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What makes a chef?

First, to all fellow chowhounders, let me say Happy Holidays! As chowhounders, this should be our favorite time of year (endless lines of delicious high calorie foods...)
As a 21 year old recent graduate with a degree in culinary arts, I find myself wondering, what makes a chef a chef? Is it the love of food? Talent? Skill? Schooling? Rachael Ray refuses to call herself a chef, as she has no training, but I know countless people who barely graduated high school that I wonder consider a chef before most of these "celebrity chefs." Maybe a chef is someone who does what they do for no other reason than they love it. I think a real chef doesn't aspire to have their own magazine, or 39 shows on Food Network. I think it is someone who wakes up thinking about food after a long night dreaming about food. Anyway, I was just interested in the topic. Any insight you have will be helpful in my "quest for knowledge." Thanks Chowhounders, you guys (and ladies of course) are the best!

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  1. IMHO, a 'cook' is someone who has a good mastery of basic cooking/kitchen techniques and can follow a recipe and turn out really good food. A 'chef' takes cooking to the next level by creating new dishes, new combinations of flavors, etc. Kind of like the difference between someone who can read music and play an instrument vs. a composer. I think both chefs and cooks can be just as passionate about food.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bnemes3343

      Good point, and very well said. Great comparison too!

      1. re: bnemes3343

        I cast a 2nd vote for your definition bnemes. Being a chef has nothing to do with diplomas. Anyone (well, almost anyone) can get a diploma, but far fewer will - or have the talent to - become chefs.

      2. IMHO, to me the title "chef" is just a piece of paper. The title to me just shows you went to school, and payed to get a degree. Back in the day when I used to work in restaurants, I worked with many graduates of the C.I.A., and other cooking schools who were not even the best cook in the kitchen. I consider myself a scratch cook, and was never interested in going to school to attain the title of chef. I preferred to collect a paycheck while expanding my knowledge, and skills, instead of paying for that knowledge & skills. I create my own recipes, sauces, rubs, etc, so I can hold my own in the kitchen.

        1. A chef is a leader. Doesn't even need to cook, but makes certain his/her menu is prepared properly, and on time. More like a conductor, but a closet composer too.
          The rest of us, mere cooks, can be creative as any chef, but can't or won't lead a kitchen.

          1. A young culinary grad is no more a chef than a recent medical school graduate is a doctor. Granted, each has a piece of paper with the new title but there is much, much more to being a chef/doctor than is taught in school. School is just the beginning; now comes experience of OJT that will season, temper and finally combine to make one worthy of the title.

            The french word "chef" means "chief" or "commander"; a real chef must be a leader. This means that the chef must be able to accomplish all tasks in the kitchen, earning respect from subordinates who must follow his/her lead. True leaders inspire and educate their followers while getting the primary job done in a professional manner. Leaders are often first in and last out, not very glamorous but necessary.

            Congratulations on beginning your new career. You join legions of dedicated people, many of whom have great passion for their chosen field.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Sherri

              It has been said earlier but the line between a chef and a cook is clear. The chef commands.

              I think you're mostly wrong with the doctor analogy. In every state where I hold a physicians and surgeons licence, it takes an MD from an accredited medical/osteopath school + one PG year to get a license. Once you have a license, you have the responsibilities and authority of a doctor. I'm not going to get into credentialing (in that way, you may have a point...however, under the law, I think you're wrong).

              In fact, in a teaching hospital where you're a house officer, your orders are carried out after you received your degree and before you get your license.

              1. re: filth

                Please re-read this important sentence:
                "Granted, each has a piece of paper with the new title but there is much, much more to being a chef/doctor than is taught in school. School is just the beginning; now comes experience of OJT that will season, temper and finally combine to make one worthy of the title."

                You are certainly correct that the graduate of an accreditated medical school is entitled to call him/herself "doctor". What both the new culinary grad and new medical grad lack is the experience and maturity, seasoning if you will, that makes the true professional worthy of the title.

                It was a physician who told me that she would never (and she used strong emphasis when she said NEVER) consider a new medical graduate a doctor. "Wait until they get a couple of years' experience under their belt" she cautioned.

