Hi Kathy, I'm not sure what your prerequisites for "professional chef" are (i'm a college/culinary grad who's done personal catering and works in fine-dining) but I can answer all of these questions. These are also, similar questions that I had while I was in culinary school and wished someone had taken the time to answer for me. Here goes.
What are typical daily duties for this field like? This all depends on what type of establishment you're working in, whether you're working in a hotel, restaurant, retirement community, college, church, hospital, catering, a small business, etc daily duties will be laid out based on what the establishment's expectations are. However, I can tell you you'll be prepping food products for service. That's a typical daily duty. Lol
What do you like best about your job? Being able to use my ideas and seeing them plated and passed to a customer. The "creating" is the best part.
What interests you least about the job or creates the most stress? The repetition. Ask anyone who's worked the same line position after a few months! It can get mundane making the same stuff over and over again.
What type of training or education is usually required to do this type of work and where can it be acquired? If you're lucky, an apprenticeship or on-job-training. Personally, I received a basic knowledge from culinary school but all my "know how", like how to fix mistakes quickly and how to know between medium and medium rare, comes from actually working in the field.
Are recent school graduates hired without experience? If experience is needed how does one obtain experience? Most recent graduates should already have experience through an externship! If you're school doesn't require you to have an externship in order to graduate it's the best way to get experience and a reference in the field.
What personal qualities are necessary to succeed in this kind of career? Love of your craft and believe in what you do. Kathy, when you feel like you're melting to death behind a broiler station because sweat is streaming into your eyes, your houndstooth pants are clinging onto the backs of your knees cause the line is literally trying to dehydrate you to death, and tickets keep buzzing through the expo station, you'll seriously question, "Why did I do this to myself?!"
Would you recommend this profession to a person who is considering it for a career? Why or why not? My recommendation would depend on the person. For example, if I knew someone gets frazzled in really stressful situations but really wanted to be a chef/cook I wouldn't point them into a hotel or restaurant. I'd tell them to be a personal chef where they can control their schedule or work in a catering where everything can be planned out and some things cooked ahead of time. There's room for everyone!
Can you give me any ideas on how I might get a head-start on this career? Read books about cooking, find out what kinds of cooking really interests you, determine your long-term goal (because it should determine WHERE you work! Why would you work at TGIF if your long-term goal is to open up a bakery? for example. Work in a place similar to what you want to open up or where other chefs that you want to cook like work at), oh! and get a job in a restaurant because the good places will probably toss your resume aside for someone with experience. Why? MONEY. They can get more out of someone who's been doing this longer.
How is the economy affecting this particular field? Are people eating out less and just being more conservative with their money? Yes. But, everyone has to eat and everyone has to work. With that said, the need for someone to cook food will never go away.
Do you see this type of job an as increased demand or on a decline at the current time? Check what the U.S Labor of Statistics has to say about it.
Are there a lot of people in this field trying to get employed? Yes, because all of the good/better jobs are hard to find, people find a good job and never leave, or are "side hiring" meaning people are hiring people from schools or other restaurant who can give them firsthand information on candidates.
What is the approximate salary range a person can expect to earn entry level in this field? Check what the U.S Labor of Statistics has to say about this, too. But be realistic! You'll get paid more in bigger cities and more or less in a hotel versus a small restaurant.
Do companies ever train people on the job? Yes, especially big companies like Aramark, also, realistically there are a billion ways to cook a chicken so wherever you go you'll be told or taught how they want their food served.
Is it possible for a person to volunteer their time and work with someone with this particular job in order to see if it would be the right job? Yes, it's called "staging". It's a French word that basically translates to "free labor". We've had stagiaires that come through our kitchen. I would find a restaurant and call around 3 PM where the chef will be in-between services.
Good luck, Kathy, and I hope this helped you!