2021’s Best Cities for Aspiring Chefs

man teaching a cooking class to aspiring chefs

New York has a Hell’s Kitchen, and so does Las Vegas. In fact, every city has wannabe Gordon Ramsays, Marcus Samuelssons, Lorena Garcias, and Julia Childs.

So where can tomorrow’s kitchen leaders find all the right ingredients to turn their culinary dreams into a lucrative career?

Ahead of International Chefs Day on Oct. 20, LawnStarter sifted through the data to rank 2021’s Best Cities for Aspiring Chefs.

We compared 120 of the biggest U.S. cities offering access to culinary arts programs and school ratings. We also measured career potential based on historical employment growth, long-term job outlook, and salary figures. 

Check out our ranking below, followed by some highlights, lowlights, and a new-age twist that makes every city a Best City for Aspiring Chefs.

Table of Contents

  1. City Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Ask the Experts
  4. Methodology
  5. In the Kitchen With YouTube

City Rankings 

See how each city fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKCityOverall ScoreProgram Access RankSchool Quality RankSchool Cost RankJob Growth RankJob Outlook RankEarning Potential Rank
1Miami, FL56.78526811473
2Cape Coral, FL55.34512346424
3San Francisco, CA55.044537805213
4Chula Vista, CA54.9245592032621
5Oceanside, CA54.6545385332551
6Hollywood, FL52.654548713873
7San Diego, CA51.86204410532341
8Seattle, WA51.73160110411214
9Los Angeles, CA51.238763516831
10Oxnard, CA50.945351476516
11Orlando, FL50.385127622380
12Tallahassee, FL49.7445313339100
13Santa Rosa, CA48.46452040154823
14Pasadena, CA48.29452926163131
15Stockton, CA47.594557161205917
16Albuquerque, NM47.58204814279421
17Orange, CA47.38451949164231
18Glendale, CA47.3453132164631
19Chicago, IL47.04410486532339
20Santa Clarita, CA46.79452152165631
21Riverside, CA46.69455519965110
22Savannah, GA46.6445166623676
23Tampa, FL46.172010581118102
24Bakersfield, CA46.1645995364949
25Philadelphia, PA46.1281311368645
26Rancho Cucamonga, CA46.08456630965310
27Augusta, GA4645247507148
28San Bernardino, CA45.9945958966310
29Vancouver, WA45.46202788652119
30Long Beach, CA45.43459441165031
31Springfield, MO45.38453410739544
32Phoenix, AZ45.21205228796127
33Atlanta, GA44.94206360751337
34Bellevue, WA44.82456892412314
35Portland, OR44.76456973651319
36Sacramento, CA44.63207118852855
37St. Petersburg, FL44.45455621147102
38Mesa, AZ44.41165068795727
39Jersey City, NJ44.17451107737596
40Killeen, TX44.164598477722111
41Paterson, NJ44.09451126537806
42Tempe, AZ43.754510825793327
43Arlington, VA43.67522108296859
44San Antonio, TX43.56205694401551
45Tulsa, OK43.5520889358366
46El Paso, TX43.08457844319104
47Honolulu, HI43.01458169113845
48New York, NY42.728511203766
49Baltimore, MD42.684511761105522
50Modesto, CA42.584510112305197
51Eugene, OR42.54459721244095
52Little Rock, AR42.45455436726984
53Dallas, TX42.4208779251686
54Lincoln, NE42.3445189529885
55Reno, NV42.244549441023556
56Buffalo, NY42.14579505611218
57Spokane, WA42.02832109672957
58Oklahoma City, OK41.9916795768860
59Fresno, CA41.9545963505496
60Houston, TX41.94161797931081
60McAllen, TX41.944573244811114
62Scottsdale, AZ41.932025107793227
63Salt Lake City, UT41.91814119101110
64Austin, TX41.81841114109938
65Las Vegas, NV41.56201077091768
66Tucson, AZ41.5457548834162
67Columbus, GA41.494562210667108
68Charlotte, NC41.43203310097394
69Pasadena, TX41.12452866932781
70St. Paul, MN41.0945362710710546
71Virginia Beach, VA40.79253991157090
71Aurora, CO40.79452784412063
73Boston, MA40.782046104319125
74Raleigh, NC40.74454563637467
75McKinney, TX40.484510284252686
76Fayetteville, NC40.424590151376112
77Chesapeake, VA40.38206671158190
78Birmingham, AL40.27455811648599
78Kansas City, KS40.274539458811441
80Indianapolis, IN40.18207475579258
81Louisville, KY40.12207756878277
82Worcester, MA40.07457059689953
83Detroit, MI404511317811698
84Minneapolis, MN39.8145834210710146
85Laredo, TX39.8451002910325120
86San Jose, CA39.744512010355664
87Overland Park, KS39.624530648811341
88Cincinnati, OH39.514582462887105
89Anchorage, AK39.484511572119899
90Omaha, NE39.254565541496107
91Corpus Christi, TX39.244584437020119
92Grand Rapids, MI39.064580854911043
92Syracuse, NY39.064593382311188
94Fort Collins, CO39.044515106711869
95Nashville, TN38.95208598903761
96St. Louis, MO38.8945106516143101
97Cleveland, OH38.834567379210372
98Pittsburgh, PA38.472011674714470
99Jacksonville, FL38.434540557858109
100Dayton, OH38.3345885711410054
101Colorado Springs, CO38.21451053410111778
102Providence, RI38.194511116867926
103Richmond, VA37.428109118992952
104Rochester, NY37.26201183911210650
105Knoxville, TN37.1120438211117117
106Huntsville, AL36.7645892210493106
107Columbus, OH36.7320479010010971
108Mobile, AL36.574564316990115
109Joliet, IL36.4245861115310239
110Norfolk, VA36.372061931157290
111Milwaukee, WI36.332911179510883
112Memphis, TN36.064591016045118
113New Orleans, LA35.931611983587779
114Lakewood, CO35.94542964411963
115Montgomery, AL35.844592335997116
116Denver, CO35.7320114914411563
117Madison, WI35.687210211010489
118Akron, OH35.1345111718410775
119Newport News, VA33.145221151157590
120Baton Rouge, LA31.88201031127478113
Infographic showing the best cities for aspiring chefs, a ranking based on access to culinary programs, student ratings, job outlook, and more
Note: Although 120 cities were ranked in this study, the lowest-ranking position for some metrics shown in the infographic may not be 120 due to ties among cities.

