What Is A Chef?

“Chef” is a word much overused these days.

It seems that anyone who can cook competently, whether at home or under the scrutiny of television cameras, is now called a chef, either by himself or by others.

I think it is time to stop indiscriminately using the word and return to its original context: that of a professional kitchen.

Chef is actually the shortened form of the French term, “chef de cuisine,” which is defined quite simply as the “head of the kitchen,” and refers precisely to a professional cook who manages all facets of a professional kitchen. Whether that kitchen is large or small and in a restaurant, a hotel, a cruise ship, The White House, an in-house catering facility or Disneyland doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is a professional kitchen, and as such is one that is run, in the best of cases, like the military.

A home cook should never be referred to seriously as a chef.

Nor should a cooking instructor.

Or a food writer.

Or a food blogger.

Or a line cook.

Or a television personality–unless of course, the home cook, cooking instructor, food writer, food blogger, line cook, or television personality have actually done time as the head of a professional kitchen somewhere.

OK–I will cut some slack here. If an individual has worked as a sous chef, that is, as an under-chef who does the job of the chef or executive chef, when the exec is out of the kitchen, then they can be called chef.

But otherwise, no. Sorry. Nope. Nada. Zip.

If you have not run a professional kitchen, you are not a chef.

Period.

End. Of. Story.

So what do I mean by “run” a professional kitchen? What is it that a chef does that home cooks, cooking instructors, food writers, food bloggers, line cooks and television personalities do not do?

They don’t create menus, cost out each menu item so that accurate prices can be assigned to them, set up pantries, understand and effectively run and repair arcane kitchen equipment, much of which is dangerous to life and limb, deal with multiple purveyors, keep track of inventory, order foodstuffs, hire and train staff, create plate presentation, devise and cook off-menu specials, expedite during service, deal with cranky dining room staff, cook and act as both den mother and field marshal at the same time.

In short, these folks, who all may be wonderful cooks and great people, don’t run professional kitchens.

Which is why they shouldn’t be called chefs.

They should be called home cooks, cooking instructors, food writers, food bloggers, line cooks and television personalities. (And yes, Rachael Ray is a television personality, but no, she is not a chef. You will notice that she does not call herself a chef. Neither does Nigella Lawson, another food writer and television personality.)

And there is nothing wrong with that. Home cooks, cooking instructors, food writers, food bloggers, line cooks and television personalities are all fine in their own rights and have their own unique sets of skills and experiences which are just as interesting and fascinating as the skill sets of a chef.

The problem is, there is a new aura of prestige that surrounds the idea of a chef these days, that is probably the result of too much exposure to The Food Network. Although, frankly, Anthony Bourdain, as much as he would hate to admit it, probably has to carry a tiny bit of the blame for this recent fascination with the people food-obsessed enough to want to spend twelve hours or more a day in a cramped, crowded inferno, producing delicious food for throngs of diners.

As much as Bourdain has tried his best to paint the life of a chef as lonely, gritty, dirty, grueling, physically and emotionally dangerous and usually not particularly monetarily rewarding, the fact is, lots of folks find his descriptions of chefs as tough, mean, hard-drinking, substance-using, womanizing he-men alluring.

And when I say folks, I mean, both men and women are fascinated by the ideal of a chef as a pirate captain, a bad boy, a rock star,and an iron-fisted gunslinger all rolled into one.

And it seems that everyone wants to be a chef these days.

So, how do you get to be a chef?

You run a professional kitchen.

OK, so how do you get to run a professional kitchen? I mean, you go to culinary school, right?

Sometimes. That is how Bourdain did it. And Emeril Lagasse. And Cat Cora. And Dean Fearing. And David Chang. And Eric Ripert. And Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.

But, you know, going to culinary school does not make you a chef, as any of the folks I just listed above will tell you. And, as a culinary school graduate, I can tell you the same thing–just because you graduated from culinary school, doesn’t mean you emerge from your student chrysalis, toque unfurling and whisk in hand as a chef. It just means that you graduated from culinary school with a degree that may or may not help you get a job in a professional kitchen at a level slightly above that of dishwasher, prep cook or commis. (And then again, in some kitchens, a culinary school grad may well start down at the bottom anyway. It depends on the chef running the kitchen.)

