Restaurant Cooking Positions: Chefs, Cooks, and Noncooking Roles

Chef or Line Cook? What's the Difference?

Chef preparing meal in restaurant
••• Tara Moore/ Taxi/ Getty Images

Maybe you're thinking about opening your own restaurant, or maybe you just want to work in a dining establishment. In either case, it can pay off to have a fundamental knowledge of staff needs and the positions involved, from types of chefs down to line cooks as well as noncooking roles.  

Positions are numerous and are divided between "back" and "front" of house. Front of house is where diners gather to enjoy the food, and back of house is where the food is prepared.

Chef or Cook? 

Depending on the size and theme of a restaurant, just one cook might run the show or several cooks might work together back of house in the kitchen. The terms chef and cook are often used interchangeably. Originally, a chef was a professionally trained individual. Today, the term is often applied to anyone who works in a kitchen. 

The Executive Chef

The executive chef is the head chef—the person who designs the menu, creates the specials, orders the foods, and serves as the general manager of the kitchen. The executive chef typically handles scheduling, hiring, and firing of kitchen staff as well, and is responsible for the quality of the food that leaves the kitchen. Every detail of the kitchen's operation traces back to the executive chef.

This position is normally filled by someone with several years cooking and restaurant management experience, and/or a culinary degree. A knack for detail and the ability to thrive in a fast-paced environment can be critical. Average base pay is about $59,000 a year as of 2018, but it can be considerably more in major metropolises and upscale establishments. 

The Sous Chef

The sous chef is the executive chef’s assistant and the next in command. It's the sous chef's job to take over operations when the executive chef has a day off or is on vacation. Sous chefs might fill in on the line or work a particular station on busy nights.

Many smaller restaurants do not keep a sous chef on staff, but this position requires the same skills, experience, and training as that of executive chef among establishments that do. It is, in fact, a stepping-stone to that loftier position. Understandably, sous chefs earn less, an average base pay of just under $46,000 a year. But again, this can be higher depending on the location and the restaurant. 

The Line Cooks

The most common title in the kitchen is that of the line cook, and it does not refer to just one position or job duty. Depending on the kitchen setup and the menu, a restaurant might have anywhere from two to eight or more line cooks. A line cook refers to anyone in charge of a particular station in the kitchen, such as: 

  • Sauté Chef: This person is in charge of anything cooked in a sauté pan. The position is typically filled by the best cook on staff behind the executive chef and the sous chef.
  • Grill Cook: This cook takes care of everything prepared on the char-grill or flattop grill, such as meats, chicken, and fish.
  • Fry Cook: This is an entry-level position in the kitchen. The fry cook is in charge of anything that requires deep-frying. French fries, chicken fingers, onion rings ... all fall to this individual.

Virtually no kitchen is without at least one line cook, including fast-food establishments, and a single line cook can staff more than one station in slower restaurants. Line cooks earn an average base pay of about $26,000 a year as of 2018. If you're looking to start out in the industry, this position can give you a great toehold to move up after you master one or more stations. 

Other Types of Chef Positions

Larger restaurants or those with very specialized menus often employ other types of chefs as well.

  • Dessert Chef: Many restaurants require that their servers prepare their own desserts, but a dessert chef prepares a bulk of the desserts as they are ordered in more upscale or specialty eateries.
  • Pastry Chef: This individual is in charge of making all the baked goods, including breads and desserts. 
  • Salad Chef:  A restaurant that offers a lot of salads and other cold menu items might keep a salad chef on hand to prepare and oversee these dishes. 

The Expeditor

Someone has to keep the pace moving along at an efficient speed, a job that falls to the expeditor. This is a noncooking role on the kitchen line. An expeditor is in charge of organizing orders by table and garnishing the dishes before the server takes them out to the dining room. Expeditors are only needed when the kitchen is exceptionally busy, which can be all the time in some popular establishments. This role often acts as a liaison between back and front of house. 

The person who acts as an expeditor must be very familiar with the menu and know what dishes should look like when they leave the kitchen and are served to guests. Communication skills are important. 

The Caller 

Another noncooking position, this employee calls the incoming orders to the cooks and tells the rest of the kitchen staff what they should be working on. The executive chef often acts as the caller during the dinner rush.

A caller needs to be quick-witted and highly organized, knowing exactly how long each menu item takes to prepare. A well-done prime rib requires much more time than a rare grilled tuna steak, and timing must be balanced if both are ordered by the same table and must come out at the same time.

Hiring the Right Person 

Hiring the right person for each job—or, if you're looking for a position, knowing the right job to apply for—can be critical. Employees must be able to work together efficiently and communicate effectively no matter how many positions a restaurant kitchen requires. Making sure that your staff is trained to do a variety of tasks can also help keep the flow of the kitchen smooth, ensuring that customers get the best possible food in a timely manner.