                1. re: Sherri

                  I am poorly versed in the hierarchy of a restaurant kitchen, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night but I do not think a diploma from the CIA/Johnson and Wales/etc. grants you the title of "Chef." And, to the best of my knowledge, I do not think that the title of "Chef" has any regulatory standing.

                  However, I do have intimate knowledge of the medical education and licensing system in the United States. Under the law, you can call yourself "doctor" (in the context of a physician), immediately upon conferral of a Doctor of Medicine degree. Heck, in other contexts, you can call yourself "doctor" after being conferred the degree of EdD (one of the easiest doctorate degrees to get).

                  Personally, I think it's more reasonable to require a physicians and surgeons license since that is required to practice medicine unsupervised. Ideally, you should be board-certified to be considered a "doctor."

                  The law is clear in this area. There is no further criterion to define oneself as a "doctor" in the context of the medical profession. There is no requirement for X years as an Attending Physician to be a "doctor." If there were, how would one decide how many years that should be? Should it be based on the number of patients seen? Patient-hours?

              2. re: Sherri

                Well, actually, a culinary school diploma does not grant one the title of chef. It's simply an associates' degree (sometimes just a certificate, depending on the school) in culinary arts, hospitality, pastry arts, food service, etc. No title is conferred with the degree, unlike an md.

                and re: swsidejim: Traditionally, there's no link whatsoever between the title of chef and any sort of degree, since culinary school is a very recent invention. I find it interesting that you say that you feel that the title of chef just means you paid to go to school - I don't see the relationship at all. Going to culinary school doesn't give you the title of chef, and the path you chose is the traditional way one becomes a chef. While the degree is a lot more common than it used to be, it's still neither a requirement nor an automatic conferral.

                1. re: ReluctantOperaChick

                  interesting points, my point was that so many people nowdays go to their local junior college, and get a culinary arts degree, and then call themselves chefs without earning it(personal chfs as an example), other than that they payed for it. As I mentioned back when I used to cook, the person with the title "chef" many times was one of the least talented cooks in the kitchen, but simply a manager.

              3. Michael Ruhlman has spent three books, now four, exploring this question. I strongly recommend that you pick up his "Making of a Chef," "Soul of a Chef," and "Reach of a Chef." Well-written, very funny anecdotes, excellent profiles of his experiences at the Culinary Institute of America and chefs such as Thomas Keller and Michael Symon.

                1. My cousin is a culinary school graduate, about five years or so ago (he's 31), and he works in the kitchen of one of the upscale dorms at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He's second-in-command there. My mom and dad went to where he works awhile ago, and said it was pretty clear he was in charge; the other folks working there all listened to him and seemed to look up to him. (I'm sure it's true but it's rather amusing to me since I used to babysit him...)

                  Watching him cook is a thing of beauty. He just comes alive.

                  I suppose he's still paying his dues, and in the strictest sense of the word he's not yet a "chef," but as far as I'm concerned he is. (I'm a good postmodern and feel quite comfortable with the Alice-in-Wonderland school of word definitions...)

                  1. The ability to MAKE IT HAPPEN. Which means skill, planning, organization, creativity, multi-tasking, doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes to get it done. Passion and dedication are essential, diplomas are not.

                    1. what's the old rule, a chef must be directly in charge of at least three full time workers, a sous-chef must be directly in charge of at least 2 full-time workers. . .

                      i'd argue that chef is still an earned title, but now the term is thrown around very loosely, and everyone thinks they're a chef. . . the term "personal chef" drives me up a freaking wall, for example.

                      1. soupkittens old rule not withstanding, the short 'Merriam Webster' answer/definition is, and I agree,simply "1 a skilled cook who manages the kitchen (as of a restaurant) 2 cook

                        That could be you, me, or anyone as described directely above.

                        1. I apparently have a less romantic notion of what it is to be a chef, but I tend to adhere strictly to the old French definition: a chef is a person who runs a restaurant kitchen. Period. If you're not running a kitchen, you're not a chef. You can have the most exquisite culinary sensibilities in the world, you can have a sense of taste that puts all others to shame, you can love to cook more than you love your own children, but if you don't run a restaurant kitchen, you are not a chef. You're a cook, which is a title I personally think is far more noble than "chef," anyway.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                            Yep, "chef" derives from the same word as "chief." I wasn't aware of the sharp distinctions soupkitten mentions, I would've guessed sous-chefs were those in charge of the specific areas traditional haute cuisine French kitchens had rather than numbers of persons supervised, but in my mind it has little to do with skill, let alone creativity or imagination, per se. One hopes the "chef" of a good restaurant would have all of the above qualities and more to boot, but if he was the owner's nephew and the restaurant wasn't particularly good, maybe not. ;)

                            Similarly, I don't know about "nobility" as such, but cook is certainly as honorable a professional title as any other, if you do a good job, at least.

