The difference between a chef and a cook
I was watching an interview the other day of Jacques Pepin. He was asked what’s the difference between a chef and a cook? He had a very simple explanation. Pepin said a cook is someone who does the cooking. A chef is a manager. He oversees the cooks. After all, chef just means the chief – the boss. So next time someone says to me as a compliment – You’re such a great chef! – I’ll just respond, nah I’m a good cook and only a decent boss.
Though chefs do oversee the cooks, they also cook too...especially if you are chef de cuisine and sous chefs. I guess if you are executive chef, you are not so involved in cooking itself.
The word has the same roots, I think, as English 'chief', and the use in cooking comes from the highly formalized French restaurant kitchen hierarchy. In that old-school system you started at the bottom as an apprentice and worked your way up through the ranks. At the bottom you are chopping onions, at the top you are hiring people, cussing out the staff, and sucking up to the VIP customers.
Modern American usage is much looser, some applying it only to graduates of culinary (cooking) schools, others to anyone who cooks in the public eye. In many contexts the distinction between cook and chef is not very useful.
It will depend where in the world you are.
Where I am, almost everyone cooking in a professional kitchen is likely to have the word "chef" somewhere in their job title - commis chef, chef de partie, sous chef, chef. Of course, there are other variants in large kitchen brigades where jobs may be very specialised.
Well, I like Jacques' answer and it's succinct, too. One can be a chef without credentials, and never touch food anymore. But one cannot be a cook who doesn't cook!! Basically it's semantics plus job description, if we're insisting on formalities here. But a chef definitely runs the kitchen line, though (s)he may cook on it too, whereas a cook cooks on it and doesn't become a chef.
I'm not sure this made any sense at all, though. :)