and other positions in the kitchen brigade, sous chefs tend to focus on specialties and master them. This means you may have a sous chef that only works with Italian or French cuisines.

A good sous chef is also a good leader. The kitchen staff sees the sous chef as a manager and reports to them. Because of this, sous chefs must know how to work with people and keep things organized. They should be flexible and communicate expectations clearly but also be understanding when mistakes happen. And just as importantly, they should know how to fix them.

2. What is a sous chef responsible for?

There's no typical day in the life of a sous chef. During one shift, they might plan the daily specials and order supplies. And during the next, they might help out at the sauté or grill station.

Kitchen costs are another crucial sous chef duty. They’re in charge of keeping costs under budget, which includes portions and plating. A great sous chef is good at balancing reasonable costs in supplies with the best quality products for each diner. 

Coordinating the schedule for chefs and assistants is also on the sous chef's to-do list. Part of this is ensuring that the kitchen is clean and up to legal standards, including sanitation and safety, before every shift.

Additional duties and responsibilities of a sous chef include:

  • Working with the head chef to plan the menu. Menu planning is a vital part of a sous chef's work. Planning a menu combines the logistics of schedules and supplies with the creativity of the executive chef.
  • Make sure the kitchen is fully stocked. Sous chefs need to ensure that the staff has everything they need for service. For this, they track the existing inventory and order from vendors as needed.
  • Keeping the kitchen up to standards for every shift. Sous chefs supervise and give detailed instructions to the cleaning staff.
  • Managing the staff's shifts. Sous chefs organize the schedules and make sure the team is in the kitchen as needed. They also cover emergencies like filling in for anyone who's late or misses a shift.

As managers, sous chefs deal with the staff and need to keep them aligned and working for the same goals. This makes good communication and working well under pressure essential skills for a sous chef. They should always guide the staff and keep calm when dealing with issues before or during a shift.

Communication between the head or executive chef and the sous chef is also vital. As a second in command, the sous chef needs to respect the executive chef and help make their vision a reality. But they shouldn’t be afraid to come up with new, better ways to do something if they see a problem.

3. The path to becoming a sous chef

If you're wondering "What is a sous chef?" you may also be wondering about other kitchen roles. Like many organizations, kitchens divide their employees into different "levels." The staff in each level handles specific tasks involved with running the kitchen, from cleaning services to business management. Sous chefs rank toward the top of these levels, with several positions under them.


Dishwashers are in charge of washing cutlery, dishes, and pots or pans.

Prep cook

A prep cook gets ingredients ready to be cooked. They do things like peeling vegetables and even cleaning the kitchen. You don’t necessarily need formal training to become a prep cook, but it may improve your odds of landing a job.

Commis chef

A commis chef is a junior staff member who works with a line cook to gain real-life experience and work their way up. Some commis chefs may be attending culinary school or have just recently graduated.

Line cook

The line cook, also known as a station cook, is the person who handles a specific section in the kitchen. Line cooks usually work alone, but they may have a few assistants if the kitchen is big.

Line cooks work as butchers, pastry chefs, vegetable chefs, and other specialized skills.

Sous chef

The sous chef, or second chef, is the second in command. The sous chef often steps in and fills the role of the head chef or works with the team where needed.

A sous chef is a step between management and hands-on work, so they need to be flexible and think on their feet. Business management experience is just as important as culinary skills for sous chefs. 

You can find a sous chef in bigger kitchens, but not in smaller ones where each cook may be in charge of their own section.

Head chef

The head chef is in charge of the operations of a specific kitchen. They manage the team and deal with vendors or suppliers. Head chefs are also in control of menus, budgets, and daily costs if there's no executive chef.

Executive chef

An executive chef is the highest leader in the kitchen hierarchy. Only bigger kitchens have an executive chef, and this is often the case with gourmet or famous restaurants. For example, Gordon Ramsey is one of the most renowned executive chefs.

Executive chefs are the managers of the kitchen. They're in charge of making decisions and usually lead several different locations, so they don't normally cook as much as you'd think.

Executive chefs also plan the menus, which includes budget management and collaborating directly with vendors.

4. Working your way up to sous chef

The first step to becoming a sous chef is securing an entry-level opportunity. Instawork has many different shifts available for dishwashers and prep cooks at above-average pay rates, making it great for those who want to break into the industry. You can also apply for jobs or reach out to local kitchens for an apprenticeship or other entry-level positions. Traditional kitchens have a strong sense of hierarchy, so you’ll need to start in an entry-level job and work your way up.

Attending a culinary school can fast-track your career, but you don’t necessarily need a degree or formal education to be a sous chef. Many sous chefs start with years of hands-on experience. But professional programs or culinary school can give you a leg up when applying to jobs. And if you want to expand your opportunities, you can apply for certification by the American Culinary Federation. To get certified, the ACF requires five years of experience in entry-level positions. This entry-level experience can include roles like commis chef or line cook. For a real chance of making it as a sous chef, take all the experience you can get in professional kitchens.

5. What is a sous chef's salary?

A sous chef can make anywhere from $34,000 to $60,000, according to Payscale. By the hour, Salary.com reports that sous chefs usually earn between $19 and $29 an hour, with an average of $23 an hour. But keep in mind that how much a sous chef makes depends a lot on experience, type of workplace, and even your location. On Instawork, you can find chef shifts that often pay well above the average for your area.

6. Start your journey on Instawork

Whether you’re a kitchen veteran or total newcomer, you’re almost certain to find a well-paying shift that’s suited for you on Instawork. On our flexible platform, you can supplement your day job and make money on the side while learning the ins and outs of the kitchen in an entry-level role. This makes it easy to gain real-life kitchen experience — and get paid while you learn on the job. Along the way, you can figure out if the kitchen is a long-term path for you. 

But if you want to make Instawork your full-time job, you can do that too — plenty of other Instawork Professionals have!

To get started, create a profile on Instawork, search for the best local opportunities, and sign up for shifts. Instawork takes the effort out of looking for work — all you have to do is show up and do a great job. Ready to start making money? Sign up for Instawork now. If you have any questions, review our Get Started Guide.


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