                            1. re: MikeG

                              Mike-- i just think that the old rule is useful (& amusing) sometimes when i see teeny tiny kitchens with 2 full-time cooks and one part-timer, the 2 ft guys being called "chef" and "sous-chef" and the pt guy being called-- well whatever the other guys want, i guess! :)

                              -- just that the titles imply stations in kitchens of a certain size-- there is no sous-chef in a 3-4 person kitchen, it's too small. a guy was talking about his girlfriend, the sous chef, to me and dh a while back. "oh yeah? where does she work?" we asked-- "oh she's looking for a position right now!" well guess what, you can't be an out of work sous-chef, it's a working title! (she's an out of work *cook*, and when she's hired she may or may not be hired as a sous-chef, at which time she can take the title again)

                              1. re: MikeG

                                In French, "chef" is the word for "boss" in any industry.

                            2. I think a chef is someone who has a definite vision and an ability to execute that vision through running a kitchen properly and training his staff to maintain the quality of that vision.

                              Someone can be a technically proficient cook but they are not necessarily a chef. I see it as a leadership role. Just like in life, some people have leadership ability and planning ability and others are better being the spear carriers.

                              1. Oh, what a great question. And I remember contemplating it myself around the time I was in culinary school, back in the dark ages (OK, the mid-80s.)

                                It's been a long, retired-from-the-business time since I called anyone Chef. At the time I was in school, I worked for a wonderful executive chef, a Dutch guy who had run the kitchens at a number of fine restaurants and hotels in Europe and around Boston. I was proud to call him Chef. He was a talented cook and an outstanding manager of the kitchen, the back-off-the-house staff, the budget, and the property, and maybe the best boss I ever had. I was also, generally, perfectly pleased to call my (J&W) instructors Chef, and, after I changed jobs, the sous-chefs at the Ritz...though I thought the sauciers, who liked to be called Chef as well, were a bit above themselves. ;) (God, what a macho kitchen that was.) Then I began to come across people who called themselves Chef, but the title rang false. Often they worked in mediocre establishments, had little experience (or sometimes plenty of experience in mediocre establishments!), and mostly put out poor quality food in chaotic, despotic, and frequently quixotic kitchens.

                                I began, dimly, to formulate some kind of idea of a Chef, at least for myself. Passion for food is only a part of it. Talent and creativity are also only a part of it. Those things can make one an outstanding cook, in the fullest sense of the word, but not necessarily a chef, which requires capacities that go beyond simply one's interest in and abilities with food. Leadership is important - the ability to organize and direct and mentor one's staff. Experience is also necessary; for me, a recent culinary school graduate is not a chef. Or a Chef.

                                The words cook and chef have different meanings to the lay public than they do in the industry. I have a culinary degree and a pastry degree, and I worked professionally for many years - a bit as a cook, and then a couple of years as a pastry cook, and then pastry chef of various restaurants and bakeries. I also owned a catering business (doesn't everyone?) and did a lot of cooking as well as front-of-the-house stuff in that capacity. I was always uncomfortable with the chef term as applied to myself, even though I found myself needing to use it, more frequently than I liked, when describing my work and career to people not in the business. I never felt that I had anywhere near the requirements to be called a chef, though I am OK with calling myself a pastry chef.

                                I deliberately answered before reading others' responses; now I'm eager to see what others have said.

                                1. This has me wondering- is the person in charge of the kitchen at Bonefish Grill or Olive Garden considered a chef? I'm always put off at Bonefish Grill (at least I was the 2 times that we have eaten there) when the wait person mentions that the "chef " told him/her that the mahi-mahi was really good tonight, or that this sauce goes really well with that fish, etc...

                                  I'm sitting there thinking: Chef? Do they mean the guy in the back who heats up the stuff???

