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Sep 1, 2010 04:46 PM

Chefs versus cooks

Once upon a time, in my much younger days, I was a dirty line cook. I never EVER referred to myself as a chef. Though my wife, any time I cook something "fancy," and someone's over tells our guests I was a chef.

In my mind, I always looked at the exec, or sometimes sous who did the ordering, the menu writing, and scheduling as the chef. I worked the line. Hot apps, saute, grill, sometimes desserts and garde manager.

It seems to be more common these days with food tv and all of these crazy food shows, to throw around the term "chef." What do you all think?

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  1. That is a little bit like calling any Native American "Chief", isn't it? Given that you do have a working knowledge of commercial kitchen practice, you've probably got most of us beat in the production-chops department, but you were working FOR the chef or sous-chef at his or her direction, and while it may strike some as a tad pedantic I think in your position I'd throw a little education at'em. "Chef" is in fact French for Chief, and you never made that rank, which is no more to be ashamed of than if you were a cop who retired as a sergeant.

    Of course in your OWN kitchen you may be functionally the chef, but as far as the restaurant universe is concerned that's like a guy who owns a rowboat calling himself "Captain".

    1. The difference is pretension. Good friend's a fairly prominent cook....he find the "chef" mania laughable.

      2 Replies
      1. re: beevod

        Chef is short from the French "Chef de Cuisine, The chief, or head, of a commercial kitchen, as described by Escoffier, makes all the executive decisions, such as menu direction, final say in staffing, supervision of ordering, etc. Supervises the Sous Chef, who in turn directs the line cooks,(fish, roast, fry, garde mange, pastry, butcher, etc.

        Having said that, today there are really great cooks, those who have never supervised a commercial kitchen nor owned a restaurant and worked the back of the house. I admire great cooks who understand food and the ingredients that make for superb finished dishes.
        As for the "Phony Chefs" I guess it is the trend, as in children being "Stars, and Special, Number one", it is a cultural slide to demphasize true achievment and make us all equal, regardless of our individual ability.
        I salute the great cooks ; as well as some very capable Chefs that I know.....and for the few Phony Chefs I have met "You are very special and a star".

        1. re: ospreycove

          To: ospreycove on Sep 2, 2010 11:16 AM
          You made a couple of comments that I would ike to quote because they are so applicable to our society as a whole. May I have your permission?

      2. Whether someone actually arrives at the title of Chef de Cuisine or Sous Chef.....I would argue they are merely cooks in many instances. A chef can cook.....however, it doesn't mean he knows how to run a kitchen or execute production to run a kitchen line smoothly.

        1 Reply
        1. re: fourunder

          Fourunder.....Exactly!!! It is a loose throwing around of a title with nothing behind it!!!!!!

        2. I would say that a cook just follows a recipe, whereas a chef is able to adapt and create recipes.

          It may be wrong, but that's the way I see it.

          29 Replies
          1. re: Soop

            Some of the best and most well respected *chefs* have never received any formal training....other than observing others in preparation or cooking.....and they can also create great recipes and cook as well. Either you have it in you....or you don't.

            1. re: fourunder

              I guess a formal training can hamper creativity. But I agree. A chef is maore like an artist, a cook more like a craftsman?

              1. re: Soop

                But i know lots of home cooks who regularly adapt and create recipes, myself included. Doesn't make me a chef.

                1. re: flourgirl

                  I would say it did. Really.
                  I'm not talking so much "maybe I'll put parsnips in this stew for a change", but if you make a recipe from scratch and actually experiment, that's a chef to me.

                  I tried some cheffing once, but I'm just terrified of making terrible food.
                  It was baked cod wrapped in really thinly sliced potato. The fish cooked way faster than the potato :(

                  Oh and it was with a cream and shallot sauce which was ok.

                  1. re: Soop

                    so. . . do you go to the gun range for target practice, and then get to call yourself an army general?

                    bandage your kid's scraped knee and call yourself an m.d.?

                    build your own doghouse and call yourself a structural engineer?

                    sure, you'd expect an army general to excel at target practice, an m.d. to be able to competently bandage a kid's scraped knee, and a structural engineer to be able to build a great doghouse-- but you're ignoring all the other parts of the job and reducing it to just one component/qualification. very insulting. if everybody who can dabble around in a home kitchen and execute one new (to her/him) recipe is a chef, then everyone who can throw, catch, hit, or dribble a ball is qualified to coach.

