I'm a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and have been working in the industry since 1976....since about 1984 as a Chef. As a Chef I've earned different sums depending on where I was, what exactly I was doing and for what type of operation. First of all the word "Chef" is one of the most miss-used around. Most people who call themselves a "Chef" are actually more of a kitchen manager that has no formal training or experience with an apprentice program. The person above that stated that "The chef at Wendy's makes $6.00 an hour" is a great example...obviously there are no Chefs at Wendys.
If you are just starting out it'll be some time before you need to be worried about what the person running the kitchen makes. There are a number of levels to go through first and getting the experience at all of those levels will determine what you make as a Chef or if you can even get a job as one. A real Executive Chef at a top rated international resort OUTSIDE of the US can make 6 figures plus a nice package of benefits including housing and automobile BUT that's after years of work in those same high quality resorts making 2k a month with a poor benefit package working 12-16 hours a day!
For an American Chef INSIDE the US it's a different story. I think you can count on $2k a month as a Sous Chef.....maybe $3k in a large hotel.....maybe $3.5 as an Executive Sous Chef in a very large, high quality resort like the ones in Las Vegas. experienced Chefs in small privately owned restaurants do around $3k a month....few go over $5k....and many more make under $3k a month....Executive Chefs in Hotels are between $3k and $5k a month depending on size and quality....the big jobs in very large extremely high quality places are higher...can be into 6 figures....but there aren't very many of them at all.......
Now for the bad news....lol.....although the working hours and sometimes the conditions in institutions are great, the pay isn't. The organizational chart of an institutional kitchen is entirely different from a restaurant or hotel. You’ll find a Registered Dietician or equivalent somewhere at the top and depending on where you are a person with a lower level nutrition certification below that......most don’t have a real “Chef” on the payroll. They’ll work with a very professional recipe book designed to get around the creative process that yields a less consistent product. The whole thing will be simplified. Having said that there’s a non-profit here in my city that does meals on wheels and bunch of other things....a VERY large operation....it has a Chef that makes in the $40s....he’s very experienced.....they have a Registered Dietician that makes in the $60s....respectable for their decent work week I’d say, but that’s certainly not the norm.
Here’s the real truth....everyone looks at a couple celebrity Chefs or the 3-4 really high profile Executive Chefs positions like in Disney World Hotels and thinks that is what Chefs do and make.....but for every one of those there are a thousand working 80 hours a week for less than $30k a year. Stay in it because you love it and money MAY come. Your best bet if you really want to be making decent money is to get a high powered degree behind you; Johnson & Wales or CIA....get strong experience in high profile resort hotels showing enough loyalty and maturity to stay 2 years in each position....get one position as a Sous Chef in a high profile resort hotel...and then approach an international head hunter...Toronto, New York, London...interview and beg them to carry you in their portfolio. Working overseas in top quality resorts is the absolutely best money in the industry...it also allows you to return with an impressive resume and then make top dollar in the US!
Good luck Wojo...only do this if you love it and hard work is in your blood! U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics websites below with some interesting facts on Food service workers.....the dollar amounts are just guidelines there....
Dietitians and Nutritionists
Chefs, Cooks, and Food Preparation Workers