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How do you survive on a cook's salary?

post #1 of 22
Thread Starter 
I've posted my intentions about going to culinary school in another post. But before I go through with this I can't for the life of me figure out how I'm going to survive.

I've already put my apartment on the market for sale, I'm going over all my expenses, I'm prepared for the long hours, and while I understand the low pay ... I can't seem to get prepared for it.

I'll put it in perspective, this might help anyone else in my situation.
After school you'll make about $25,000.
Living in NYC making $25,000 year ... how? For A $700/month apartment in NYC you will be living in squalor. With a $25,000 salary you will bring home, after taxes, $1,563 each month, that's $360/week in your pocket. On top of your $700 month rent add another $800, this will be $500 food, $300 utilities/public transportation/laundry. That's $1500/month in expenses ... $63/month left over or $15/week savings.

$15 a week left over to splurge on whatever you want. 1 beer at happy hour ... $4 ... do you smoke? You get the point.

Oh and I forgot ... your culinary school loans. And don't cut yourself too bad in the kitchen ... your health insurance won't help you out here, because you won't be able to afford it.

Even with all this, I'm still looking for a way to make cooking a reality. But passion and emotion WILL NOT pay bills, or stop the eviction, or get you out of debt. If you can't afford the subway pass to get to work something is wrong with this picture.

If my tone is angry, I apologize, It's just very frustrating. I'm writing this in hope that someone can offer some advice on how to make this work.

(Disclaimer: I'm born and raised in NYC. Just in case anyone is questioning my expense figures and assumptions.)
post #2 of 22
I believe you've hit the nail on the head of the plight of a large percentage of Americans and Canadians (not just people working in the kitchens). When you live in countries with such a large income gap this is what inevitably happens and why so many people are in backbreaking debt.

However, you have to understand that with a bit of fancy arithmetic you will find that you have more money than you actually have. At the end of the tax year you should find that you are getting a portion of that money back in the form of a tax refund for being in the low income bracket (at least we get some money back in Canada). Secondly, if you're spending 500 dollars on food a month and working in a restaurant then you are spending too extravagantly... I would budget 200, which combined with staff meals will keep you well fed (no, you will not be eating at Per Se or scarfing down foie gras... and you will cook a lot at home but it will rustic). Thirdly, I think you can find places for rent that is lower than 700... the key is to think "living with roommates" and "choose very cheap neighbourhoods in the boroughs". Student housing here in Ottawa averages 400-425 per person... it may feel like living in a slum (you're probably living with 4 other people sharing two bathrooms and your basement palace may flood after a good storm) after being used to a life of comfort, but c'est la vie.

Assuming you can reduce your rent by another 100 or more dollars and your food bills by up to 300, you suddenly have another 13 dollars of disposible income a day, which combined with your tax return should allow you to save maybe a couple thousand dollars a year.
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
post #3 of 22
Thread Starter 
You can't go lower than $700, with roommates, in the outer boroughs. It's not worth it, for your well-being alone. It's not going to feel like a slum because of cramped quarters and a run-down apartment, it's going to feel like a slum because that's exactly where you'll be, in the slums, the ghetto. You can't compare the cost of living in Ottawa to NYC.
And an end of the year tax return won't help with your monthly expenses.

The food budget, $10/day on food adds up to $305/month. If you shop and eat home meals, let's say $50/week on groceries ... $215/month. But since you'll be in the food industry, and your circle of friends will all be chefs/cooks, I can't see cooking at home in your terribly small and disgusting $700/month kitchen, after cooking 60 hours a week, when everyone will be wanting to go and try so-and-so's new tasting menu at their new place. It adds up. Maybe I budgeted a little high, but not much.

I'm just trying to be realistic, I don't want to come across as preaching doom-and-gloom, but sometimes it helps to see the big picture. I still have the desire to be in the kitchen ... I just can't destroy my life over it.
post #4 of 22
I think Blueicus is on point in regards to food and room mates.
Whether it's a life partner or just friends/aquaintances, two or more people can live together far cheaper than they could each live alone.
I never had food at home when I was a young cook.
I ate when I got to work, ate midway through, and then either ate after work or took something home.
No, never had food at home.
Oh, I had some stuff to put ON food in case some magically appeared.

Your situation is why many go through the school of hard knocks, if not completely then at least initially.
Paying for school is hard to recoup.
After a good amount of experience is amassed, then a culinary degree coupled with experience should get you more than 25k a year.
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
post #5 of 22
cheech, that's precisely why younger people are better adjusted to the industry... because they can cope with the dirt poor conditions that being a line cook entails, the benefit being that after a few years of work you will eventually earn more (though chances are you will never reach the 100K you were used to).