                    1. re: soupkitten

                      Oh, I'm not a Doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express, last night!! Ba,ha, ha,ha. I don't care what you say, that there's funny!

                      1. re: soupkitten

                        It clearly wasn't intended as an insult, so don't make out as if it was.

                        Secondly, I'll disregard your silly comparisons, as all a chef needs to know is how is how to create food. It is unneccessary for them to know about the restaurant business, although many do. Anything else I can think of that a chef might be capable of is a secondary requirement.
                        If you can think of anything else a CHEF needs to be able to do, which there is no way around, then I'm willing to listen, but I have to say I'm not happy about someone seeing my post as an "insult".

                        1. re: Soop

                          As I said, I feel the difference is 1. professional training and 2. a diploma of sorts attesting to 1.
                          Does this mean all chefs are superior to all cooks. No, many cooks are more capable than many chefs.
                          The analogies of target practice/general, bandaging/MD, doghouse/engineer are all very good, but do not tell the whole story.
                          Take engineer for example - in Canada, you must posess a diploma from a recognized institution then become a member of the Order of Engineers in order to practice the profession and call yourself an engineer. Does this mean all engineers are more capable than all technicians. No, but there is criteria associated with the title. This can be said of almost any profession to some degree.
                          As the cliche goes "I don't need a piece of paper on the wall to know the job". No, but you do need the paper if you want the title to go along with it.

                          1. re: Soop

                            "all a chef needs to know is how to create food"
                            Soop, You are absolutely correct! IF and ONLY IF that Chef is the only person in that restaurants kitchen and is not the owner. Otherwise the Chef by definition " Chef- in a professional kitchen setting, the term is used only for the one person incharge of everyone else in the kitchen." Wikipedia. Without question if there is more than one person in the Pro kitchen the Chef is a supervisor, menu designer, recipe developer, expediter, exclusive liason to owner, manager and service staff. Chef manages purchasing, product quality, sanitation standard, kitchen staff instructor, human resource director-kitchen, cost manager, team coach, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and if the floor is wet, "walk on water"! These things are not "secondary requirement" they are the ONLY requirements. If being able to cook was the only requirement to be a Chef then everyones Mom, Grandmother, Father, Aunt, Uncle, etc., could open a " 3 Michelin Star,"restaurant! If every home cook is considered a Chef, then many, many, Men, Women and in the most traditional sense Children, mine included, have waisted their Blood, Sweat, Tears and Lives, over the last 500 years or so, working, studying, and often being verbally, emotionally, and in some cases physically abused, all in a huge effort to obtain the honor of placing the term "Chef", infront of their name . I respect the opinion and input you have given across many threads here, but in this situation I hope you will reconsider your choice of words. JJ

                            1. re: Chef Jimmy J

                              Hi JJ
                              As I say, I'm perfectly willing to bow down to superior wisdom, and I'd agree that in many (if not 99% of) instances, a head chef is expected to perform all of those duties you mention. And please don't think I'm implying that all chefs are required to do is cook food. But in 100% of instances, a chef must know how to create food is my underlying point.

                              Apologies if my choice of words intoned a lack of respect, it's meant in kind of a logical sense.

                              In my mind (at the moment) if someone can do all of the things you mentioned, but was only able to cook by rote, then that to my mind is a head cook, rather than a head chef.

                              I could be wrong, but that's my way of thinking.

                              1. re: Soop

                                Soop, Fine hairs are difficult to split, I think at this point we are so close to agreement that I feel we educated the folks that were unclear and I offer my hand with a hardy, "Thanks for the stimulating conversation and in the event that I cross the Pond the PINTS ARE ON YOU!" :) JJ

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    What? All are welcome to play! The Pint's profound the World Around! LOL

                                1. re: Chef Jimmy J

                                  you forgot several qualifications, but yeah-- creating food is 10% or less of the job. holding a team to the same standard, teaching employees (continuing development of staff skill ability and general training), keeping the establishment current with licensing and sanitary codes/inspection, scheduling, representing the restaurant in the community and the media, outreach, haacp, employee safety, ordering, kitchen economy, relationship with purveyors, sourcing, research/development, hiring/firing, promotions (employee), promotions (restaurant), customer service, seasonal events, catering, charity fundraisers, special dietary menus, writing menus, pricing, inventory. fucking organizing the paper goods shelf area again. generally knowing about everything there is to know, or at least about the culinary corner the restaurant occupies. that's all before lunch service, folks.