Highlights and Lowlights

Miami: Latin Flair, Cuban Flavor

The home of South Beach, all those Art Deco hotels, and cafe con leche is also Miami Nice for aspiring chefs. 

The Gateway to the Americas is also a gateway to top jobs in the food industry, ranking No. 1 in Job Growth, No. 4 in Job Outlook, and No. 5 in Cooking Program Access.

Want proof? Miami’s once aspiring — and now inspiring — chefs include Stubborn Seed’s Jeremy Ford, Stiltsville Fish Bar’s Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth, Chef Adrianne’s Adrianne Calvo, and Casa Isola’s José Mendín.

Miami’s halo — or seafood bib — as the Best City for Aspiring Chefs extends to two other South Florida cities: Cape Coral at No. 2 and Hollywood at No. 6.

Chef Cities USA

Major metros have more head chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, and sauce chefs. If you’re looking to break big in the restaurant and cooking biz, think big cities. 

Some examples? San Francisco landed at No. 3, San Diego at No. 7, Seattle at No. 8, and Los Angeles at No. 9 on our list of the Best Cities for Aspiring Chefs. 

A tip of the toque to two other cities known for their food — Orlando at No. 11 and Chicago at No. 19 — which also have loads of restaurants and opportunities for aspiring chefs.

Big Fish in Small Ponds

Some aspiring chefs get their start in smaller cities where cooking school tuition and the cost of living are far less than in the big cities. And some small markets lure big-city chefs with their quality of life and loyal employees.

That explains how Oxnard, California, landed at No. 10 overall. The city aced the Cooking School Cost category and landed at No. 1 for the Increase in Average Salary for Non-Chef and Non-Head Cooks (2020 vs. 2017) and No. 16 in Earning Potential.

Oxnard has a lot on its menu for aspiring chefs: Beachfront living in one of the most affordable places to live in the Golden State about 1.5 hours northwest of LA.

