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Head Chef vs Executive Chef: 7 Key Differences in Leadership and Culinary Vision

February 22, 2024

Head chef vs executive chef—what's the real difference? Both titles sound like they're running the show in a commercial kitchen, but there's a lot more to it than that. If you're trying to figure out your next move in the culinary world, or just curious about kitchen roles, this is for you.

We’re breaking down the key distinctions between a head chef and an executive chef so you can steer your culinary career in the right direction. We’ll cover things like… 

  • Which chef is more senior (and earns a higher salary)
  • The essential functions and duties of a head chef vs executive chef
  • How these two chefs work together in kitchen settings

Let’s get into the kitchen hierarchy and make sense of it all.

The Head Chef: The Heartbeat of the Kitchen Day-to-Day

The head chef is the central figure in a single kitchen's daily drama, usually coming in as the highest-ranking person involved in the day-to-day (in some organizations, a sous chef fulfills this role). The head chef role is ultimately a leadership one, with the sous chef and other team members looking to the head chef to guide the day’s operation and standards.

This role is all about being in the thick of it, from prepping dishes to making sure every plate that leaves the kitchen is perfect. The head chef is the one who deals with the immediate pressures of service, ensuring that every customer's experience is top-notch.

If the role of a head chef is what you're aiming for, here's what you need to be ready for:

  • Hands-on culinary expertise. The head chef is deeply involved in cooking and presentation, setting the standard for quality and making sure every dish is up to scratch.
  • Direct team leadership. You're the go-to person for your kitchen team, managing the flow of service, responding to issues as they arise, and keeping morale high.
  • Menu execution and adaptation. In some settings, the head chef plays a pivotal role in menu design, while in other settings they play more of an execution role for a menu designed by the executive chef. No matter how that works, you need to deliver it consistently, adapting as necessary to ingredient availability and customer feedback.
  • Operational efficiency. It's your job to ensure the kitchen runs smoothly, from organizing prep work to managing kitchen resources effectively.

Chefs who thrive in the heat of a fast-paced kitchen are well-suited to be a head chef.

The Executive Chef: Big-Picture Leadership and Strategy

The executive chef, typically the high-ranking culinary person in a foodservice organization, holds a role that goes far beyond cooking—and even beyond a single kitchen. This position is pivotal in shaping the culinary direction and operational standards of a restaurant or food establishment across all areas of service (restaurants, catering, popups, everything).

This is a role that can look very different depending on the organization’s size. An executive chef at a single-location restaurant has most of the same responsibilities of an executive chef at a corporate headquarters, but at a much smaller scale (and with fewer direct reporting staff).

If you’re looking for an executive chef role, you’ll want to be comfortable with… 

  • Culinary creativity and menu development. The executive chef is responsible for high-level menu strategy and engineering, ensuring that menus work for diverse sets of customers and budgets across service locations.
  • High-level kitchen management. This includes overseeing kitchen leadership, managing inventory, and ensuring compliance with food safety regulations.
  • Business strategy and financial oversight. In most settings, the executive chef is the  budgeting and financial planning leader for all things food. They frequently collaborate with direct reports to optimize profitability and efficiency, often across multiple locations or teams.
  • Staff hiring and training. The executive chef often oversees hiring, training, and supervising kitchen staff—sometimes including the sous chef—ensuring a high standard of culinary excellence.

The role of an executive chef is pivotal in defining the culinary and operational success of a foodservice organization—often across many service locations and models.

Also Read: Google to Galley: What I Learned Across A Culinary Leadership Career

Head Chef vs Executive Chef: Comparing The Roles

Since both of these chefs are leaders in the culinary world, understanding their key differences is a question that we see all the time. Let’s take a side-by-side look.

Leadership and Strategic Influence

Executive Chef: Commands the apex leadership role within the culinary hierarchy, steering menu conceptualization, kitchen operations, and the overall culinary strategy across the entire organization or multiple culinary venues.

Head Chef: Serves as the operational commander of a specific kitchen, translating the executive chef's vision into daily culinary excellence and making crucial on-the-ground decisions to maintain service quality and kitchen efficiency.

Culinary and Creative Responsibilities

Executive Chef: Bears the mantle for the overarching culinary vision, innovating new dishes and establishing quality benchmarks that resonate across various dining formats and service models within the organization.

Head Chef: Dedicated to the practical enactment of the executive chef's culinary directives, ensuring uniformity in dish execution and occasionally infusing the menu with their creative insights.

Management and Administrative Tasks

Executive Chef: Encompasses a wider operational purview, orchestrating budgetary considerations, staffing frameworks, and supplier relations, often in collaboration with the broader management team.

Head Chef: Concentrates on the nitty-gritty of kitchen management, including inventory oversight, scheduling of staff, and direct supervision of the culinary team to ensure smooth day-to-day operations.

Training and Mentorship

Executive Chef: Engages in the holistic development of the culinary team, setting high standards for skill, creativity, and professional demeanor, often shaping the career pathways of aspiring chefs, including head chefs.

Head Chef: Actively involved in the hands-on training and mentoring of kitchen staff, fostering a learning environment that upholds the executive chef's standards and nurtures culinary talent.

Career Trajectory and Experience

Executive Chef: Typically boasts a rich tapestry of culinary experiences and formal education, having ascended through various kitchen roles to reach this zenith position, reflecting a broad and seasoned career trajectory.

Head Chef: Possesses substantial culinary expertise and experience, viewing the role as a critical stepping stone towards strategic and visionary leadership positions, such as that of an executive chef.

Earning Potential

Executive Chef: Executive chefs are often the highest culinary earners in a foodservice organization, with salaries ranging from $67,000 to $85,000 on average, and can go as high as $108,000.

Head Chef: Head chefs typically earn between $52,000 and $61,000, with potential earnings up to $95,000.

Also Read: 2024 Salary Ranges for 6 Chef Job Types (Executive, Pastry, Sous, etc)

Want A Chef Leadership Role? Our Critical Advice

If you read many job descriptions, you’ve surely noticed a change in very recent years: the chef role is evolving well-beyond food preparation—modern chef leaders are expected to have sophisticated planning, organization, budgeting, and spreadsheet skills.

Often the difference between a good culinary leader and a stellar one is their comfort level with foodservice technology—which is now a key differentiator when it comes to hireability.

Enter Galley, the culinary operating system built for chefs (and by chefs, not accountants) that simplifies everything from recipe management to inventory checks to creating batch production guides. 

Galley is a modern system designed to give foodservice organizations clarity and control over their operation. We connect the food data from all your systems and workflows to enable rapid decision-making (and fewer errors along the way), like…

  • Scaling up catering menus accurately in seconds (and creating scaled purchase orders to match)
  • Costing recipes and menus using your vendor’s real-time pricing data
  • Auto-generating production plans based on recipe preparation steps for optimal labor scheduling and task ordering

Whether you’re the head chef at a fast-paced restaurant or the executive chef of a multi-location corporate food program, Galley will give you culinary leadership superpowers.

Want to try Galley for yourself? Just let us know.

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