As for food, I generally eat one meal a day at home (except on days off) which typically consists of a grilled cheese (or two) with a couple of over easy eggs... total cost of the meal is about a buck fifty, surely if you have a hot plate and a frying pan you can make that sort of meal as well. On off days I'll splurge, maybe spend 60 dollars cooking (I'll have enough food usually for the next three or four days) for my roommate and myself or go out for a night on the town. I spend maybe 25 dollars a week on average on alcohol and the biggest drain on my income comes in the form of books. What can I say? I guess I'm a pretty low maintenance guy. Perhaps I hang out with the wrong chefly crowd... but I haven't had a tasting menu in a few years (barring that one time I was treated on the house by the place I stage at) and I spend more than $50 on a single meal maybe once a month.

In the end you have to set your priorities and determine what is good for you, the road to culinary dominance isn't cheap and maybe just throwing a lot of extravagant parties is the way to go for you
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
post #6 of 22
In your present position, wanting to go to college? It won't work.
If you continue working and volunteer in a kitchen? It can.
Really, you don't need to attend college. Personally, I think it's a waste of time but can understand why it has revered status in the US. Confounds me why that is but I understand.

It's just about prioritising.

Oh, and it's okay to be angry. I look at the conditions in the US in terms of starting out and I cringe. You guys really do have it very tough.
post #7 of 22

Its easy

Actually its not so hard ...
post #8 of 22
I believe that NY Times recently had an article about New York salaries and the average chef was making near $50k, are you sure that $25 is accurate?
post #9 of 22
I like this statement a lot. Im 23, never went to culinary school. You can (like Any other trade) learn what you really want/need to know just as well if not better in the work place. The down side.. There are some jobs and chef positions that I would never be able to even get a chance at because i dont have that piece of paper saying I attended culinary school. It wouldnt be a bad Idea to go check out a local restaurant and work a couple saturdays just to test the waters.
post #10 of 22
Read that it says chef, not cook. Barring a lot of luck and a lot of naivety from the manager's part one does not become a chef coming out of school. You will spend at least several years working up, down and around the ladder earning the more "realistic" amounts of money we've already mentioned.
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
"If it's chicken, chicken a la king. If it's fish, fish a la king. If it's turkey, fish a la king." -Bender
post #11 of 22
I'm currently about to make the plunge and start going to culinary school. I had no idea how much a professional makes, nor did I even consider it. I currently have a degree in civil engineering, and make a very good salary. I just wasn't happy with what I was doing. Thank you OP, as this answered several questions that I have had.
post #12 of 22
i'm 18 years old, about to graduate from high school and i already started my path towards a culinary education. I'm currently doing ProStart and i'm so happy that i'm finally cooking. Ever since i was 15 i just knew this is what i wanted to do, but lately i've been having doubts and it's mainly because of the money issue.

I agree with you...passion and emotion will not pay bills.
i worry about that. i worry that i'll have to pay alot of money just to go to college and after that be broke.

I wanna be able to live comfortably by myself, but i wonder if that will ever be possible... :cool:
post #13 of 22
This is..... a good reality check and a critical information for me. I'm also up in the airs concerning salaries and living cost.

It does look hard. And due to the working hours, part-time jobs or any additional income seems to be out of question too :| However, I see it's mostly focused on NYC. Would it be OOT if I asked in other big cities on US / Canada? Are the cost and the salary mostly similar?
post #14 of 22
Couple of places that i have interned at, i understand that some cooks probably take home about 2-2.5 after taxes etc but i will double check on this.

Staying in the city is not an option on this salary.
post #15 of 22
I've always thought that this is very ironic. We satisfy the public's hunger in a very literal way, sometimes with a great deal of flourish and spectacle and then return home only to eat a triple decker bologna sandwich or some dried pasta with olive oil and maybe some sriracha if youre lucky. It's tough, that's a for sure.
post #16 of 22
I was living in Toronto and got a job with one of the more well known chefs. If I was to live downtown the situation would have been very similar coolcheech's. A friend of mine applied to a place in the city and the chef started his cooks at $400/week before taxes. The situation is pretty similar here. I ended up returning home then moving around a bit. There are great chefs and plenty of opportunity to build your resume outside of the big cities. Granted there is the highest concentration of great restaurants in the larger cities.
post #17 of 22
I think I'm in a similar boat except I got a diploma coming up this year and plan on working for a whole year to save up for culinary school and at the same time work part time in the kitchen before going to culinary school and living on my own. I plan to save 20-30k ( I live with my parents so a lot of expenses are cut)
then I plan moving to Toronto to attend George Brown College in Toronto. When in Toronto I'll have the money saved up for (tuition/school stuff) and emergency money. work 30 hrs(10$/hr) a week to pay the rent and food. Does this sound realistic? ( assuming I actually got the money saved up)