                                  see, i wouldn't say about a bank manager, or a ceo of a major corporation: "all s/he needs to do is email"--that completely misses the point of the person's abilities, even if 10% of the job *does* involve emails. this type of statement would be **insulting** to say that about the ceo or bank manager, because the email is not the whole story. the plate of food is not the whole story. there is an entire enormous human team machine in place that produces the plate, and if everybody does their jobs correctly, it all appears effortless and choreographed and nobody realizes that there's anything to the job other than a few folks messing around in a kitchen together, and wow-- oh here comes another perfect plate, just like last time.

                                  i suppose successful professional athletes & musicians must be just a bunch of lucky bastards, and none of them had to work their tail off to be better than their competitors to get where they are-- because they make it look easy, too ;-P

                                2. re: Soop

                                  Part of the widely accepted definition of "chef" includes running a professional kitchen. You can make up your own definitions, but I think you'll find that's a part of the widely accepted definition.

                                3. re: soupkitten

                                  "if everybody who can dabble around in a home kitchen and execute one new (to her/him) recipe is a chef"

                                  Well, sweetie, I may not be a chef, but I don't call cooking for my family for 18 years "dabbling" in the kitchen either. Whether you realize it or not, on occasion you come across as unbearably insufferable.

                                  1. re: flourgirl

                                    flour Are you a Good cook? Good cooks are a pleasure to know.

                                    1. re: flourgirl

                                      Flourgirl my apologies, i intended no offense. i have nothing but respect for great home cooks who are serious about food and feeding their families. home cooking is enormously important, and i would be the first to say it's more important than restaurant cooking. i do think home cooking and restaurant cooking benefit each other constantly, which is great by me.

                                      my point is that it is *completely* different to cook meals for 100 people than it is to cook meals for 4. it is not merely a matter of chopping up a few more onions and using a bigger pot.

                                      the problem illustrated in this part of the discussion is a serious one, & it's been on the rise with the popularity of food shows. namely: everyone who can bake a batch of cookies at home (or has put together a nice meal for 2 in an hour, or what have you), and has watched a food network show or two, believes that *they* are (or are nearly) qualified to cook professionally, or "be a chef." whatever that means to them. when that isn't even remotely what the job is about. a great many folks, some of them my own family members whom i consider to be great home cooks, have come to work with me for an hour or a day. the fact is they just can't hack it, they don't have the skill set. that's all, and sorry if you find the idea that home kitchens and restaurant kitchens are very different indeed, to be an offensive one-- but the skills that make a good home cook good don't translate to pro kitchens any more than a person's 20 year good driving record translates to a career on the indy 500 track. yes, they are both drivers, yes they are both good, but they are doing completely different things. you can choose to understand my point, or you can choose to think i'm an a-hole. it's important to me to make the point, for everyone who has worked their tails off in this difficult business. people just want to be treated with professional respect, as i do, and it's more important to me that people see me as a professional first, and then as a nice person, or an a-hole, or insert your own descriptive. that's pretty much all i wanted to say. have fun w the rest of the discussion.

                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        Thanks soupkitten, for explaining exactly what it's like to work in a professional kitchen. It's hard for people that haven't had that experience to get it, but if they take to heart half of what you've said here, it's a good start.

                                        1. re: coll

                                          I think that's more or less a given. I count among my friends 3 head chefs, and about 10 others that work in a kitchen. While we love to talk about food, it's quite clear that cooking for as many people as they do is completely different to anything I do.

                                          In fact, in one of the more ignorant things my mother has said when I mentioned my love for cooking was "oh, why don't you become a chef". Right. I like looking at the sky too, lets get a pilots license.

                                          I think what I've (hopefully) made clear by now is not that I think a chef's job is easy, or that all they do is cook food. However, food is the lynchpin. Without that, even with everything else, you can't be a chef, right?

