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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.