So You Want to Be A Vegan Chef?

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

So you want to be a vegan chef... With some training, flexibility, and some entrepreneurial skill, there is a world of culinary possibilities out there for you. Here is a run-down on some of the many factors you'll want to consider:


Many urban areas have lots of room for different types of vegan cuisine, including fine dining, American, ethnic, coffee shop, snack shop, and even fast food. Some less urban areas, such as wine countries, may have audiences that are receptive to or demand vegan options. Do your research to see where vegan audiences and vegan food supplies are available. You may want to consider training close to an area that is a vegan 'hot spot,' so you can begin to network and become an integral part of the culinary scene.


Once you have earned your chef's 'stripes,' you'll want to remember that, unless you are working for a business and industry account (company cafes and dining rooms, businesses that have in-house catering, etc.) that offers 9-5 hours, plan to work weekends, holidays, early, late, and any time that people would like to eat a meal! It may be possible to work part-time hours, but most full-time chefs are working very long hours... or, in other words, when everyone else is 'playing' you should plan on working. This means Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, Saturday nights and Sundays... your family and friends will most probably have to come visit you at work to get to see you!

Financial and Time Considerations for Training

There are many roads to becoming a vegan chef. You may want to invest in formal schooling, or you may choose to go the apprentice route. While you are in training, either in a formal program or being self taught, you'll want to work in many different types of food service operations to apply your knowledge, acquire many skills, and explore which environments work best for you. Chef training is not as rigid or clear-cut as many other types of occupational training. There are chef certifications, but they are generally not required to work as a chef. There is not a required numbers of hours that you need to formally complete. The proof is generally in the (silken tofu) pudding!

There are lots of options for chef's training. You may choose to complete formal full-time culinary school training. You may decide to combine on-the-job training in vegan employment with part-time business or management courses at local community colleges or training centers, or you may go the self-taught route. The choice is yours, depending on your time, finances, and personal preferences.

If you decide to go the formal culinary school route, you will have to decide what you would like from your culinary courses. Can you tolerate 'omnivore' training with instructors who will provide alternate assignments for your vegan preferences, or are you more comfortable in a less inclusive, but completely vegan environment? For example, the Culinary Institute of America (the gold standard for American culinary training) has a vegetarian (not vegan) student restaurant and incorporates lots of healthy and vegetarian cooking. But the program still is heavy on 'classical' cuisine with animal products. You'll need to decide if you would like to have a culinary world view, observing omnivore techniques that you can then 'translate' into vegan, or if you prefer to train in the vegan world.

If you do choose to go the culinary school route, here are some questions to ask and important research that you should do:

  1. Find out what type of certifications the school has. It can be via a public or private agency or a professional association, such as the American Culinary Federation. This detail is important to demonstrate reliability or will be necessary if you would like to continue your education (to transfer credit) later on.
  2. Research the business aspects of the school, including how long it has been in business, any credit rating (the Better Business Bureau can be helpful with this), health department ratings, etc.
  3. Establish how payment is handled and what is included (tuition, books, equipment, uniforms, supplies, etc.). Be wary of schools that offer to apply for loans for you.
  4. Speak to graduates about their experiences, including the strength and knowledge of the faculty, class size, length of program, assistance and/or accommodation with academic issues, and interaction with the culinary community.
  5. Speak to employers about how pleased they are with the graduates from that school.
  6. Take a complete tour of the school and any facilities they might use (some culinary schools place students at local culinary operations), interview faculty and current students, sit in on some classes, and even talk to businesses in the vicinity.

To get an idea of what omnivore chef training includes, visit the American Culinary Federation website at Look through their education and certification sections. If you do decide to go with exclusively vegan training, you'll want to ensure that the program includes the many techniques used in omnivore training, so that you have the widest possible culinary repertoire.

If you choose to go the apprentice or culinary employment route combined with non-culinary classes (business, marketing, etc.), you'll want to find which food operations in your area are known for their cuisine, chefs, training, etc. You'll want to interview prospective operations, to see what their practices are for chefs-in-training. For example, is there a formal schedule, with a designated number of weeks devoted to vegetable and grain cookery, some weeks devoted to menu creation? Will you be rotating around the different front-and back-of-the-house stations? Will there be testing to assess your progress and what form will those tests take? Some facilities may have formal programs while others may be informal (more of a "follow me and do what I do" process).