Please let me know if I'm underestimating the situation. Does culinary school require a lot a lot of time to study?
post #18 of 22

Welcome to my world! I'm unemployed, eating at the soup kitchens, and rescue missions!
Yes, I have had my share of balogna, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, Ramen noodles, macaroni & cheese, etc.
That is precisely why I repeatedly advise people to forget and forego expensive, private cookery schools, which only cost you for many years to come. It is better to do an apprenticeship, or attend a community college, or enlist in the military, and have them pay for your AIT, Advanced Individual Training, to become a FSS, Food Service Specialist.
I have become a regular face at the Work Force Center, and check Craig's List weekly, as well. I have been on numerous interviews, and have only had rejection. Welcome to my world, people! Do not always believe what you see on the television, nor any other cooking shows. For every celebrity chef, earning million$, there are millions of us, peasants-cooks, struggling to survive. That is why, historically, cooks were slaves, as no free man would toil away at such menial work for such a measly pittance, as a cook's wage. Often, I have worked gratis, as my previous employers refused to pay me. Do not ever stage either. I won't ever stage again, nor work for employers who refuse to pay me. laser.gif Welcome to the cooking trade. drinkbeer.gif

Edited by TheUnknownCook - 12/16/10 at 2:27pm
post #19 of 22

I agree with meat pie. I went to culinary school and I'm still paying for it with minimum reward. I'm a woman and it was hard for me to get my foot in the door in kitchens where I'm from. After I put culinary school on my application people started taking me serious. If I could've gotten a job without school I would have. But I didn't know what I was doing.


If you want to cook then just cook. Start at the bottom and work your way up.

post #20 of 22

My sister is a Chef and loved cooking all her life. She's not had an easy time and before she went to school people looked at her and some even ignored her. Now she's doing pretty well. I wouldn't say financially great, but not starving and can buy some extravegancies from time to time like most people. She also moves around a lot, and is more of a personal chef than anything. She works for some outfitters and lodges.

post #21 of 22

About four months ago I posted in this forum about the concerns of entering a culinary program and the costs associated with it, and I will return to you the same advice that Chef Dave gave me, and it was probably the most well timed, well received advice of my life. Do NOT spend one cent on anything culinary related until you get into a kitchen and work your brains out first. 


Even coming straight out of culinary school you are going to have to prove yourself in almost any kitchen, which means prep / pantry, or even washing dishes for some amount of time, I promise you this is going to happen regardless of what type of certificate, or diploma you have. Here is how my boss (the owner of the highest rated, most successful restaurant in our area) explained it to me, and I hope this gives you a little insight. 


"You will learn far more if you get straight into a kitchen instead of going to school first, and instead of going X amount of money in debt, you'll actually be putting a little in your pocket. At least get in the kitchen of a busy restaurant and make sure it's for you before you shell out X amount of money for tuition. Let me hire you, I'll kick your ass in my kitchen for a while and you can see how it really is, then if you still want to go to school in a year, at least you will have the real world skills and knowledge to apply it to, which will make school that much more valuable."


As far as the money goes, yeah it can be rough at times and you're going to learn how far a dollar can stretch, but if this is REALLY what you want to do, and it's not just some "new found hobby" then you'll make the sacrifices neccessary. I would sleep in my car if that's what it meant I had to do to keep my job in the kitchen. 

I wish you the best of luck man, and over anything else that anyone has posted in response, get your ass in a kitchen and work your guts out before you spend a cent on school, that was the best advice that was given to me. Thanks Chef Dave!

post #22 of 22

If you want to make a good living as a cook, have little stress or backbreaking work, this is what you need to do: Do at least 4 years in the military as a cook, then when you think you're at least somewhat accomplished and established as one, get on, and apply for a cook on the government Wage Grade system, usually in grades 5-8. THAT is decent money! Depending on where you live and how long you've worked for the government, you make anywhere from $15 to $30 an hour. Most places that hire Wage Grade cooks are Veterans Affair's dining halls, Air Force Base or Army Post dining halls, or Department of the Interior, which is usually seasonal work.


Screw the real world in the culinary arts. Exceptions: working in a remote environment for weeks at a time, then home for weeks, or on a boat cooking for a small group. They average $50,000 to 70,000 a year

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