Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

Who is a Chef? Who is a Cook?


There’s a lot of confusion out there about just what constitutes a “chef” versus a “cook.” Oh yes, and it’s a question that many writers have tried to answer. Nothing new there. I’m a big believer in defining terms, realizing of course that terminology and words change meanings over the years.

But, that said, and in the wake of recent comments made by a current food star and self-described chef, who states that a certain well-respected chef was actually not a chef, I decided to dig a little deeper into the murky pool of definitions and dogma and see what burbled up.

The most basic explanation of the term “chef” is this: chef de cuisine, which basically translates to “leader,” “boss,” and/or “chief.” Obviously, the phrase comes from the French and signifies a person who is in charge of every aspect of the kitchen, from ordering food to creating menus to supervising the staff, usually in a restaurant, although some would toss caterers into the mix. However, the key, I believe, lies in the word “restaurant.” A chef works in a restaurant, with day-to-day pressure.

Another aspect of chefdom lies in the training, including intense instruction in sanitation, accounting, and purchasing. Traditionally, a chef – usually male – entered the kitchen at a very young age and started from the bottom, which meant no glory and a lot of pot scrubbing and dull cutting chores involving tiny cubes of vegetables (mirepoix).

I might argue that cooks do much the same work. True. But it’s on a smaller scale, without the day-to-day pressure. There’s nothing wrong with being a cook, except that being a mere cook seems to be permeated with the aura of “servant.”

Some cooks take on the moniker “chef” to add allure and credibility to their persona.

In spite of the title of her TV show, “The French Chef,” Julia Child never considered herself a chef. Nigella Lawson doesn’t call herself a chef. There’s nothing wrong with being a cook, nothing at all. I’m one myself, even though I have worked in restaurants and helped manage one in West Africa.

And just in case my comments rankle, here’s a good summary of the issue by one chef – the real deal – who comes down hard on those who call themselves chefs without the blood, sweat, and tears behind the title:

“No other profession permits this sort of fraudulence. Imagine going to the hospital and finding out the doctor about to operate on you never actually went to school, and has no professional medical training, but is a huge fan of medicine and has read medical journals, watched all the medical shows on television, owns his own set of surgery tools, and worked a couple of summers as a hospital intern.”

So what do you think? When is a cook, well, a chef?

And who’s really the chef in this case?

© 2015 C. Bertelsen