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Aug 3, 2008 02:35 PM

what makes a chef "great"?

thinking about paul bocuse, and his fame, i began to wonder: what makes someone a "great" chef?

and how does "greatness" relate to whether one is famous? (not so much can mediocre chefs be famous -- for that is clear -- but whether "great" chefs can remain in relative obscurity)

does a chef have to have exposure to, and cater to the high expectations of, the eating elites in order to achieve "greatness"?

and on a purely elementary level, when does a cook become a "chef"?

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  1. As to the question of when does a cook become a chef. This week I went to a cooking class. They will take the students from home cook to home chef. They explained the difference: A cook can follow a recipe and put out a good meal. A chef will open the frig and see a parsnip, a carrot, and whipping cream and CREATE a great meal.

    I am sure there are great chefs out there that are only known in their neighborhood. They create wonderful food, they love what they do, and we love to enjoy their great cooking. They are rarely reviewed by the newspaper. But Chowhounds find them and spread the word. Maybe the ambition to be a star is not there, they are happy doing what they do.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Janet

      I would love to find a class or course targeted at non-professionals to give them the tools -- or even the confidence -- to create something amazing from virtually nothing. Where did you find it? Do local culinary schools have such offerings?

      In many way I guess I would describe myself as a home or non-professional chef, but I do usually start with a basic recipe, I just tend to play around with it a lot. I'd love to take that to the next level.

      1. re: chicgail

        Those are some of the types of classes I teach - anything people want. It's great fun to teach - I learn something every time, too! :-)

        Some community colleges offer half-day or full-day courses.

        1. re: chicgail

          Chicgail - you might enjoy Tom Colicchio's book, "Think Like a Chef." From the inside cover, "...Colicchio has created a new kind of cookbook. Rather than list a series of restaurant recipes, he uses simple steps to deconstruct a chef's creative process, making it easily available to any home cook."

          What I like about this book is that it encourages the reader to be creative and branch out with the ingredients and techniques used in basic recipes. Maybe this book can help you get to that "next level."

          1. re: CindyJ

            I'll look for it CindyJ. Thanks for the tip. Amazon here I come.

          2. re: chicgail

            A friend took me to the class, I stood in for her working husband. It is in Berkeley, called Kitchen on Fire. They were impressive, all about teaching technique. Know your tools, know how to use them. Very laid back, but you will hold your knife correctly. I think it is a 12 week series.


            The CIA in Napa has regular classes on all topics. They are much more expensive. A lot of schools are in the BAY AREA and offer classes regualrly for the home cook. Google is your friend.

        2. In my opinion a great chef must be passionate about what s/he is making with a love for the ingredients. S/he also should cook only with local and seasonal ingredients and really know how to make them shine. As mentioned I belive they should be innovative and creative and be able to make something spectacular out of a few humble ingredients.

          I'm a trained professional chef (but do not work in a restaurant - private teach cooking classes in homes instead!) and love nothing more than going to the market, see an interesting ingredient and be inspired to create something magical. I love the challenge of picking up a perfect fresh fig and creating an entire menu around it. I cook fabulous meals at home with lots of love and soul at least 5 nights a week and LOVE IT!!! :-) Of course it helps to be knowledgeable about as much as you can and have great technical skills such as using knives, etc.

          I was recently asked to host a small radio weekly food blurb (local) and I have no desire to do it. It would be interesting but I would not be a great host - I would be too nervous and chicken!!

          1. Last question first: there's no culinary distinction between a cook and a chef. Traditionally the difference is purely organizational; a chef (same root as "chief" and "jefe") acts in a supervisory capacity in a kitchen. A line cook who can conjure brilliant dishes from improbable ingredients using near-supernatural skills is a cook. The cook's boss, who may have a tin palate and may not be able to cook his way out of a paper bag, is the chef.

            Unfortunately the traditional definitions have given way to idol worship and self importance. Now being a good cook is no longer enough; people want to be "home chefs." And the recent culinary school graduate who's still trying to figure out how to cook a steak claims wants everybody in the kitchen to call him "chef." Not.

            Some people claim that the ability to invent new dishes (or, more typically, modify existing recipes) makes someone a chef. My pioneer great-grandmother did that three times a day for the better part of a century, but if you'd called her "chef" she would have sniffed your breath to make sure you hadn't gotten into the medicinal whiskey, then whacked you with a rolling pin and told you to get back to your chores.