                                  But maybe I have been too judgemental- I guess there is a lot more to running a kitchen than simply cooking...

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Clarkafella

                                    Great question. I'd love to hear the answer from the restaurant pros although I suspect the answer is no.

                                    1. re: filth

                                      Well, I don't want to speak for other restaurant people, but my opinion would be no. (This is part of what I was talking about above, when I said that I'd encountered people who liked to be called chef, but weren't, in my opinion, anywere near entitled to the title.) But again, this is part of the problem in using the terms cook and chef with other restaurant people, and with people who aren't in the business - if the waiter said "the cook says the who-ha with froofroo sauce is particularly good tonight," it wouldn't have quite the same impact as saying "the chef is all about the froofroo sauce." Chef just SOUNDS better!

                                      And yeah, there is a lot more to running a kitchen than cooking, but cooking IS part of it. If you're just a good kitchen manager, well, then Kitchen Manager is your title, not Chef.

                                      On the other hand, in addition to the in-the-business/outside-the-business differing uses of cook vs. chef, there's also the issue of the job title. So, at a place like Bonefish Grill, or whatever, your job title might actually be Chef (I have no idea if that's true specifically, but just to take an example) even though you're kind of pretty much Dude Who Heats Stuff Up. Heck, you could put chef on the nametag of the fryolator guy at Burger King, if you want. So, if your employer calls you a chef, who are you to disagree? Or, who am I to argue?

                                      So there's chefs and there's chefs. For me, anyway, the title is partly an honorific, and not just anyone gets to be called Chef, but I do recognize how subjective that is, and that people are called chef for many other reasons.

                                      1. re: ReluctantOperaChick

                                        OK so you graduate culinary school and feel your entitled to be a chef.......TRUTH is Culinary schools graduate more incompetant chefs that one could imagine. The term Chef is a french word that means "COOK" if you have a passion for food and creating the ultimate customer satisfaction then you could be a Chef. It is a term that is one of respect to professionals in the kitchen. Look at the brigade system that Escoffier used each station there was a chef. Sauté Chef (Saucier) [sos.je] - Responsible for all sautéed items and their sauce. This is usually the highest position of all the stations.
                                        Fish Chef (Poissonier) [pwɑ.so.ɲe] - Prepares fish dishes and often does all fish butchering as well as appropriate sauces. This station may be combined with the saucier position.
                                        Roast Chef (Rotisseur) [ʀo.ti.sœʀ] - Prepares roasted and braised meats and their appropriate sauce.
                                        Grill Chef (Grillardin) [gʀi.jaʀ.dɛ̃] - Prepares all grilled foods, this position may be combined with the rotisseur.
                                        Fry Chef (Friturier) [fʀi.ty.ʀje] - Prepares all fried items, position may be combined with the rotisseur position.
                                        Vegetable Chef (Entremetier) [ã.tʀə.me.tje] - Prepares hot appetizers and often prepares the soups, vegetables, pastas and starches. In a full brigade system a potager would prepare soups and a legumier would prepare vegetables.
                                        Roundsman (Tournant) [tuʀ.nã] - Also referred to as a swing cook, fills in as needed on station in kitchen.
                                        Pantry Chef (Garde Manger) [gaʀd mã.ʒe] They are responsible for preparing cold foods, including salads, cold appetizers, pâtés and other charcuterie items.
                                        Butcher (Boucher) [bu.ʃe] - Butchers meats, poultry and sometimes fish. May also be responsible for breading meats and fish.
                                        Pastry Chef (Pâtissier) [pa.ti.sje] - Prepare baked goods, pastries and desserts. In larger establishments, the pastry chef often supervises a separate team in their own kitchen or separate shop.
                                        Even the dishwasher had a title......The escuelerie or dishwasher, (from 15th century French) is the keeper of dishes, having charge of dishes and keeping the kitchen clean. A common humorous title for this role in some modern kitchens is Chef de Plúnge.
                                        Because Americans are condescending and think they are better than everyone else, because they have some degree they lose the passion for the team spirit.
                                        Sure there is only one executive Chef and the chain of command that follows, but the term Chef is one of great respect that everyone on the team EARNS the title.

                                        GROW OUT OF IT LITTLE SOUS CHEF