Look at it this way. Michael Ruhlman graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, but he doesn’t call himself a chef.

He calls himself a food writer, which is what he is–and a damned fine one at that, one who has collaborated with chefs such as Thomas Keller on cookbooks.

And yes, Ruhlman can throw down and cook up a magnificent feast, but as he and I both know, and as everyone else should know, that doesn’t make him a chef.

Ruhlman knows he isn’t a chef–because he sees what chefs like Keller do and while he understands the language that Keller speaks, and he can explicate Keller’s techniques and recipes in prose that is both evocative and practically accessible, he isn’t like Keller.

Keller does things that are beyond Ruhlman’s ken and that is fine, because the world needs both its Thomas Kellers and its Michael Ruhlmans.

Let’s look at another example: Julia Child.

A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Child became a fine cook under the tutelage of Master Chef Max Bugnard and other master chefs. She went on to become one of the best cookbook writers and cooking instructors in the world and probably the most iconic television cooking personality ever.

But she never ran a professional kitchen.

And so, even though her first television series was entitled “The French Chef,” (the title wasn’t her idea, by the way) she never considered herself to be a chef, because she knew and respected what that title truly meant.

So, culinary school alone does not a chef make.

It is culinary school plus practical experience that makes a chef.

Or, if you want to kick it old-school and do it the way it was in the old days, you can just skip school and go straight for the practical experience by starting at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy (as a dishwasher, prep cook or commis) and clawing your way up to the top.

That’s how Marco Pierre White, Thomas Keller, Cristeta Comerford, Jeremiah Tower, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Judy Rodgers and Lidia Bastianich all became chefs.

Or, you could grow up in a family of great professional cooks and spend your childhood in the kitchen of family-owned restaurants, working as a dishwasher and prep cook at an early age while culinary expertise is absorbed directly in your brain as you live, breathe, eat and drink the heady atmosphere of a professional kitchen.

And then, when you grow up, you can decide to open your own restaurant, and continue the family tradition anew.

Which is how Paul Prudhomme became a chef.

Or, you can be like Alice Waters and just up and one day decide to open a restaurant which will become world famous and inspire a cooking style and food movement without much in the way of culinary experience, but she is unique.

The key to becoming a chef–the one commonality in all of these chef’s disparate backgrounds–is experience. Years and years of it. Whether some of it is in the form of culinary school or not, the bulk of this experience takes place in professional kitchens where a cook learns to become a chef by working hands-on, under the supervision of other cooks and chefs.

These experiences do not come instantly. They do not come overnight.

One just does not wake up and become a chef. One does not just decide that one is a chef and start calling oneself a chef.

It is a long, gradual process, one that should be respected by those both within and without the food service industry.

And one way to show that respect is to stop calling every Tom, Dick and Mary who can cook competently on and off camera a chef, and reserve that title for the ones who have put in the time and effort to really become culinary professionals.

Note: The inspiration for this rant came from a commenter on a story last month at The Huffington Post about how Michelle Obama was going to keep the current White House Chef, Cristeta Comerford, as the executive chef.

The commenter in question said that Comerford wasn’t a real chef like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay, I suppose because she didn’t have a television show.

I got all up in the guy’s face, because it was obvious that he had no idea what being a chef meant, and what a real chef was. To his mind, one was only a real chef if one was famous and had multiple restaurants and television shows and lots of adoring fans out there in TV land. Right. I then decided to write this post, but never got around to it until last night, so here it is.

32 Comments

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  1. Thank you for the clarification on something I hadn’t considered. There’s soemthing new I’ve learned today now.