Big Apple in the Middle 


You might be surprised to find New York City at No. 48 in our ranking, but the Big Apple’s cooking schools have costly tuition, and subpar reviews from students suggest these schools aren’t worth the extra change.

With more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other U.S. city, The City That Never Sleeps is a prime destination for aspiring chefs, but the competition to land top jobs is intense.

New York City is full of rags-to-riches chef and restaurateur stories, though, such as Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer’s start selling hot dogs at Madison Square Park and Bobby Flay, whose first job was a cook at the renowned Joe Allen restaurant in the Theater District.

Ask The Experts

Not every good cook has the chops to become a professional chef. For sage advice, we asked a panel of food, restaurant, and hospitality industry experts to marinate on some important questions. See what insights they cooked up below.

  1. Considering the fierce competition in the restaurant industry, what are your three best tips to help budding chefs stand out?
  2. Are culinary schools worth the investment? Why or why not? If not, what are the best alternatives to culinary school?
  3. Besides securing internships and externships, how can culinary students find the mentorship they need to grow?
  4. Besides bragging rights, what are the three biggest benefits of competing in cooking contests?
  5. How can inspired cooking at home for friends and family turn into a career as a chef for paying customers?
  6. Are chef-inspired meal kits just time savers and kitchen helpers for healthier eating, or can they help average home cooks grow into professional chefs?
Chef Miles Huff
Dean, Culinary Arts & Hospitality
Gisele Canova
Instructor; Internships Coordinator
Chef Miles Huff
Dean, Culinary Arts & Hospitality
Technical College of the Lowcountry

Considering the fierce competition in the restaurant industry, what are your three best tips to help budding chefs stand out?

  1. Attend a reputable culinary school (2year degree)a. I recommend a two-year associate’s degree because normally the final year of culinary school contains an internship, advanced culinary classes and management classes.
  2. Get a job in the industry. Make sure the job meets your expectations and has a learning environment.
  3. Watch Culinary videos. You can get some great tips from watching the professionals work. My favorite is Good Eats by Alton Brown.

Are culinary schools worth the investment? Why or why not? If not, what are the best alternatives to culinary school?

  1. Yes, culinary schools are worth the effort. You can attend culinary school at many technical colleges with little to no cost. Private schools have become too pricey and they don’t guarantee a better paying job.Many students will not be able to advance to the executive level without a degree. I’ve personally had many students with years of experience but cannot advance without an education.

    Three keys to success: 1) Education 2) Experience 3) Certification

  2. If not culinary school, I would consider an apprenticeship program either through the state or a company.

Besides securing internships and externships, how can culinary students find the mentorship they need to grow?

Many restaurants and resorts have career fairs. Talk to the employees of the places that interest you.

Some restaurants and/or resorts will also ask a person to “stage”, which is an unpaid brief work experience.

Besides bragging rights, what are the three biggest benefits of competing in cooking contests?

  1. The experience is always worth the work and time.
  2. This is great for the resume (along with a portfolio)
  3. This is also great practice for a cooking practicum for certification as a professional chef.

How can inspired cooking at home for friends and family turn into a career as a chef for paying customers?

  1. This is a great way to learn more about the art of entertaining. Many lessons can be taken from entertaining guests, such as time, experimenting with different types of foods, cuisines, and preparation techniques.
  2. Consider continuing educational classes to refine your skills, ask a professional and read books or articles on catering for additional ideas.

Are chef-inspired meal kits just time savers and kitchen helpers for healthier eating, or can they help average home cooks grow into professional chefs?

Yes, the meal kits can save money, time and for the most part, are nutritious. They are a great idea because they send you the amounts that you need to complete a meal without having to buy/make a large portion of food. The “methods of preparation” are normally easy to follow.

I don’t necessarily feel that they will make you a professional chef because of the science of what a chef does, i.e.: Why do foods react to certain elements in our kitchen like, the viscosity of a sauce, the flavor profile, and usage.

Gisele Canova
Instructor; Internships Coordinator
University of Central Florida

Considering the fierce competition in the restaurant industry, what are your three best tips to help budding chefs stand out?

Budding chefs should be concerned about their reputation, my top three tips are:

  1. Be consistent preparing and delivering quality meals and good value
  2. highlight your work on social media
  3. seek partnerships with the community by sourcing locally as much as possible.

