Chef vs Cook. What is the difference? Does it matter?

When I first joined Twitter I spent a few hours trying to work out why on earth someone would have the handle I wanted to use for myself and not use it. I attempted emailing the owner of said handle and even googled him to see if I could find more info. He happened to have had the handle for 2 years and had managed to post a grand total tweet count of only 2 tweets! Injustice and sacrilege and a few choice swear words came to mind to describe my view of what a travesty of justice this all was. So after rejecting every version of numerous ridiculous combinations of my name and surname Twitter could kick out as suggested user handles, I decided to fiddle around with my name.

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Whilst I was at chef school, either through sheer laziness or just unwillingness on my fellow chef buddies’ parts, my name was never said in full. Instead of the wonderfully exotic and foreign sounding sounds of my full name being whispered by others I got stuck with the shortened rather bland and boring term (I refuse to call it a name) “Les”. Mind you, I had survived all of 26 years before going to chef school without ever being called by that term. So as an inside joke I decided to go by the twitter handle “LesDaChef”. A pseudonym for the person I become when I’m in the food world. I believed at the time that that online social media persona would be an anonymous one and I would separate it from the real me. Well, as is usually the case with these sort of things, the name grew a mind of its own and has become a brand in its own right and failed at keeping itself separate from Lesego, the man. Oh well.

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Why do I begin this post with this tale? It leads me to the meat of this matter. I identify myself as a chef and have made sure people know from the outset that I am a fully fledged chef. I don’t claim to be one and I’m not confused about it, hence it being part of my brand and title. Over the years I’ve found myself flinching whenever I hear people willy nilly calling anyone who so happens to be famous for cooking food “chef”. I used to ignore it at the beginning but I’ve found the longer I work in the industry the more I want to grate the tongues that say it.

We live in the age of quick entertainment. Where people get famous rather quickly for doing unimaginative things. Its an age where looks can get you further than grit and determination and sadly people who have the looks and the personality and happen to be able to cook a dish or two end up on television and inevitably through clever marketing gurus and corporates end up with titles they themselves don’t understand and which they have never earned. Do I sound bitter? Perhaps slightly.

Why would I get worked up about such a trivial and unimportant topic? Because to us professional chefs it actually means something to be referred to as a “chef”. Let me break it down for you real quick…

The good old Oxford English Dictionary definition of a chef states: a professional cook, typically the chief cook in a restaurant or hotel. As simple as that. As much as I hate the term “professional cook”.

Nigella Lawson goes on to break it down further by stating:

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.

Both descriptions above involve either restaurant (or chef brigade) experience or a qualification of some sort. Does that mean one can’t be called a chef if one isn’t qualified or one hasn’t worked in a brigade? No it doesn’t. Does it matter and does it add weight to your cause when pushing to be referred to as a “chef”? Yes. As has become general information these days, qualifying as a chef from a top culinary institute is a really REALLY expensive process. Very few people can afford it and so the most common alternative is to do things the old school way, via apprenticeship and working your way up the ranks.

A kitchen brigade consists of various tiers and levels. The most junior level being referred to as the commis chef or trainee. Traditionally they are barred from wearing a tall hat like other chefs as they aren’t seen as fully fledged chefs yet. When I qualified with my numerous diplomas from chef academy, even though by educational right I could say I was a qualified chef in practical terms the industry and experienced chefs did not see me as one. There is a sense of respect and pride that one chef calling another chef by the term “chef” that I can’t explain. It’s linked to comraderie and brotherhood. An acknowledgement that he or she knows you’ve worked your fair share of the dirty work and have pulled through to get to the point where you’ve earned the title chef. For the first 6 months of being a commis chef all I did was wash dishes, I wasnt allowed to cook. Even though I wore a chef uniform I was never called a chef. In fact, for the first 2 years of my career it was rare that I would hear someone in the industry refer to me as “chef”. It was only with time and work done that I earned the title.

Ok, let me leave the soppy overly romantic stuff for now and break it down in simple terms. We chefs don’t even refer to people who work with us in the same kitchen as “chefs” until we feel they have earned the right. Now imagine how we feel when we see people who have not stepped into a professional chef brigade or have never worked a proper chef shift (be it in a restaurant, catering company, lodge, hotel etc) being called “chef”. It’s why we get so antsy about it.

Why does it matter that one has worked in a brigade? There are certain concepts and techniques one can only learn via experience in a chef brigade. I have worked in lodges, hotels, restaurants, as a private chef, catering companies and for myself and I’m still learning everyday. Reading a cook book or food blog and being good at replicating the recipe and the picture doesn’t make you a chef. When the chef brigade hierarchy was determined and created decades ago it was well thought out. One cannot start out as an executive chef without having worked every level of the brigade, just like in the army. Just because one can fire a gun it doesn’t make you an army general. You earn your stripes as the years and experience tally up.

Can a cook be better at cooking than a chef? Most definitely. Doesn’t that mean a cook can then legitimately call themselves a chef? No. Can a top nurse who spots a doctor’s error in the operating theatre call themselves a doctor? Enough said. Sadly because our profession isn’t regulated and there aren’t any hard and fast rules followed by the industry, its a free-for-all and so this topic is treated as a farce only taken seriously by actual chefs.

So what is a cook then? Generally we refer to anyone who makes food for a living, isn’t qualified and isn’t working in a traditional chef brigade as a “cook”. Yes, that means those famous tv people like Nigella and people who win shows like Masterchef (thankfully every winner of the Australian version of Masterchef always corrects interviewers when they refer to them as “chef”). We also break it down further to use it to refer to those who cook for certain mass food establishments that one wouldn’t necessarily see as traditional “restaurants”. Why? It goes back to my point above, ‘techniques’. Flipping burgers, making ribs, dipping fries daily doesn’t make you a chef, sadly. There’s nothing wrong in being a cook, by the way. I wish more cooks would accept the title and own it and make being a cook a proud profession. Cooks feed way more people than us chefs.

To conclude, being called a chef gives one a sense of pride and when you’re called “chef” and you’ve legitimately earned the title you try your utmost to live up to it and keep the profession in high esteem. When you meet fellow chefs the sense of brotherhood is palpable in the air. We’re competitive but also shrewd (we try suck up as much knowledge and new techniques and ideas from other chefs as we can) when in numbers. It’s one of the oldest professions and it is steeped in history, traditions, knowledge and respect. We respect it from within, it just gets to us when what we do is cheapened by others. Don’t do it! Our knives are sharp!

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