    Comment by Adrianne — February 13, 2009 #

  2. Amen sister! I’ve felt the same way for a long, long time. I’m a Papa.

    Biggles

    Comment by Dr. Biggles — February 13, 2009 #

  3. Bravo!

    Now, I am definitely not a chef…in the past six months, however, I finally dipped my toes into the world of food service via a kind of back door wherein my duties include all of those listed in your description of a professional chef…except, instead, I’m an assistant deli manager at The Fresh Market: I’m morning shift cook, meat/veg prep, supervisor, assistant fromager and occasional stand-in for the dept. head…ordering, inventory, trucks, purveyors etc. My private chef friend tells me I’m getting more diverse experience than she got at the CIA…and it should benefit my future culinary endeavors. It’s pretty neat(and grueling).

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — February 13, 2009 #

  4. I’ve been reading ‘The Big Fat Duck Cookbook’ which is one third recipes, one third biography and one third science class.

    Heston Blumenthal found another way, which is teach yourself out of the books of great chefs, eat your way around the restaurants of France, and dive into opening your own restaurant. Fascinating story. (He tried some of the more conventional routes briefly but decided they weren’t for him)

    Comment by Ladylark — February 13, 2009 #

  5. Christopher–I got a great many diverse experiences at Johnson & Wales, but I have also gotten extremely diverse experience working with food in the industry as well.

    With culinary school, you get what you put in, really. If you volunteer for various events put on by the school and the chefs, if you work outside of class and if you take advantage of being our the chefs and asking them every question you can think of, you will have a diverse and fun education.

    Being a personal chef is also a great way to get experience as well. I did it for a few years myself–including being personal chef to a couple of NFL players. That was a very fun gig.

    Ladylark–that is a valid way, certainly–it is kind of how Alice Waters did it, really. But, after having worked in restaurants for so long, I am ever so glad that I never jumped in to the restaurant business by opening my own place just because everyone who ate my food said I should.

    Now that I am older and with so much experience under my belt, I feel ready to consider such a move. I certainly have more of an idea of what kind of place I would like to own, that is for certain.

    Comment by Barbara — February 13, 2009 #

  6. Interesting – and I would agree 100%, although not having worked in a professional kitchen aside from as a caterer, I do not know much about it. If I remember correctly, I don’t think Julia Child herself called the series “The French Chef” I think it was something PBS foisted upon her.

    Comment by Diane — February 13, 2009 #

  7. Diane, thank you–I had intended to mention that fact, and you reminded me that I had forgotten to. I added it in–thanks again!

    Julia was very adamant about not being a chef, even though she was most certainly a culinary professional.

    Comment by Barbara — February 13, 2009 #

  8. I had an acquaintance some years ago, who, upon graduation from Johnson & Wales, corrected me firmly when I referred to him, in my then ignorance, as a chef.

    He explained how he needed to learn hands-on how to manage a kitchen and took the seemingly odd route of running a Taco Bell. As he explained, it gave him the chance to experience a wider range of kitchen logistics sooner than as a commis.

    His partner, who had a background like Prudhomme (and rather resembled him and even essayed from Louisiana) took the traditional path to solidify his familial experience in the kitchen.

    Neither considered themselves chefs, despite years of schooling and one’s lifetime in the family business. They aimed to become chefs after the gaining years of grueling experience.

    It was enlightening to me to see how much more the term chef entailed.

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — February 13, 2009 #

  9. Wonderful, Barbara, thanks for the information. I really had never given it any thought one way or the other, though I can’t imagine having the gall to suggest that the White House Chef isn’t a “real” chef.

    I’ve had to play “professional chef” in the kitchen with my 4 year-old because she freaks anytime her hands get the littlest bit messy. I told her that professional chefs don’t mind a little food on their fingers while they’re cooking, so the other day when she got her hands messy she started to say “eew,” then said, “Oh wait, I’m a professional chef! I’ll wash later!” It only works when she has her (pink) apron on, though. Tonight she wouldn’t put the onions in the soup pot. Gonna have to work on this kid. :)

    Comment by Kristi — February 13, 2009 #

  10. I’m a little confused. whilst I understand your definitions, as far as I can tell the three people mentioned (Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay) have all done what you define as needed for being a chef.

    Or is my google-fu failing?

