Best Cities for Chefs

With the emergence of reality TV shows centered in the world of cooking, the team at ValuePenguin was curious to see which cities were best for aspiring chefs. To figure that out, we reviewed data from 260 cities across three important metrics: median salary, plus cost of living and location quotient (more on our methodology below). Here is what we found for chefs and head cooks looking for a new city to call home (or to confirm where their current one ranks).

Top 5 Cities for Chefs

A good cook makes the most of his or her ingredients, kitchen and staff. But according to our study, these five cities give gourmands a head start. They separated themselves from the pack of 260 by scoring well in our three most important categories. All five, for example, ranked in the nation’s top 50 for annual average salary. Of course, they bring much more to the table.

1. Naples, FL

One of six Florida cities to crack the top 25, Naples landed at No. 1 despite having just 310 jobs and a cost of living 48 percent higher than the average American city. Those two characteristics were made up by these two: A location quotient that predicts openings for chefs, plus an average annual salary ($59,210) that is 34 percent higher than the mean of the 260 cities we studied. The restaurants in Naples, whose data is combined with nearby Marco Island, boasts quality seafood, with Waterfront Grille among the local favorites.

2. Atlantic City, NJ

With the best location quotient in the country, Atlantic City and its 490 jobs for chefs falls second among our top five. (New Jersey’s international attraction also came in second for bartenders). Combined with nearby Hammonton, Atlantic City’s head cooks earn an average annual salary of $55,250. Of course, the big-timers here earn a bit more; the city has Guy Fieri’s Chophouse and Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, two restaurants named for their as-seen-on-TV chefs.

3. Las Vegas, NV

With 2,820 positions for chefs, Vegas has the fifth-most in the U.S. And because its location quotient is second only to Atlantic City, a lead cook looking for work can expect to find it. Believe it or not, but Vegas is also the most livable city among our top five; it’s six percent more affordable than the average American city. Add to that the seemingly endless strip’s collection of restaurants – like these top-rated spots – and you have a “bad” place in need of good chefs.

4. Napa, CA

The epicenter of Californian wine country has just 180 jobs, the least among our top five, but also has the fourth-highest location quotient, meaning there is a likelihood of some of them coming open from time to time. It’s also 40 percent more expensive to live in Napa than the average American city, but that is partly made up for by the local chefs’ annual average salary of $54,820. The county of Napa also has two Michelin-starred restaurants to brag about, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville and Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.

5. Salinas, CA

A three-hour drive south, Salinas, the home of writer John Steinbeck, has another claim to fame in its California cuisine. The city actually has 90 more head cook jobs than Napa plus a higher annual average salary, $57,460, to narrowly knock Santa Fe, N.M., out of the top five. While it may not be as celebrated, Salinas is an up-and-coming foodie’s paradise, as its fourth annual Salinas Valley Food and Wine Festival will prove this fall.

Top 30 Cities for Chefs

Rank City Location Quotient Median Salary Jobs Cost of Living
1 Naples, FL 2.87 59,210 310 148
2 Atlantic City, NJ 4.23 55,250 490 110
3 Las Vegas, NV 3.7 52,250 2,820 94
4 Napa, CA 2.98 54,820 180 140
5 Salinas, CA 1.93 57,460 270 120
6 Santa Fe, NM 2.55 56,600 130 118
7 Washington DC 1.41 59,210 2,930 157
8 San Francisco, CA 2.05 52,270 1,940 200
9 New York City 1.5 54,910 7,070 168
10 Boston, MA 1.5 53,700 2,350 152
11 Barnstable Town, MA 2.28 52,620 200 161
12 Newark, NJ 1.28 59,970 1,080 125
13 Flagstaff, AZ 2.79 51,120 140 115
14 Nassau-Suffolk, NY 1.44 52,620 1,580 108
15 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 1.46 53,400 290 92
16 West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Boynton Beach, FL 1.17 62,540 560 102
17 Sacramento, CA 1.51 50,730 1,130 117
18 Portsmouth, NH 1.57 54,220 80 137
19 Carson City, NV 1.56 57,100 40 99
20 Miami, FL 1.13 57,290 1,040 112
21 Crestview, FL 1.44 52,720 100 101
22 Norwich, CT 1.46 50,820 160 111
23 Ithaca, NY 2.64 47,450 110 108
24 Sebastian, FL 1.22 58,920 50 95
25 Ocean City, NJ 1.22 60,330 40 166
26 Santa Cruz, CA 2.24 47,170 170 154
27 New Bedford, MA 1.21 57,010 70 116
28 Pittsfield, MA 2.27 47,690 70 105
29 Morgantown, WV 1.15 59,320 60 96
30 San Diego, CA 1.37 47,700 1,580 152

On Topic: What Is Unique about Being a Chef in… ?

