When I started out as a server almost 30 years ago, I could never have imagined the incredible places my career in food would take me (especially since I was a terrible server—yep, I was fired from my first job). Since then, I’ve crunched numbers in distribution centers, sourced rare and delicious ingredients, managed kitchens in Europe, traveled across continents to ensure the consistent execution of global menus, and even overseen food operations for some of the most famous corporate workforces in the world.
So take it from me: No matter your education or background, you can have a career that delivers challenge, joy, and even the chance to make a difference at a worldwide level. And yes, you can bring home some serious bacon too.
I wrote all about careers in food in my new book, A Taste of Opportunity: An Insider’s Guide to Boosting Your Career, Making Your Mark, & Changing the Food Industry from Within. Here’s a look at just a few of the surprising food-world careers that could be waiting for you.
Note that while there are salary averages and ranges listed below, these seem to be on the low side from my experience, especially if you’re looking for opportunities in more developed, urban markets. So take it all with a grain of salt and don’t let the numbers stop you from pursuing your passions. The food world is undergoing a major revolution right now, and better comp is just the beginning!
1. Executive chef
Average salary: $63,907
Total pay range: $41,000–$96,000
Think “food career” and you’ll picture this: a stern, white-jacketed professional in a tall hat, probably holding a knife or spatula. They’re on magazine covers, they’re tasting soup in commercials, they’re (sadly) yelling at their staff on TV—and if you love food, you’ve dreamed of being one. Start as a prep cook, be that resilient asset who says “yes” to learning opportunities, learn to lead a team (with empathy!), and you’ll get there, whether it’s in a restaurant kitchen, in a commissary, or on a cruise ship. Executive chefs aren’t just cooks with a better title, they are skilled business leaders who know how to manage finances, create recipes for joy and profit, write staffing schedules to budget, build amazing teams, and work extremely well under pressure. And, hopefully, you’ll be one of those leaders who is changing restaurant culture for the better. I’m rooting for you!
2. Restaurant manager
Average salary: $48,581
Total pay range: $23,000–$60,000
Great restaurant management is an art—and a science. The algorithms that define efficient and impeccable scheduling, hiring, ordering, cash flow, customer service standards, staff and managerial cohesion, and (of course) profitability are glorious to behold when orchestrated by someone at the top of their game. Managers basically oversee both the business and the people sides of food. The skills you learn in these roles are highly transferable, in work and in life. Lean into learning everything about everything, from your first job through each step up the supervisory ladder (like shift supervisor and assistant manager), and you can be that star who keeps everything running and keeps moving forward in your career.
Average salary: $50,696
Total pay range: $28,000–$72,000
I’m not saying you need to launch the next Costco—though you could! There are so many inspiring paths that people are blazing to get tasty and nutritious products into the bellies of consumers. The rise of pop-ups, producer markets, and virtual food brands have made it easier than ever for entrepreneurs to make their start in food retail. And in cities everywhere, eco-entrepreneurs are launching packaging-free and ethical-sourcing storefronts that have people rethinking what they buy and how they buy it. What’s your game-changing idea? Start by learning the operational ropes in a local business that’s doing it well. When you’re ready, you can apply that knowledge to your own ventures.
4. Food purchaser
Average salary: $52,904
Total pay range: $34,000–$72,000
Now we’re getting into a job that’s crucial to almost any food business, but invisible to most consumers. Out of all the celery farms in the world, how did your grocer decide who to buy theirs from? Who picks the ketchup that goes in all those Burger King packets? As a food purchaser, you’re the spider in the web who helps companies make these decisions and get their hands on the ingredients they need—millions of ingredients, crossing back and forth all over the world, every day. Working in purchasing was one of my earliest food industry jobs, and I can’t tell you how much I learned there.
5. Restaurant designer
Average salary: $71,101
Total pay range: $54,000–$104,000
This is interior design on steroids. A restaurant designer isn’t just thinking about how a space looks: They have to consider how the lighting affects the experience, how the patrons and servers move together through the space, how the kitchen team functions, how a given chair will drive turnover, and, critically, how every tile and wall hanging changes the soundscape—you want the room to be buzzy, but not clangy. I’ve seen these factors make or break a restaurant, which means a good restaurant designer is worth their weight in edible gold leaf. This career starts with interior design training—mixed with all the restaurant experience you can get. All of your skills will come to the table for this role, so that part-time serving gig you had in school, for instance, will give you a supercharged understanding of the design elements that support safe and thriving operations, stunning spaces, and happy clients.
6. Quality assurance specialist
Average salary: $62,596
Total pay range: $36,000–$88,000
Remember how I said I traveled long and far to ensure a menu was being executed consistently? It’s more complicated than you know! Just think: How can you make sure a tub of coleslaw in Tokyo tastes the same as it does in Berlin if the available vinegars are totally different? It’s a fascinating puzzle, and challenges just like this arise daily for every food chain in the world. So if you have exacting standards, highly tuned senses, and a love for problem-solving, this could be the field for you. And if you love food safety? Even better. QA leaders work on the processes and systems that keep our food safe, in storage, handling, and more. Look for entry-level QA roles in any kind of company that produces packaged or fresh food, including food manufacturing, agriculture, restaurants, and production facilities.
