Chef vs. Cook: Is There A Difference Between the Two?

Categories: Blogger's Bout
nigella_lawson.jpg
Nigella Lawson
In an interview with Eater, Nigella Lawson promotes her new cookbook, Nigella Kitchen. Yet this curvaceous cookbook author, TV personality, and all around fabulous foodie who has a way of making even a grilled cheese sound sultry and sexy stands fast that she is not a chef.

Eater: Why do you shirk the title of chef?

Nigella: I am not a chef.

Well, what does a chef mean that you aren't?

Nigella: Chef means a degree of professionalism either because you've got the qualification or because you've worked in a restaurant kitchen. I have done neither. My only qualification is in Medieval Modern Languages at Oxford. A chef means in some sense that you are a professional and I feel like I am a passionate amateur. It's partly because I feel that the age we live in is the great age of expert.

The idea of what defines a chef versus a cook is an ongoing battle in our editorial meetings as we dispute whether some "chefs" in fact are cooks who have taken on the title to give themselves more credibility. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word chef is defined as a professional cook, typically the chief cook in a restaurant or hotel. So by this definition any cook who is the head of a kitchen is in fact a chef, regardless of educational background or work history -- be it the Outback Steakhouse or Prime 112. We concede that the dining experience at these two restaurants is vastly different, but so should your expectations going in.

In the end of the day, as they say, the proof is in the pudding and it doesn't matter what your title is, as long as your pudding is good this passionate amateur will eat with wanton abandon.

-- Christina Staalstrom

I can't argue with Christina over the dictionary definition of chef -- in my old American Heritage, the main definition is simply "a cook." Then again, my old American Heritage, under Eisenhower it says "current President of the United States." But the point here is that every restauranteur knows very well the distinction between chef and cook -- the former cost sixty grand and up, the latter maybe thirty grand. And yes, you get what you pay for.

All chefs know the difference too. Imagine being a Philippe Ruiz, Michael Schwartz, or Michelle Bernstein -- people who have gone to school and worked for decades to become professional chefs in the true sense of the word -- and have read blog after blog about "this talented chef so and so and that talented chef so and so" -- some young goofballs who've worked as prep cooks or line cooks for a few years at some well known restaurant and are now billing themselves as chefs, or to put it another way, touting themselves as performers in the same league as the aforementioned toques.

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. Not a fair comparison because nobody dies from eating food from an amateur chef rather than a professional one. Except, come to think of it, thousands of Americans die each year from food poisoning, quite a few of those from eating bad food in restaurants run by "chefs" who never sat through the sanitation classes culinary students have to.

Problem is, most of the public, because lines get blurred so often, are confused over the difference between cook and chef, and so, sadly are the majority of food bloggers here in Miami. So while I disagree with Nigella about this being the "great age of the expert" (I believe it to be the great age of know-nothings), she has it mostly correct when saying that "Chef means a degree of professionalism you've got the qualification or because you've worked in a restaurant kitchen." Except it really goes further than just having any old restaurant experience. You can work at Denny's for 20 years and not learn enough to be a chef. To be a chef (again, in the real sense), those who don't possess culinary degrees need to work years under the tutelage of experienced chefs in respectable kitchens, or else work many years in regular kitchens, until they learn the necessary skills. And those who do possess culinary degrees likewise have to work some years in the business before achieving true toqueness.

A common misconception is that an amazingly talented cook who consistently puts out delicious food is a chef. Not necessarily true. If that person doesn't know how to manage a kitchen, he or she is just a great cook -- nothing to be ashamed of. How good the pudding is, or how well you cook, has as much to do with being an executive chef as how well you throw the football as to do with being a great football coach. One of the big surprises to me and my classmates as we started out at the Culinary Institute of America was how many more days and weeks were spent attending cost control classes, management classes, nutrition classes, sanitation classes, menu planning classes, and so forth, than was spent in the kitchen learning how to cook. At times we'd go two months without stepping foot in a kitchen, and we'd go batty, but it was what we learned in the non-cooking classes that differentiates us from great cooks.

Seeing how I've already gone on too long, I won't detail the basic job description of a chef here and now, but will do so in the future. But trust me on this, there is a huge difference between a professional chef and a cook who merely proclaims him or herself one.

By the way, did I mention that a few weeks ago I decided to become a lawyer? My fees are more reasonable than those so-called "professionals" who have fancy schmancy degrees, and anyone who knows me will tell you I have a lot of experience arguing. Those interested in my legal service may contact me through my Short Order email address.

-- Lee Klein

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