            Julia Child was a cook, not a chef, and she would have been the first to tell you so. (For those too young to remember Julia, the same goes for Alton Brown.) I challenge you to show me a recent culinary school grad with half her chops or a quarter of her creative ability. "Just" a cook. Yeah, right.

            As to greatness, that's more elusive. And maybe a little silly. IMHO Alice Waters is a great chef, and all she did was introduce the concept that the kitchen in a fine-dining restaurant can succeed by procuring the best ingredients and staying out of their way. No complex preparations, no vertical food, just incredibly good stuff, simply prepared.

            What makes her great is not just the food (although that's incredible too); there are lots of chefs who emulate her but probably don't deserve the mantle of greatness. What's different about Waters is that 40 years ago she challenged people's preconceived notions of fine dining and started a whole new genre of cooking.

            A chef might also be considered great by taking an existing genre to its apogee. But there are a good handful of chefs with 3 Michelin stars who provide their customers with perfectly-executed classic French cuisine. What makes any of them "great" compared with the others? Generally speaking, the adjective occurs in conjunction with self-promoting behavior on the part of the chef in question (eg Bocuse's American tour), and involves some innovation (eg Bocuse's promotion of nouvelle cuisine).

            IMHO innovation alone isn't enough to make a chef great; the trends established by the innovator need to influence the culinary zeitgeist. And a chef can't do that while toiling at an obscure restaurant that serves the tastes of non-elites.

            3 Replies
            1. re: alanbarnes

              great post AB, i agree-- almost 100%.

              re your last 2 paragraphs, i would argue that a chef can be "great" while laboring under relative obscurity, *if* s/he has a wide influence on other chefs of her/his time. often the "greatness" of some of these chefs is confined to their own geographical area or cuisine type, and their names are not well known by the public. many times truly "great" chefs labor in large hotels or as a sous to the famous guy, or in a small but influential long-lived restaurant where anybody who's anyone has worked for a stint. . . and it's only after a number of chefs who've trained under them rise to independent greatness and document where they learned their techniques, that the "great" chef's artistry becomes appreciated by a wider audience. often it's late in the chef's career that her/his impact becomes apparent, or the food trends influenced by her/him become more mainstream. for example a lot of the chefs focusing on local, rather than imported, ingredients who were called "eccentrics" or "wingnuts" 20 years ago are now being called "greats."

              1. re: soupkitten

                But can there be greatness in the absence of any lasting impact? Presumably such impact will be accompanied by some form of recognition, however belated. If a chef falls in a kitchen and there's no one there to hear, does she make a sound (or a sauce)?

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  oh sure. it's relative, of course. in every profession there are some characters who are famous to others in the profession even while being virtually unknown outside of it, just as there are some famous folks who are good at schmoozing the media or the big-money folks, but they don't actually have the chops to back it up. chefs who are highly respected by others in their field, that the average person, or even the avg food-obsessed person haven't heard of are a form of "great," just as "flash in the pan personality with 2-season cooking show whom nobody will remember 10 years from now" are a different form of "great." who knows-- the "great" chef may have really bad teeth, or an obnoxious laugh, or just be inarticulate-- all s/he can do is cook brilliantly, but the pr stuff tends to come out badly. like some "great" scientists, some "great" chefs are bad at the social stuff, and they just get recognition from others in their field. they are influential among their peers though!

            2. Clarification for my above posts - I do not call myself a chef. In fact it embarasses me when people call me that. I do not work in a restaurant setting. Before I went to culinary school (many years ago) I was a very good and accomplished cook. I just went to learn techniques and such. Food and travel is my life so I just wanted to learn as much as possible about all the aspects I could. I still take classes in other countries, too, as there is always much to learn. You never, ever stop learning - if you think you know everything as a cook you are not a good cook!

              I feel too much emphasis is placed on labels and that in itself can detract from the actual cooking experience.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chefathome

                Forgot to mention that I was teaching cooking classes before I went to culinary school. You do not have to attend school to teach! Some people just like to see credentials for some reason.

              2. A chef leads/is a leader in the kitchen... simple as that. A great chef (this becomes more of a personal definition) is one who is a great leader and a great cook. There are so many great chefs out there beyond the handful that graze the covers of magazines and books... you just need to work in enough kitchens to find out.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Blueicus

                  Exactly - I've worked in some tough kitchens. NOT easy.

                  Some of the best chefs/cooks are those behind the scenes in little rustic places in nondescript unpretentious spots.