Are culinary schools worth the investment? Why or why not? If not, what are the best alternatives to culinary school?

Yes, they certainly are. Culinary schools can provide fluency in a language you would like to speak.

If you are not able to attend a formal school, some alternatives are involvement in industry associations, mentors, continuing education courses and degree-seeking culinary programs.

Besides securing internships and externships, how can culinary students find the mentorship they need to grow?

There are several industry associations offering formal mentorship programs.

Culinary students can also seek mentors while attending events, visiting business and even connecting with professionals on social media, especially LinkedIn.

Besides bragging rights, what are the three biggest benefits of competing in cooking contests?

The benefits of competing in cooking contests include networking within the industry, showing the ability to participate in extracurricular activities, and working under pressure.

How can inspired cooking at home for friends and family turn into a career as a chef for paying customers?

Understanding of the business, what it is like to work as chef, and what kind of service you would like to provide is essential.

Be aware of your strengths and opportunities, and be open to learn and to receive candid feedback.

Are chef-inspired meal kits just time savers and kitchen helpers for healthier eating, or can they help average home cooks grow into professional chefs?

They certainly can help the average home cooks by providing ideas, measurement and pairing basics. But most importantly, they can provide inspiration for a fulfilling career.

Methodology

We ranked 120 of the biggest U.S. cities from best (No. 1) to worst (No. 120) based on their overall scores (out of 100 possible points), averaged across all the weighted metrics listed below. 

MetricWeightingMin. ValueMax. ValueBest
Program Access
Number of Schools with Culinary Arts Programs219Max. Value
School Quality
Average Student Rating (Out of 5 Stars) for Schools with Culinary Arts Program(s)20.005.00Max. Value
Average Acceptance Rate158.75%100.00%Max. Value
Average Graduation Rate1.510%85%Max. Value
School Cost
Average In-State Tuition Rate2$1,104$34,376Min. Value
Average Out-of-State Tuition Rate1.5$1,293$39,019Min. Value
Average Total Financial Aid Awarded1$2,995.50$21,210Max. Value
Average Share of Financial Aid Recipients137%100%Max. Value
Job Growth
3-Year % Change in Estimated Total Employment for Chefs and Head Cooks (2020 vs. 2017)2-71.79%143.10%Max. Value
3-Year % Change in Estimated Total Employment for Non-Chef and Non-Head Cooks (2020 vs. 2017)1-66.23%164.85%Max. Value
Job Outlook
State Long-Term Job Outlook for Chefs and Head Cooks (2028 vs. 2018)20%32.20%Max. Value
Number of Restaurants per 100,000 Residents132.511065.76Max. Value
Number of Michelin-Designated Restaurants1.51.00477.00Max. Value
Earning Potential
Average Salary for Chefs and Head Cooks (2020)2$36,940$98,210Max. Value
3-Year Change in Average Salary for Chefs and Head Cooks (2020 vs. 2017)1.5-18.38%83.09%Max. Value
Average Salary for Non-Chef and Non-Head Cooks (2020)1$21,230$40,592Max. Value
3-Year Change in Average Salary for Non-Chef and Non-Head Cooks (2020 vs. 2017)0.5-8.52%36.42%Max. Value

Sources: 529 Planning, Michelin Guide, Niche, Prepler, TripAdvisor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and U.S. Department of Labor

In the Kitchen With YouTube

Aspiring chefs often get their start cooking at home, experimenting in their own kitchen. Then it’s off to cooking school or working one’s way up at a local restaurant. Every once in a while, an aspiring chef will win his or her golden ticket on “Chopped” or another cooking show.

Now some aspiring chefs are stay-at-home cooks with huge followings on YouTube. All you need is your fridge, oven, mixer, kitchen island, and your phone on a tripod to record everything for uploading. 

Jamie Oliver has 5.57 million YouTube subscribers, Laura Vitale’s Laura in the Kitchen has 3.8 million, and Binging with Babish’s channel has 9.3 million. 

What does this new trend mean? Any city can be the best city for an aspiring chef. Cooking school? Maybe you don’t need to go. A camera, a kitchen, a stocked pantry — and a dash of personality — can be a recipe for success. Bon appétit!

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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