It has become a tired refrain, mostly due to the influence of food television, for professional chefs to remind us that not all cooks should be called chefs. A chef, they say, is the person in charge of the kitchen, and this implies that he or she has more mastery of cooking, as well as the intricacies of running a kitchen in general.
If you decide you want to go to chef school and try to research chef courses on Google, you will see only results for culinary school. Most people, of course, don’t go to culinary school to learn how to cook, they go to become a chef. Then, once they have spent a great deal of money, and endured the pressure of culinary school, they are told they are not chefs, but simply another cook. Why go? Why go to “chef school” if you aren’t a chef once you’re finished?
It’s a fair question, despite what many chefs may tell you. After all, if you go to law school, and then pass the board, you are a lawyer. Once you’re done with medical school, you are a doctor. If you want to become an engineer, and graduate from say, a mechanical engineering program, nobody will tell you you’re just a glorified mechanic, and not yet an engineer. So, why should a culinary school be different?
The difference relies on semantics. I am quick to say that semantic arguments are a fairly important type of argument, despite the way the term is often used, and the semantics here may reveal something about the word chef.
It is quite possible, though unusual, for a “cook” in a restaurant to actually be a better cook than the head chef. Just as it is possible for a beat cop to be a better cop than the chief. Yet, the word chef, in French, simply means chief, a fact that has been repeated so many times it has become a cliché. “Chef does not mean cook, it means chief!” The message is that you aren’t a chef until you run a kitchen or something to that effect. In fact, there is no clear description of what is entailed in earning the title of chef. It depends on who you ask.
Having a modicum of what you might call a “scientific bent,” I have a tough time with terms that are plastic. In other words, I don’t like it when people define a term in a way that suits only themselves.
What high and mighty chefs who tirade on social media will not mention is that, indeed, there has classically been more than one chief in the kitchen, at least since Escoffier’s reorganization of the professional kitchen. What we call the executive chef may equal the Chef de Cuisine in the classic kitchen brigade. If you research the etymology of the English word chef, you will most often find the explanation that it was borrowed from the French term Chef de Cuisine. I am not disputing that this is the true and only origin of the English term although I’ve seen no evidence offered to support this derivation.
In the classical professional French kitchen, there is not just one chief. While the chef de cuisine is the top dog, there is the sous chef. The second in command. The first officer, if you will. After the sous chef are the chefs de partie. These are heads or chiefs of various stations. Under them is the demi-chef, assistant to the station chef. A large enough kitchen could indeed have many chefs, not just one chef, the head-honcho.
While the word chef did indeed once only mean chief, in terms of the kitchen, it may not have always referred to one who cooked, but only one who tested and tasted. And, it has long since served as a replacement for “professional cook.” The term evolved even in early French, let alone in modern times.
Indeed, it is the setting that the cook is employed, as much as anything else, that influences the terms used, as those who cook in various foodservice environments, such as school cafeterias, are still called cooks. The Oxford Companion to Food contains a more thorough history of the word chef, along with encyclopedic entries on almost any other food-related item possible.
So, while I do not dispute the etymology of the word chef when people use it to defend their stance that only those who are in charge of kitchens are chefs, they are calling on the history of the term chef. And they have the history wrong. The idea that there is only one true chef in the kitchen is not a French idea, so using classical French ideas to defend the assertion falls flat. The classical brigade system was not so precious about the term chef. It meant anybody who was in charge of any aspect, from top to bottom.
We don’t really use the classic kitchen brigade anymore. We have fewer cooks and fewer stations. We don’t have as many chiefs in a kitchen. However, whether or not a particular cook in a particular position is called a chef is not as entrenched as some would have you believe. It simply depends on the command organization of the kitchen, and the size of it. There actually is no rule which says, “only executive chefs” (and perhaps sous chefs) are chefs.
The folks who say this, or practically yell it, may be the loudest voices, but theirs are not the only opinions out there. And you can be assured that it is opinion. Positions in the kitchen can be combined in such a way that what once was two positions, a chef and a cook, is now “just a cook.” This hardly means much when the cook has a high level of skill, experience, and education.
I myself have restaurant experience, but I am not a chef. That is, I do not have the level of skill and expertise of a chef. I was a very good short-order cook and an above-average cook in general, but this requires a limited range of skill and knowledge compared to a chef.
A Better Way to Define Chef
One way to look at the basic difference between a chef and a cook then is not based on who is in charge and who “just cooks.” Rather, a cook could be better defined as a person trained to cook a dish, or part of a dish, that a chef creates and then teaches them to cook. Being able to prepare a dish, by rote, even with a high degree of precision, does not make you a chef. If this were the case, many home cooks would be chefs. Not that I am saying that a restaurant cook isn’t more skilled than a home cook or that home a cook has nothing to offer.
Being considered a chef only on the basis of authority, in these modern times, makes little sense. A home cook can open a restaurant and put themself in charge of a kitchen. They are not a chef.
It goes without saying that this issue is more important to those who go to culinary school. Well, it comes down to this: You don’t need to go to culinary school to become a restaurant cook. If you do not need any formal education to become a cook, but formal education only qualifies you to be a “cook” because some big-shot is precious about the title “chef” then every culinary school in existence would be selling a fantasy, if not an outright lie. Obviously, this is not the case, yet there seems to be a great deal of bitterness in the field, much of it centering on who deserves the mantle of chef.