    Comment by Kath M — February 14, 2009 #

  11. Preach it sister! To me, a chef is a very big job and an important role, and it’s so irritating to see everyone calling themselves a chef. Case in point: In the UK there’s a programme called Masterchef. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masterchef And see for yourself why the title is scarily inappropriate. I think in a way, this stuff demeans the real chef.

    Personally, I’m happy being a home cook. That’s as far as my abilities go, and as long as I keep everyone fed and happy, I’m happy. I think one’s cooking improves in a lifetime, because after all cooking is a process, but no amount of improvement will magically turn me into a chef. Unless I do something crazy, ditch everything and work my way up in a kitchen:)

    Comment by Mamlambo — February 14, 2009 #

  12. Right on!

    Comment by Elizabeth — February 14, 2009 #

  13. Kathy, I never said they weren’t chefs. But the fact is that Cristeta Comerford, by my definition, and most other culinary professionals’ definitions, is just as much of a chef as they are, even though she never had a show on The Food Network, nor does she own multiple restaurants. In fact, since she spends all day every day in the same kitchen (at The White House) and these three split their time among multiple restaurants, I would argue that she is probably doing more of the traditional work of a chef than they are.

    But my point wasn’t that they were not chefs–my point was that she was just as qualified as a chef as they were–and that being famous and on TV does not a chef make.

    Comment by Barbara — February 14, 2009 #

  14. “…just because you graduated from culinary school, does mean you emerge from your student chrysalis, toque unfurling and whisk in hand as a chef.”

    I think you missed a “not” there. :)

    Comment by Carin Huber — February 14, 2009 #

  15. Thanks, Carin–I fixed it. I hate it when I miss typos like that!

    Comment by Barbara — February 14, 2009 #

  16. I have to say, I have always had mixed feelings about the name of our blog (toomanychefs) but unfortunately the domain name for toomanycooks was already taken by a Canadian band. So let the record state that we do not actually call ourselves chefs – like Julia we are victims of marketing. ;)

    Comment by Meg — February 14, 2009 #

  17. LOL! Good one, Meg!

    None of you guys ever really called yourselves chefs–I just figured it was a clever blog title with a play on the old saying about “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

    Now I know why you changed cooks to chefs!

    Comment by Barbara — February 14, 2009 #

  18. I guess technically you could call me a Pastry Chef (although I don’t really manage other cooks other than the apprentices that I train), since I’m doing about 90% of the tasks that a chef fulfills. I’ve just always referred to myself as a baker, because that’s what I feel like most of the time: a kitchen grunt :).

    Comment by Roxanne — February 14, 2009 #

  19. Nicholas Freeling (yes, the mystery writer, and oh, the writer about Zen), also has two books about working in a traditional French kitchen in a hotel. They are well worth reading, indeed as all of his works are. They are titled The Kitchen Book and The Cook Book and have been published into a combined volume.

    Comment by LisaJulie — February 14, 2009 #

  20. Ahhh thankyou. Now I’ve re-read it having taken my decongestant it makes sense.

    Cold stuffed head is my excuse :o)

    Comment by Kath M — February 14, 2009 #

  21. I had cooked professionally for six years and for a over a year as head chef at an embassy before I was comfortable calling myself a chef – until I was the ultimate authority in a kitchen, I always told people I was a cook. Years later, when I began teaching others in France, I was appalled that some of my students and helpers, after several months learning recipes and a few weeks as restaurant interns, started calling themselves chefs and printed cards proclaiming that. One has become a well-known food writer, another a Food Network personality, and others bloggers. They all say they are ‘chefs’ but none of them have ever actually made a living cooking, let alone heading a restaurant team or anything else a chef does. I cringe at some of the technique and misinformation witnessed on the Food Network, glib statements dispensed that a true chef would scorn. These ‘entertainment chefs’ are diluting the essence of the craft of cooking. I am so pleased that you have articulated this notion because I really do find the mis-use of this title insulting to those of us who, one way or another, have earned the name through years of hard work. Bravo!

