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Chef vs. Cook

By Brian Geiger, contributor

September 9th, 2011

Friend of The Food Geek, Joe, asks via Twitter:

Joe Meade
 I've been wondering: What's the difference between a cook and a chef?

Hi, Joe,

I'm not sure if there's a firm dividing line between a cook and a chef, per se. In general, there are two things that make a chef: creativity and career.

A chef is someone who is, or at one point was, paid to make food. If you've never cooked food as a career, it's going to be difficult to convince people who really care about the difference to call you a chef. I'm sure there are a couple of paths that you could go without pay and still be called a chef, but those paths are probably only unpaid because you are independently wealthy or otherwise not in need of money and have eschewed all types of paycheck.

Still, that's not quite enough. If all you do you flip burgers at your national chain fast food restaurant, chances are that you aren't going to be called "Chef" if you were speaking at a food convention or similar. At that point, you're more of a line cook. A chef has to be responsible for the soul of the food. A chef should have a deep understanding of how to cook many types of food, what flavors go together, how to handle kitchen equipment (knife skills come in handy here), and so on. A chef should not require the directions part of a recipe, and usually shouldn't require the amounts in a recipe, either.

Deviation from one or the other of those two traits will get you bumped from "chef" to "cook". No matter how much money you make from cooking, if all you're doing is setting a timer and raising a basket of fries into and out of the oil when things go "beep", you aren't a chef. And no matter how well I understand the intricacies of gluten creation or heat transfer, and no matter how many meals I make at home, because I don't make food for other people for pay, I am not a chef.

The distinction of Chef vs. Cook probably got its real start back in the Middle Ages, when guilds of chefs were formed in France, each with different focuses. Eventually, these roles evolved into a proper way to set up a commercial kitchen in France, and many professional kitchens employ at least some of these roles today. You have the Executive Chef, who does menu planning, purchasing, quality control, and a lot of the business work. Saucier makes the sauces, Pastry Chef makes the breads and desserts, and so on. Here is a good description of various chef's roles are they are in use today, but all of these derived from the various guilds from France in the Middle Ages.

Now, all this being said, there are definitely those who like to think that chefs are better people than cooks. Most of those people are chefs. It's not even true that chefs are necessarily better at cooking than cooks. Very often it is, but it would not be hard to find any number of chefs who are not as good at cooking, in general, as any number of amateurs, and if you limited the food to only the specialties of the individuals doing the cooking, there are going to be many more cooks who cook better than chefs.

Being a chef will generally mean that you have a lot more flexibility in what you can make well. It will also probably mean that you can stand for 8 to 16 hours at a time without more than a couple of short breaks. And, most importantly, it means that what you do make, you can make over and over again and have it taste pretty much the same as when you made it 2000 dishes ago. Consistency is vital for a chef, but not necessarily for a cook.

 

posted in: Blogs, food geek, chef, cook, professional
Comments (5)

ghuddles1 writes: When an executive chef is not the facility owner, they answer not only to the customer for the results coming out of the kitchen but have a fiscal responsibility to the owners. The owners have the final say on menu items, presentation, taste, purchasing, etc. The executive chef is responsible for all operations of the kitchen, including hiring, firing, training, supervision, health inspections, safety, cleanliness, inventory, reports and much more.
When the executive chef is also the owner of the facility, they answer only to the customer whose decisions to return will make or break the facility. In this case as owner, the executive chef oversees all of the operation including the running of the "front end", menu development and supervision of the kitchen. The executive chef in this case also must be the master of cooking.
Typically, a cook may have many talents in the kitchen, but does not and possibly cannot perform functions outside of food preparation. Hats off to the complete cook who is ready to take on responsibilities beyond cooking. Hats off to those people in the kitchen who slave over hot fryers, stoves, ovens and grills 8 to 14 hours a day to produce the food we like to eat. Hats off to the prep people who dice, slice, grate, peel, mash, whisk, press, roll, squish, and clean up after everyone else not to mention taking out the trash. All hail to the dishwasher, elbows deep in hot soapy water.
From the one man operation of Alls' diner who is chief cook and bottle washer to the five star hotels and restaurant, it is all a matter of title. What is really important whether a chef or a cook, is customer satisfaction and return business. Posted: 3:51 pm on April 16th

