How can you tell a cook from a chef ?
12 tell tale signs it´s a chef
( and what ¨from cook to chef¨ mean to us )
Affiliate Disclosure : As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I may earn a commission.
Quite literally, chef is simply the French word for chief. In any French speaking country or business you will hear that word a lot, and not just in the kitchen. Our staff would always call us chef , i.e boss, even though there was also a chef in the kitchen.
So there´s the chief de cuisine, and chiefs in general.
1. Chefs wear Funny hats !
Cooks don´t tend to wear hats, but chefs are more likely to. We like the idea of wearing hats to keep things neat and hygienic, but aren´t fans of those tall stiff hats that chefs wear ( called Toques blanches – white hats ). I suppose it means you can tell the hierarchy from a distance in a big kitchen but in a small one it can look a bit ridiculous don´t you think ?
The head chef wears the tallest hat, and the many pleated folds signify how many ways a chef can cook an egg.
2. They only cook in a restaurant
Chef de cuisine is usually in charge of a restaurant or hotel kitchen, and responsible for all the cooking that goes on in it. A professional kitchen is a serious place, and we know that it can only work well if run like a military operation. Nomatter what chaos Marrakech felt all around outside, it was always such a pleasure to watch our own restaurant kitchen during service – felt like a well oiled machine at work .
Cooks generally just ´cook´ and it is generally the term given to domestic cooks. Some cooks love it passionately and some home cooks just have to do it to survive. Most are still, in charge, of their kitchen too though – whether they like it or not ! Some cooks even make much better food that some chefs.
However there are cooks in a professional kitchen too – they just don´t usually have the professional qualifications or skills expected of a chef. The lower ranks can still be called cooks, and we also had a local ´mama´style cook to make the traditional home cooked dishes for the hotel guests to sample. Cooks are regarded, by the professionals, as those that haven´t got the professional skills, e.g. knife skills, or knowledge about the science of cooking or the cuts of meat etc, and they don´t speak the same cheffy language.
You can´t tell a chef by what they cook at home. It´s probably something simple and fast like beans on toast – they have no time, motivation, or energy left !
In professional terms, a chef tends to be a cook that has been educated, usually professionally, with culinary qualifications, to show how well they can cook. They will also usually have lots of on the job education in a professional kitchen. The greater the name of the head chef and restaurant, the better the únwritten´ qualification is too.
Even if they can cook to the level of a professional chef, they may still be referred to as a cook simply because they don´t have a professional qualification, or have never worked in a professional kitchen. Apparently, Nigella Lawson refers to herself as a cook not a chef, for that very reason.
You can still spot the forearm burn marks a chef has picked up along the way, but by the time they´re head chefs they tend to have asbestos hands !
A trainee chef can start with very menial tasks even after having the college qualifications- sorting the salad leaves even. Someone has to do it ! Then they work their way up the ladder picking up technical or organisation skills in different areas of the kitchen. Salads, vegetables, meat, fish, pastry etc. To be a great chef you need to be both an artist and a scientist, to understand food, how to balance it, how to cook it, how to plate it beautifully. Then by the time they get to the top, they also have to be an organiser and a leader. People don´t even think of chefs as having these skills… well actually many still don´t which is why there´s a lot of shouting going on under the pressure in some kitchens.
In some ways you could say that a chef is really just a skilled cook with lots of experience. Chefs really do work their way up from cook to chef. Working their way up the ladder takes time, an incredible amount of dedication to gain different skills in many areas of the kitchen.
Chef´s equipment is usually well battered from use. They´re usually metal ( stainless steel ) rather than plastic, and well worn with lots of repairs perhaps. They don´t tend to use the all-in-one devices you´ll find in domestic kitchens like instant pots. They do use the tools that were first developed by chefs for restaurants, but have now made their way to the home cook – such as the hand blender, the food processor, the sous vide machine. The most important tool to any chef though is… the sacred knife ! Their knife, or set of knives, usually in a canvas roll that they carry with them, is usually their most coveted item. They usually have a favourite and will stick with that for their whole career. They have a real respect for knives – a professional´s knife is super super sharp and there´s always a pack of blue plasters in a professional kitchen for the newbies.
We have a favourite chef knife, but it´s not an expensive one – and yes, we do take it everywhere too on our travels !
When a kitchen knife drops… the cooks will try to catch it, the chef will jump out of the way !
A culinary qualification usually takes 2 years at a specialist college. This is a great foundation but the real education is in the professional restaurant kitchen and you have to usually start right at the bottom. It then usually takes 2-4 years to climb the ranks in a professional kitchen. A lot depends on what spaces come up on the ladder too. The hours are long and unsociable, but the camraderie in a good kitchen can´t be beaten. It´s a real family and you´ll probably find a good brigade still together outside working hours too.
You know you´re a chef when you still automatically go to the restaurant on weekends and holidays
Within the kitchen, different titles tell you what expertise someone has, what work they do, and, where they come in the cook to chef hierarchy ladder! The executive chef or chef patron ( chef/ owner ) are the highest titles. Chef de cuisine is next, then second in line is the supporting sous chef – their right hand chef. In fact, the sous chef is often the one doing a lot of the work, whilst the top chef keeps an eye on everything – if the chef has to be somewhere else the sous chef handles everything as usual and the restaurant guests shouldn´t know the difference temporarily. Third line of cheffing is the chef de partie, in charge of each line / part, or ´station´ in the kitchen. So they usually have a specialist area – like patisserie or sauces or meats. Finally, the commis chef is the real worker supporting everyone else, cutting and slicing and prepping for the chefs de partie.
