Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Chef By Any Other Name Still Reeks of Garlic (a semantic comedy)

There's an old joke that goes, "A chef is just a cook who doesn't have to wash his own dishes."  

Now, while I don't know that I subscribe to this view fully, I stopped doing dishes years ago just to be on the safe side.  But it begs an interesting question: what IS the difference between a chef and a cook?  And why do chefs get so riled up when they're confused with their lowly line-bretheren?

I mean, do Neurosurgeons let out an exasperated sigh when someone asks them about a cough they've been having?

Do accounts receivable clerks feel this way when they get asked to do someone's taxes?

Do UFC fighters get angry when they're confused with just another douchebag wearing a Tapout shirt?

Ever call a nanny a 'babysitter'?

And I wonder if deep down inside, musicians who've studied, honed, and earned degrees in their craft long for some other term to distinguish themselves from the folks who plug in a guitar and learn a few chords...

So what is it, anyway?  Is it a degree?  A magical piece of paper that says, "This guy knows what he's talking about"?  Is it the amount of hours a day you work?  Is it what people call you when you're at work?  Maybe what's on the top of your paycheck?  Is it the funny hat?

It's the funny hat, isn't it?  

I've never been a fan of the funny hat.  Makes me feel....I dunno.  Pretentious maybe?  I always went for the baseball cap (you do have to have your head covered, after all), and lately I've taken to rocking a bandana (it's a little cooler, temperature wise, and makes me look more Mexican - always important for your kitchen cred).  But back to the question at hand:  What's the difference between a Chef and a Cook?

I'm sure there are a few theories and ideas, and feel free to share yours in the comments section, but for me it comes down to responsibility.  Who's ass is on the line when the shit hits the fan?  There's your chef.  All the folks that he has help him?  Those are the cooks.  And yes, he's responsible for them, too.

A chef is responsible for the conceptualization of dishes (even if he's using an outside recipe).  Responsible for the procuring, proper storage, handling and utilization of ingredients.  If he's not doing it himself, he's overseeing the process and ultimately responsible for it.

But wait....isn't that what YOU do at home?  Don't you decide what to make, go to the store, pick out your food, prep it and cook it?  Does that mean you're a chef and are deserving of the fancy hat and white coat?


Fuck yeah.  Why not?

It's your kitchen!  You're in charge.  You can't blame someone else if the meal sucks (maybe your mom).  You made that food with your own two hands, heart, and love (if you're doing it right) and that makes you a chef.  Taking the time, taking the responsibility for the quality of your food, figuring out what makes the best ingredient, learning a little technique to bring the best out of those ingredients, learning a little bit (often through experience) about flavor pairings to make the ones you use more effective.  Most of all:  give a shit.  You're feeding people; this is sacred work you're doing and all of these things are what distinguish a chef from a cook.  

Now when someone balks at doing the dishes, you can just point to your funny hat; "Sorry....I'd love to help, but rules is rules."

Ultimately though:  Cook.....Chef.  Does it really matter?

Just get your ass in the kitchen and make something good.


  1. To me, it doesn't matter if you use the term chef or cook, unless of course, you are on TV and you are called a chef, and can hardly handle a carrot peeler. I'm not going to get on my food network rant on this post. Anyway, It takes a kitchen full of hard workers to to make the food reach the diner, right down to the person cleaning the dishes.

    I too, am with you. I hate the hat. I also hate wearing chef whites. I've had a little too much Voodoo Catholic school education/uniform B.S. to fill a life and some. I'd rather cook/bake in a cute dress, a girly apron and an adorable pair of heels. It's my comfort zone.

    One more thing: for those of you who are thinking about going to school to become a chef, you should know that you don't leave as a chef. I've seen people leave pastry school hardly able to bake and stack a cake. You get out what you put in, so when Rob said, "Get your ass in the kitchen and make something good" he just handed out the best advice you'll ever need.

    1. Thanks for reading, Tina! I'm glad that you have some real world experience to impart.

      Culinary school does have it's place, though. It certainly weeds out the folks that have no business in a professional kitchen pretty early. Let's em know they maybe shouldn't have quit their office job.

  2. I'm going to have to get one of those hats to try that line about the dishes.