artybee writes: My friends call me a chef, but I correct them and say that I'm a good cook. Chef (which shares its root with "Chief") implies a thorough training, responsibility for a commercial or very large home kitchen operation, maybe a stint at a culinary school.
I've done my time in restaurant kitchens, and could probably perform the duties of a chef, but I'd rather leave that to a real chef.
It's like the difference between (higher end) restaurant cooking and home cooking. I don't cook fancy foods at home. Creating fine restaurant level food demands a restaurant kitchen, lots of equipment, and a crew of supporting staff.
When those beautifully arranged courses come out of the kitchen with clean plate rims, and at the correct time and
temperature, that's the work of 3-4 cooks, or chefs, standing around a table and assembling the plate. That's chef work, and not many of us can do this at home, and for me, I'd rather go out and let someone else do it.
I'll cook good, delicious (usually) food at home, but I keep it much more simple.
Also, any chef worth his toque will buy sides of beef or lamb and butcher it him (or her) self, and will use all the parts correctly and creatively, and then make the bones into demi-glace or stock. No one I know does this at home, unless they have a high tolerance for eating previously frozen mushy meat. Posted: 12:58 am on December 26th

nuccia writes: Rebecca, I've been using fortified wines such as marsala, vermouth and sherry for many years, the main reason being that they will keep for months after and there is no waste. I use some type of wine 3-5 times per week for cooking, mainly to deglaze and make a yummy pan sauce--which is what you'll be doing. I hate using expensive wines to cook with, so if I don't have our "house wine" around, I reach for the fortified.

You can buy a full bottle of most fortified wines for under $10 at most liquor stores, and a half bottle for half that most times. This is the real deal and tastes delicious. (Of course you could pay a lot more but you don't have to for cooking.) Cooking wine costs at least $3-5 for a tiny bottle in a grocery store and tastes very artificial.

It's win-win!

BTW, I am Sicilian born, and have even visited the factory in Marsala. Many people love to drink it like sherry as an aperatif, but I can take it or leave it. I like it better in my food. Posted: 2:07 pm on November 5th

Scarlett007 writes: I HAVE A ??? *!* REGARDING THE USE OF MARSALA WINE DURING COOKING, IE: SPECIFICALLY, THE MARSALA SAUCE OVER THIS YEARS TURKEY RECIPES,THE ONE USED IN THE STUFFED TURKEY BREASTS??? OK, HERE IS MY QUESTION: IS THE MARSALA "COOKING WINE" OR MUST I PURCHASE A BOTTLE OF THE ACTUAL WINE ITSELF? I KNOW, I KNOW, IT SEEMS TO BE A SELF ANSWERING ?, YES MUST GO TO STORE AND PURCHASE THE MARSALA WINE. MY PROBLEM IS TWOFOLD ONE I LOVE THE FLAVOR OF MARSALA IN COOKING, BUT I DON'T THINK I'D CARE THAT MUCH FOR THE DRINKING IT OUTRIGHT*!*??*!* DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY EXPERIENCE IN THIS FIELD, OR SOMETHING QUITE SIMILAR? ANY INPUT WOULD BE MUCH APPRECIATED?? MANY THANKS, INDEED, SINCERELY YOURS, REBECCA* Posted: 9:28 am on November 1st

joemeade writes: Wonderful.

" A chef has to be responsible for the soul of the food. "

This resonates with my lay understanding of the terms. Chefs can't blame a bad recipe for a poor outcome. There seems to be an aura of mastery and accountability that comes with the title.

"Now, all this being said, there are definitely those who like to think that chefs are better people than cooks. Most of those people are chefs."

Hilarious.

I myself like nothing better than to follow a recipe and wait for a beep to pull something fantastic out of the oven. How it all works is like magic to me.

I appreciate the historical context as well.

Great post! Posted: 8:55 am on September 9th

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