I´d be happy being a commis chef. I love sorting ! In our tiny kitchen at home in the UK, Paul created a station for patisserie incorporating a stainless steel tray into the tiles, a coffee shop station with his huge commercial grade coffee maker and grinder ahaha ? . Our kitchen was so tiny, that we´d use the outside doorstep to stack the dirty dishes during a dinner party.
A chef is responsible for the kitchen and all the other chefs or cooks in it. There may be an executive chef to answer to if the restaurant is large, very famous, or part of a chain. The executive chef is more often an office job now ! Apart from that, the chef de cuisine is responsible for everything that comes into, and leaves their kitchen. From ordering the food supply to organising the work flow for the team, and managing the process. They are usually responsible for the creative side of designing the menu, the functionality of the kitchen, and the HR role of managing the staff… but not always. At our restaurant it may have been unusual that this wasn´t the case.
Doesn´t everyone know what 86 means !!!
Passionate home cooks have the appearance of happily creating heavenly foods in their beautiful kitchens, seemingly promoting a nice, balanced life-style.
Chefs on the other hand are often pale and worn out. Exhausted from the long hours, the responsibilities and the low return for all their hard work. They´re just as passionate about food, and cooking , and the professional chef reputation, but boy is it tough. I think the toughest gig of all is the chef de patron… the chef that starts his own restaurant.
You´re more likely to find a chef with an ego, than a cook with one, although nowadays there are so many more keen cooks that act more like an amateur chef and you can find some on a real ego trip too. It´s a tough journey from cook to chef and for some, when they get to the top they let it go to their head. Being in charge of a strong team of upcoming competitors means they have to find their way to keep them in line. Being responsible for everything that goes out to the customers is a huge stress.
This of course doesn´t apply to all chefs but there are definitely a lot of chefs that let their ego get in the way. And for the same reasons as this might happen in life, it´s often someone that´s new to the job and not experienced yet as a chef de cuisine, or simply not confident enough in their own skills, either in cooking or in being in charge.
12. Passionate… carers and givers
Above all else, a chef has passion. There is no way they could do that job if they didn´t have a fire inside them driving them to do this. But you can´t tell a chef only by the passion because cooks are also passionate. So this is what chefs and cooks have in common.
Both cooks and chefs have a passion to celebrate food, and create amazing dishes that are good for you, and that will delight, or even surprise you. Cooks and chefs are givers, pleasers, and we love them ? for making this world a much better place.
The professional journey from cook to chef
In the professional hospitality world, it´s such a tough journey to get from cook to chef, and there´s more than just cooking to learn. I´m not sure that diners ever realise how tough it is.
On top of all the culinary skills to learn, and inhospitable hours and sometimes working conditions, going from cook to chef is a real growing up journey. Working as a team, whilst also having singular responsibilities, and a complete god-like admiration for your chief is quite a combination of personal skills to learn. On top of that, you have to discover your own creative talents and develop them, beat the competition who are probably your best friends, be organised, and become a team leader and people manager all at the same time.
Why we called our blog fromcooktochef
Food and hospitality is our life so these terms are always on our mind. We hadn´t thought of the cook training to be a chef journey being called ´fromcooktochef´, but since we´ve taken the name we notice quite a few trainee chefs use this hashtag. It´s nice to see their journeys too.
We are not professional chefs, even though Paul has done so many courses with professional chefs, gathered loads of skills, and uses professional equipment. We´re both passionate about food and cooking , and having run a restaurant in Morocco, we had to be much more involved in the kitchen and cooking than we would have probably been in a UK or US restaurant.
So for us from cook to chef was more of a tongue in cheek, ´from me to you´kind of phrase. Always, one of us is more in charge and the other the support. We have continually swapped roles, helping each other and still learning and creating all the time. That´s the way we like it. It´s more about how we work and grow together. But with hindsight, the trainee chef life is rather like the journey of life – a long, tough, developing, rewarding growing up.
On our own journey as a couple, and as restaurant owners, we´ve grown up a lot too !
Even though the term chef tends to be used as a professional qualification, we do play about with the term even at home and depending on who´s acting in charge at any time in the kitchen, or anything else. We tend to salute the other as ´chef´. This is because you can´t have two chiefs can you ! It would only lead to arguments, and a culinary ( or couples) disaster, so even though we´re not chefs at all, we use the term both jokingly, and seriously, to signify who has the upper hand and is making the decisions at any given time, in any given ´station´ – especially if we had a table full of friends waiting to be fed !
We were so used to seeing and hearing ´oui chef´ in the restaurant kitchen ( as well as ´yalayalayala´ ( Moroccan for ´come on – come on – come on´ ) that both phrases kind of caught on at home ! Our life was our work and our work our life , and we´ve worked together for 25 years now, so it´s always been hard to separate them.
When a chef asks someone under him to do anything in the kitchen they would respond with ´yes,chef´ etc to show they had understood. Kitchens can be noisy and bustling so communication has to be extremely clear. So, we have our own fun shouting ´yes, chef´ to each other to show (admittedly sometimes pointedly) that respect, and cut the conversations (and cooking arguments) down ! Not a bad way for all couples to develop perhaps, as long as you can keep swapping the role.
the cook and the boss
You might also like this post too !
10 easy ways to be more like a chef in your own kitchen
… and learn some French too.