                                          1. re: Soop

                                            Plus chefs and cooks just don't get to look at the sky much either...

                                        2. re: soupkitten

                                          Well said, soupkitten. As many hours of sweat that I put into family meal planning, budgeting, cooking and baking (not to mention processing food for preservation, such as freezing and canning -- which can also be time consuming and take care and skill), being a great home cook is not the same as running a professional kitchen. In fact, when a friend tells me "You should open a restaurant!" (meant as a compliment), I demur, and if they insist, I say to them that my home cooking is hardly the same as food planning, preparation, staff management, etc for 100 or X number of people, day in and day out.

                                          Many years ago, I worked in professional kitchens as a cook. Doing it day after day without mistake (or well-hidden ones -- heh), it NOT the same as planning dinner for four at home, even if that responsibility is also daily. The emotions are different, the audience/customer base is different, working conditions are different, responsibilities are different, the training (formal OR informal) is different, the rules are different at home vs work -- no matter how much you love your work. My home kitchen is my own dominion and work space; a professional kitchen's workspace is managed by the chef and/or the sous chef. There's an ocean of difference between the two places and environments. Doesn't make my home cooking less important, just different. And because it's different, I do not get to call myself a chef.

                                          Home cooking takes dedication and skill and I will totally say I'm capable of being a very good home cook, but I am hardly a chef.

                                          1. re: team_cake

                                            Hear, Hear!!

                                            I am a damn good home cook. My mother owned a restaurant. I worked there in my teen years so I have a good sense of the work it takes to run a professional kitchen. I love to eat well so early in life, I had to learn to cook well in order to eat well as I couldn't afford to go out much. As I did better in my career, I could eat pretty much anywhere I want. But we still love to entertain and I enjoy cooking for company. Many of my dinner guests have told me that I should open a restaurant. My answer to them has always been no effen way. Running a restaurant is nothing like home cooking. Even if you're the best home cook, turning out dinner for 4-6 or even 10 every day is nothing compared to making separate dinners for 100+ paying customers every night. I admire the chefs and the work they do. Have plenty of them for friends and I tell them I can't do what they do for a living. Its too hard. They say the same thing about my job. To each his own.

                                      2. re: Soop

                                        I hear ya about being scared of making bad food. At least in my case, it's more about not wanting to waste expensive ingredients.

                                        But I have been cooking for many years, and even though I have hundreds of cookbooks I almost never follow a recipe anymore unless I am trying an unfamiliar cuisine.. I'm always changing and adapting things to suit my family's taste etc. And I long ago reached the point where I am confidant enough in my abilities and experience to pull ingredients together that I think will work well and combine them with the appropriate cooking technique. I still don't know that that makes me a chef. Cooking at home and cooking in a restaurant kitchen are two very different things. I think being a chef involves extensive knowledge of the restaurant business and how a commercial kitchen works as much as it involves creative cooking abiliities.

                                        That said, I take a lot of pride in being an accomplsihed home cook. Not that I don't still have lots to learn - there is always something new to learn about. One of the reasons I find food, cooking and baking so fascinating.

                                        1. re: flourgirl

                                          If a cook is a professional as opposed to a home-cook, then maybe there's such a thing as a home-chef?

                                          Taking some of the mor salient points of soup kittens post, there are many things that people wouldn't consider calling themselves unless they did so in a professional capacity. For example, if you work with wood as a hobby, no matter how skilled, you might not consider yourself a "carpenter" but as someone who is capable of carpentry.

                                          But I'd say in terms of culinary skill and knowledge, there must be some overlap between professional and amateur.

                                          1. re: Soop

                                            In carpentry, there is a designation of Master Carpenter, Finishing carpenter, or Cabinetmaker all much higher status than "Faming Carpenter"or general carpenter.

                              2. I think it's like many jobs - nomenclature changes over time. Clerks become administrators; rat catchers become rodent control operatives; cooks become chefs.

                                Certainly in the latter case, it's the word I'd now expect to see in an advert for a cooking job in a professional kitchen - head chef, sous chef, chef de partie, commis chef and so on.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Harters

                                  A true "Chef" is, in addition to being an accomplished cook, an administrator, a personnel manager and knowledgable of pand L statemants and operating budgets.