7. Kitchenware designer
Average salary: $61,699
Total pay range: $42,000–$93,000
Think it’s all been invented already? Think again. You just have to scan any home magazine to know there’s always a new “must-have” gadget, cooking pot, or sheet pan. From inventive whisks to upcycled trivets to high-status stand mixers, if someone is selling it, that means someone had to design it. Start your training in a field like industrial engineering, product, or graphic design, and that person could be you!
8. Recipe editor
Average salary: $55,964
Total pay range: $34,000–$86,000
Do you pack that one-two punch of kitchen know-how and a keen eye for commas? In an evolving print industry, cookbooks are still hot, hot, hot—which means publishers need great editors who can consistently abbreviate “ounce” while nuking any typos that might cause readers to add ten times too much pickling salt (yes, that has happened!). This path starts in junior editorial roles along with a voracious appetite for all food—whether you love cooking it or just eating it (and in any case, writing about it!). Digital more your style? Well, recipe editors are needed everywhere. If you have a degree in English, journalism, or similar; went to culinary school; and/or have experience and transferable skills—keep an eye out for digital media and brands, ghost kitchens, and any business with an online presence or following. Opportunity awaits!
9. Artisan grower/urban farmer
Average salary: $49,910
Total pay range: $29,000–$76,000
These days, sustainability-minded restaurants and grocers love sourcing their ingredients locally—or even down the block. Evolving technologies and zoning laws have sparked a boom in urban farming: Moveable orchards are being tended in vacant lots, empty office space is being turned into indoor herb farms, and honey is being produced on hotel rooftops. In some cities, entrepreneurs are even using hydroponics to convert parking towers and grocery store rooftops into full-blown cropland. Hyper-local, hyper-cool! (Delivery by bicycle for extra green cred, of course!). And there are so many entry points, including sustainability, green design, earth sciences, food policy, farming, cooking, and gardening.
10. Packaging designer
Average salary: $61,235
Total pay range: $42,000–$86,000
Have you ever browsed the lineup on a supermarket shelf and found yourself compelled to grab that one box? A food packaging designer has to create a product that is economical, can survive long-haul distribution, keeps the food inside safe to eat, and looks great in the store. From the shape of the box to the color of the cardboard to the typeface on the label, it all matters. This job is for those with an eye for aesthetics and a mind for logistics—training in graphic design, 3D software, industrial engineering, and/or consumer regulation all help. These jobs pop up everywhere from consulting companies to fast casual restaurants.
11. Sustainability director
Average salary: $106,985
Total pay range: $65,000–$175,000
Talk about a place where you can make a difference! Food companies of all sizes and sectors are waking up to the need to take charge of their (ginormous!) supply and waste chains and clean up their social and environmental messes. Publicly-traded companies like Pepsi and McDonald’s dedicate epic amounts of money to mitigating their environmental footprint and impact. To help lead the charge, look for training in environmental or earth sciences or even supply chain management—or start pitching sustainability projects to the employer you have right now.
12. Software developer
Average salary: $74,197
Total pay range: $51,000–$113,000
Yes, coding can be a food job—now more than ever! Delivery apps, diet trackers, the program your server uses to send your order to the kitchen… These all needed industry-savvy developers to build them. Big businesses are also investing major bucks into behind-the-scenes software for inventory tracking, procurement, staffing, safety, and more. And as shoppers demand more transparency in how their food is produced and shipped, developers are working furiously to create systems that can trace the grower and supply chain end-to-end. Imagine what you could do if you learned to code and paired those skills with your ideas for better ways to feed the world.
13. Food program director
Average salary: $70,964
Total pay range: $47,000–$116,000
Why serve one meal when you can serve thousands? This is executive cheffery on a gargantuan scale. Healthcare systems need to feed their patients. School districts need to feed their students. Airlines need to feed their passengers. Major multinationals need to feed their employees (that was me, overseeing 60,000+ meals a day at Google!). Every large institution or organization that’s responsible for people’s daily lives needs someone who’s willing to dedicate their passion and expertise to keeping those people happily, healthily fed. And remember: Gargantuan scale = gargantuan impact. This is a job where you can really walk the walk on your values—and every step up you take into supervisory or management roles in the food industry is a step closer to it.
A common progression in the restaurant world is hourly worker to supervisory role to single-unit management to multi-unit management and then on to regional leadership roles and more. That’s one of the things I love most about the food world. You don’t need a degree to earn a senior leadership role—you just have to be willing to learn and do the hard work. From there, the opportunities are endless!
Your experience in the food world doesn’t have to end at some temporary service job you take while you figure your life out. If you build your resilience muscle, commit to learning everything you can in every job you take, and get curious about what makes a food business tick, a world of delicious potential will open itself up to you. I can’t wait to see you here.