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Chef Status?

I'm sure someone's asked this before, but here goes. I was talking to a general manager of a state park here in the Rockies that has a nice restaurant. He referred to one of his employees as an "Executive Chef." But then he said he was also working on green card issues and I got the feeling he had no formal training.

So I asked this manager. "What makes an executive chef what he is?" and I got a wishy washy answer saying one just has to cook well.

I found this somewhat vague and possibly untrue. I asked if one doesn't have to go to school and attain degrees? He said no.

I'm confused. Then why not bandy about the term "chef" loosely to anyone? So what constitutes, "Chef," "Executive Chef" etc. I know from working in academe, there are differences between "Associate Professor," "Assistant Professor" "Adjunct Professor" and "Doctor."

What gives?

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    1. "Executive Chef." But then he said he was also working on green card issues and I got the feeling he had no formal training.

      What does legal status in the U.S. have to do with being a chef -- of any kind, executive or otherwise?

      The owner could've hired a chef from, for example, France through an H1-B visa and his executive chef is perfectly qualified but simply does not have legal permanent status in the U.S.

      I still don't understand why or how you correlate legal status with culinary skill or training.

      1. Executive chef is just the senior-most position in the kitchen - the guy in charge. It doesn't indicate training or schooling. Or even cooking skill, necessarily. Certainly not green card status.

        I have a friend who has no formal training and has only been in the industry for a year (though he also worked a stint as a dishwasher and low level prep monkey almost a decade ago), and is already chef of a fairly successful gastropub. An odd and unlikely combination of factors played into this - surprising aptitude and competence, thorough independent study, good timing, and the fact that all the senior staff left or ran into problems leaving no one else to take charge

        1. They are job titles that describe a restaurant's heirarchy, basically. Although private culinary schools would have one believing that a specialized degree is necessary to advancement, that's absolutely untrue (and very expensive!) It looks good on the resume, but when all is said and done, advancement in the field is promoted more by skills and creativity than a degree.

          1. "Chef" is a position, not a description. In fact, most of these people would probably describe themselves as cooks. Someone's got to be in charge, however, and whoever that is for that shift is the chef.

            1. Hmmm. I guess I'll have to some more research.

              When I worked at a bistro, the "kitchen manager/cook" was just that. Not chef, just because he came up with the specials and ran all the main dishes, although he was a great cook, fantastic. He didn't want to be called chef either.

              I just figured there were industry-standards, much like in other disciplines, library sciences, academe and the military. There must be. I'll just have to do some research and find out.

              3 Replies
              1. re: natewrites

                Thanks, Goodhealthgourmet! That was a great link. I think Alan Barnes and Fritter expressed it the best, and I read almost every comment on that link except for the ones that just repeated what someone else had said.

                I can see why it's a topic that sparks tempers.

                It's sort of like when I worked in library science and academe. You could have one professor with a doctorate, but he doesn't do any writing anymore and really isn't very creative. But then you could have an adjunct professor, who's one of the best short story writers you've ever read, but he doesn't have that "doctorate" piece of paper. Or like when I worked in library science, you could have a cataloging librarian with his MLS, but really not know that much about science fiction, yet have a volunteer for the library sort of an expert in all authors of science fiction.

                I can see how tempers would flare. You can have creativity with or without a degree. One doesn't necessarily guarantee the other; however, just like the military, you can't just toss on a hat and declare yourself a general.

                1. re: natewrites

                  of course there are "industry standards"-- and they have absolutely nothing to do with diplomas. according to what you seem to believe, thomas keller and ferran adria are not chefs.

                  you're actually getting quite a bit warmer than your op now. . . with your drawing a parallel between the culinary profession and the military (though professional cooking has little to do with professorships, phds, or library science-- and i'm not sure why you would think so). you may want to start your introductory research into culinary industry standards by looking up "escoffier" and "brigade system." the chef (chief, head, leader) is analogous to the highest ranked military officer. the chef is the person giving the orders, no matter whether s/he graduated from the culinary equivalent of west point with honors, or received several "battlefield promotions" to rise from the lowly ranks of dishwasher, commis, or prep cook. also btw, nationality/green card status also has nothing to do with a person's ability to manage and lead a kitchen's staff-- indeed, the nature of the culinary industry many times involves nationals traveling abroad to present their home country's food to the people of other countries, and this is why there are some outstanding french restaurants which are not in france, chinese restaurants not in china, etc.

                  btw i agree w your former kitchen manager. if a place has a very small staff, or the food at the establishment is not particularly noteworthy, to call oneself a "chef" rather than a kitchen manager is indeed quite silly. someone needs to tell the "chef" of legends bar and grill, locally to me, that he provides lots of industry folks with a good giggle when he calls for a cab.

                  1. re: natewrites

                    "When I worked at a bistro, the "kitchen manager/cook" was just that. Not chef, just because he came up with the specials and ran all the main dishes, although he was a great cook, fantastic. He didn't want to be called chef either."
                    It seems a lot of cooks personally reject the word chef (sometimes as a reaction to the dilution of the word), and as such some kitchens have no 'chef' - just a head cook, boss, kitchen manager, etc. This makes the term more confusing for outsiders. But it was just the culture in your particular bistro, really. At other places, the kitchen manager/cook would have been called 'chef.'

                  2. "Executive chef" is simply a job title given by that employer. They might have called it "head chef" or "chef de cuisine". In itself, it's meaningless, by way of defining the role of the individual, outside the organisation .

                    It's more usually used by multi-site organisations, where each site has a "head chef" but the organisation as a whole has a senior catering manager, to whom all the head chefs report (on catering, not necessarily business, matters) who will be designated "executive chef".