    Comment by Randall — February 14, 2009 #

  22. Thank you!!!

    Comment by Rebecca Dru — February 15, 2009 #

  23. Thank you! Well written and it explains a lot. As a home-cook and blogger, I hate when people call me a chef, just because of some of the ingredients I use or the perceived “gourmet” aspects of my meals. I correct these people and say no I’m not a chef and I don’t want to be a chef. Now I will have to direct them to this blog post to get people to understand.

    Comment by Scott — February 15, 2009 #

  24. WHAT IS A EXCECUTIVE CHEFS RESPONESIBLITY.

    Comment by DAVID H — February 15, 2009 #

  25. David, lose the all-caps, first of all, as it is generally the Internet equivalent of yelling.

    Secondly, read my post–the duties of a chef are enumerated therein, in the paragraph which goes somewhat like this: “create menus, cost out each menu item so that accurate prices can be assigned to them, set up pantries, understand and effectively run and repair arcane kitchen equipment, much of which is dangerous to life and limb, deal with multiple purveyors, keep track of inventory, order foodstuffs, hire and train staff, create plate presentation, devise and cook off-menu specials, expedite during service, deal with cranky dining room staff, cook and act as both den mother and field marshal at the same time.”

    Comment by Barbara — February 15, 2009 #

  26. Bravo I am glad to see that someone has explained this to all the “foodies”….

    Comment by Davd B — February 15, 2009 #

  27. Oooooh! Randall, I gotta know who this particular food network celebrity is! :D
    ***cough***Sandra Lee***cough***

    In all fairness, I have to say I have never heard of anyone on the Food Network being referred to as “Chef” who wasn’t a bonafide chef…

    Comment by Roxanne — February 15, 2009 #

  28. My husband, bless him, loves my cooking and calls me a “chef” all the time, even though I insist quite strenuously that I am NOT; I’m simply a good cook. I believe I’ll point him in the direction of this post.

    My mother once had “words” with a woman who took issue with the fact my mother referred to herself as a professional cake decorator; the woman maintained my mom couldn’t be, because she never went to school for it. Mom told her to stuff it – she did it for a living, in a real, live bakery (her own, the last ten years of her life) and not out of the kitchen in her house, and THAT made her a professional.

    Comment by Jan — February 16, 2009 #

  29. Interesting. I knew “chef” was a specific position, and meant something more than just someone who cooks, but I wasn’t sure exactly what distinguished a chef from just any cook.

    It reminds me of how annoyed I get with “doctors”. It seems anyone with a doctorate can go around calling themselves Dr. Whoever, and suddently they are an Authority on Anything and Everything. Never mind what their degree is in may be a completely unrelated subject to what they are talking about. (I joke that one day, if I ever manage to get that PhD in wildlife biology I’d like, then I could get a radio program or TV show called “Dr. Amanda” and tell everyone how they should raise their kids or lose weight or something.)

    My point is calling yourself a doctor or a chef suddenly gives you this instant credibility that people without the title supposedly don’t have. It’s nice when people are honest about what their title really means.

    Comment by Neohippie — February 16, 2009 #

  30. I totally understand your point, but I think this is a little bit like saying you can’t call yourself a conductor unless you’re leading a symphony orchestra.

    That being said, my feathers get a little ruffled when every Jane Doe with a digital camera calls herself a photographer. So I guess we all defend our own passions.

    Comment by Laura O — February 20, 2009 #

  31. It’s an important distinction, and as someone who has occasionally worked in kitchens, one which I view as important. I’ve always appreciated how Nigella Lawson is careful to mention that she is not a chef, but rather someone who is enthusiastic about food.

    Comment by Gretchen — February 24, 2009 #

  32. I understand you’re fanatical about Alice Waters, to the extent that you threatened to censor my comments because I didn’t agree with Alice Waters.

    But, you’re undermining your whole post by calling Alice Waters a chef.

    Would you also call somebody like Danny Myers a chef as well? I think the more apropos title for somebody like Waters is more like restauranter.

    Comment by dana — April 19, 2010 #

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