I recently read a passage from a book by a popular Food Network chef, who, in recounting their experience at the Culinary Institute of America, mentioned that upon graduation, the school was quick to remind them that they had only begun learning and were not yet a chef. It is hard to imagine paying top-dollar for a professional education only to have your college or university tell you that you were not actually what you set out to be, but had simply paid for a fancy piece of paper. There is no career that does not require experience, even after a secondary education, but few career fields actually produce graduates who are told they don’t have a clue what they are doing! I highly doubt, however, that the statement attributed to the Culinary Institute was actually a statement advanced by the school’s administration, but most likely was a statement made by some hard-boiled instructor.
I mentioned food television as being one cause of this bitterness. We cannot blame television solely, but it is ironic that some of the most famous chefs in history never worked in a restaurant. The people who hold forth on what a chef is or is not are basically saying that this old-boys club decides who is a chef. Yet, not many of them would say Julia Child was not a chef unless it is in a whisper. Why? Because it is not culturally acceptable to say. There are other such examples.
Alton Brown went to culinary school for the express purpose of developing a cooking show. He went on to make one of the most successful and longest-running shows on the Food Network, Good Eats. Through the years, he demonstrated his skill as a chef quite successfully. He was never a chef in a restaurant.
Do you think any chef would actually challenge Brown on his credentials as a chef in person? Probably not. Why? Having tried some of his recipes, I have found the results to be inconsistent, at best. I seriously question his “taste” in food. I, as an eater of food, may question, then, his chef status. Yet, it has rarely been suggested he is not a chef. This is not to say that I do not have great respect for his knowledge of food and cooking, and I do not suggest that he isn’t a good cook. However, is he a great cook? Who is to say? You’d have to eat his food. Unfortunately, you might have a hard time doing that, as he, again, is not a chef in a restaurant.
So, in other words, this business of who is a chef and who isn’t is based on social mores and dividing lines as much as it is any strict criteria for chefdom. You will notice if you read more than a few of the pages here at CulinaryLore, that I devote next to no space to big-name chefs, their disputes, and any other goings-on in the chef-o-sphere. When I do, it is to satisfy curiosity or simply to state my opinion. This is because I do not really care more about what chefs have to say about food than I do about what anyone has to say. Food is more than what chefs produce. It is even more than what we eat. Much more.
Who Am I To Question Chefs?
Yet, I myself have had to deal with this same type of attitude. Who are you to talk about food or write about it? Or, who are you to question?
The idea is that only certain people, who are named chefs, are allowed to talk about food, and only certain people who cook can be named chefs. This is a perplexing notion to someone who has really studied food and not just practiced cooking food. Food is history, food is culture, and food is language. I am qualified to talk about food simply because I spend a great deal of my waking hours ruminating on all these things. Besides, who is qualified to talk about food if not someone who eats food? In other words, all of us.
If I spent all that time learning to be a skilled cook, well, who knows, by this time, I might be a chef. If you yourself put as much effort into becoming a great cook as some chefs do into deciding who is a chef, you yourself might deserve the title. Again, the word chef no longer means chief. It refers to a highly skilled professional cook.
Opinions are Rarely Formed, They are Borrowed
When it comes to opinions about cooking, chefs, and pretty much everything else, you should know a dirty little secret: Most people don’t have opinions, they simply repeat opinions. For example, a likely source for opinions about becoming a chef is Anthony Bourdain. Thanks to his writing skills and his celebrity status, his opinions on this, especially from the oft-published “So You Wanna Be a Chef” have become de-rigor. Yet, few seem to recognize it as opinion, based on one person’s experiences and attitudes.
It is not that these opinions have no basis in fact. Culinary school graduates, as I have pointed out many times, will often have a lot of debt, even more than other students, but will be lucky if they make just $12 an hour, and likely, they will start out making $8 or $9.
But then, we have many references to ‘working at Applebees’ being basically a food technician job requiring two hours of training. Where does this come from? Not from people who have worked at Applebees, but from the article mentioned above.
People make much of the “harsh realities” of restaurant or foodservice life. Long hours, low pay, lack of scalability, etc. The sacrifices. The passion it takes. It is almost absurd once you consider that this differs from many other careers, not one bit. If a person wrote with “style” about hospital life, we’d be getting the same opinions on “should you become a nurse” or “should you become a doctor.” Along with those opinions would come ruminations on drug and alcohol abuse, as well. But there is one crucial difference. Once you are finished with your educational requirements and internships, etc. nobody will tell you that you are not a nurse or not a doctor.
Do doctors and nurses have to deal with young know-it-alls straight out of school? Of course. Do they react to this by suggesting that a doctor is not a doctor or a nurse is not a nurse until some arbitrary and ill-defined level of experience is reached? No.
You can embark on any education, and enter any career, and then find that it is not right for you. This does not make cooking unique. Yet, even those who point out that these truths apply to many other fields fail to see the irony. While many people may have similar experiences, each person’s career is unique, and anyone person can disprove the stereotype. As for the definition of chef, there may never be a satisfactory operational definition. And, it probably doesn’t matter as much as your personal career goals and sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.