While you are in training mode, create a paper or online portfolio that includes many styles of recipes, such as omnivore recipes 'converted' into wonderful vegan dishes, vegan and ethnic cuisines, vegan and healthy options, vegan and gluten-free, vegan and lower fat, etc. Include pictures, testimonials from diners or fellow chefs, and certificates of participation to demonstrate your culinary ability and involvement.


Become involved in local culinary organizations. You can research the local branch for national and international culinary associations, such as the American Culinary Federation, the Personal Chefs Association of America, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the International Food Service Executives Association and Chaine de Rotisseurs, Dames de Escoffier Association, or the Roundtable for Women in FoodService. Look for the local chapter of the National Restaurant Association, and professional food organizations (the local Chamber of Commerce should have a listing), small business owners organization, and all local organizations promoting healthy, organic, or vegetarian lifestyles!

Networking is important to acquire information about local culinary culture, and to locate training and employment opportunities. Investigate local markets, farmers markets, co-ops, collectives, and stores that cater to the vegetarian population to become a familiar 'face' on the veggie scene.

Do Your Homework

Research different levels of successful restaurants, from Moosewood (not exclusively vegetarian) and Charlie Trotter's Marin County raw restaurant (closed after several years, but with a fantastic run) to vegan fast food, raw foods, grocery chains that offer prepared vegan foods, or any place where you might like to train and ultimately work.

Financial Considerations for Salary

There is very little conformity in the culinary industry regarding job descriptions or salaries. Salaries depend on the type of operation. For example, corporate hotel versus small independent, part-time caterers, franchise operations versus gourmet catering truck, etc. You may be able to get a feel for the local economy and pay rates by looking through large job or salary websites, such as or

Aspects to consider beyond salary are benefits (health insurance, sick days, vacations, tuition reimbursement, chances to travel, etc.), opportunities to learn and advance, ethics and business philosophy, working conditions, neighborhood, willingness to work with your schedule, and job security.

On the whole, a career in culinary arts can usually supply a 'living wage,' but very few culinary people get rich working in the culinary world. The food world can supply a steady income, but is physically and emotionally taxing, while not being as lucrative as what we might see on Iron Chef. Most culinary professionals would say to do it for passion rather than for lots of money in the bank. Of course, if you have strong culinary skills, a winning personality, and business acumen, you could be on the road to financial success!

If you have the choice, you'll need to decide if you want to work full-time at one establishment or part-time at several, remembering that culinary hours are a bit more flexible than, say, banking hours. If the bread is still in the oven, or if you still have a lot of customers, your 7 p.m. end of shift will become more '7ish.' On the other hand, if business is slow, hours may sometimes be cut for several shifts.

Where to Work

It's a personal call if you want to work at an omnivore operation preparing vegan cuisine. You'll want to see if local Seventh-day Adventist or Buddhist establishments have a need for vegan chefs, if you feel comfortable with their philosophies. Locate and explore local dedicated vegan establishments or research the need for personal vegan chefs in your area.

Vegan chefs work in the delis of natural food markets. You might combine vegan culinary skills with business and own or manage restaurant or food operations. You can decide to focus on catering, writing cookbooks, or be a personal chef, depending on your personality and skill level.

For example, if you enjoy being hectic and constantly challenged, you may like to work for a large vegan restaurant or commissary (operations that supply food facilities with prepared food, such as airline caterers). If you prefer the one-on-one, you might think about offering personal chef services, where you interact with an individual or family, or offer a vegan catering service, where you deliver hot meals five days a week to an established customer list.

No matter which vegan culinary avenue you choose, you'll need strong social and business skills. Success in the culinary world is not just about culinary skills, but is also very much about making and maintaining contacts and business connections. The culinary community is very small and chefs generally have long memories. The vegan culinary community is even smaller, so you'll want to do your homework prior to making your debut. Remember that good contacts and bad impressions can last a long time in our industry!

Nancy Berkoff is a professional chef and registered dietitian. She is The Vegetarian Resource Group's FoodService Advisor.

Additional information

(updated January 4, 2016)

Being a Vegan Student in the Johnson and Wales Culinary Arts and Nutrition Program by Angie Riccio