The quality of a chef’s city is decided by more than our three data points. To better understand the less-mathematical differences from place to place, we polled chefs from both coasts. One common theme among their answers: taking advantage of their locale’s natural resources.

Celebrity Chef Chris Kydes | South Florida | FoodyTV’s “The Flaming Greek”

“The advantage of living and cooking in Florida is that we have the perfect climate for fresh produce and fresh seafood. Having the availability to get fish right out of the ocean is great. The climate also adds a lot to cooking, as we have a lot of fun with the entertaining side of it. There are lots of outdoor barbeques by the pool, on the water or on a yacht. It’s a lifestyle.”

Executive Chef Antonio Brodziak | South Florida | Cabo Flats 

“Dealing with the season is unique to the Florida chef. You have to allow for more employees in season and cut hours in the offseason. It is definitely harder in that way than being a chef in New York or San Francisco.”

Chef Christopher Ives | New Jersey | Sir Ives Caterering

“New Jersey is home to very rich soil that produces the best quality tomatoes and corn anywhere in the country. We’re a small state so we have convenient access to very high-quality organic greenhouses, which turn out a wide variety of healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables. We’re also a coastal state, so the Atlantic Ocean provides very fresh seafood at competitive prices since we can buy it right off the boat.

“We’re in the metro-New York City market so our clients have high expectations in every aspect of what we do. The hours are long and the pace is fast. Some of my friends who are chefs in other cities have less stress, I think. Much of the catering mentality is somewhat frenetic due to the “special occasion” nature of all the events we cater and the urgency that goes along with that.”

Chef de Cuisine Gihen Zitouni | Miami | Bistro One LR at The Ritz-Carlton

“It definitely has a big Latin influence, working with different product that I wasn’t so familiar before. I have worked in Europe, America and Canada: very different culture, values and, of course, food. As a chef, it is important to travel or to work outside of your country of origin to open new horizons and creativity.”

Chef Stuart Donald | Mobile, Ala. | Lucky Irish Pub & Grill

“The Gulf Coast tourist areas are now dominated by chef-driven restaurants doing cutting-edge cuisine. Perhaps this revival is the upside of events like (Hurricanes) Ivan, Katrina and the BP oil spill. They have given us all a greater appreciation for what we have and a desire to see our natural resources reach their fullest potential.

“I envy my friends in New Orleans because serving tables is a career there. It's actually an occupation that is held in high regard. It's not just something you do to make money in college; it's an occupation. Not every city in America has that.”

Executive Chef Ivan Flowers | San Diego, Calif. | Top of the Market

“California has great produce, seafood and wine – and lots of folks open to new adventures in the culinary world. Coastal settings are invigorating to one’s soul when creating new dishes.

“I have a good friend on the East Coast who is a highly renowned chef.  He works in a five-star hotel as an executive pastry chef.  The executive chef of the Hotel will give him grief if he puts too many rosemary sprigs on top of his chocolate ganache rosemary bombe with preserved raspberry sauce. New York City is so expensive they watch if you use three-ply toilet paper in the bathroom. It’s sad; operating expenses do not correlate to what they pay cooks who cannot live in the area.”

Chef Adam Harvey | New York City | The Cheeses of Europe

“Working as a chef in New York City brings the world of ingredients to your doorstep, allowing us the ability to literally cook whatever we want, whenever we want. Conversely, even though New York is one of the largest cities in the world, it is incredibly well located with proximity to an abundance of agriculture and livestock producers. It’s the decision to embrace seasonal ingredients that are locally produced which is truly unique.”

Methodology

These were the three key questions we asked in coming up with the list. 

1. What can chefs earn in the city?

We ranked the best cities for chefs based on the median annual pay. Income is likely the most important factor people consider when starting their career or relocating elsewhere. A high salary in an expensive city, however, may be less attractive than a lower salary in an affordable town. Our next metric takes affordability into consideration.

2. How affordable is it to live in this city?

Now that we have the median salary, we’ll look next at the cost of living. The cost of living is a measure of how far earnings can be stretched. Cities with lower cost of living index numbers ranked higher in our study. For example, the average city is benchmarked at 100. A city with a cost of living index of 135, such as Seattle, would mean that generally speaking, living expenses are 35 percent more expensive compared to the average city.

3. What is the location quotient for chefs in the city?

A place with a high median salary and low cost of living may seem perfect, but job opportunities may be limited. Our third factor accounts for this by favoring cities with high location quotients. Location quotient measures the concentration of bartenders in an area as a percentage of all occupations, and then compares that to the national average. We interpret a higher location quotient to mean a relatively higher demand for a chef’s skills.

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