Chef or Cook - Which Are You?

These days lots of people are calling themselves chefs, but are they really? Are you a chef? What really defines a true chef and how are they different from a really, really good cook? If you've ever wondered, read on, we're taking a look at what makes a chef and exploring the different roles in a traditional, professional kitchen.

chef holding potPreparation

Chefs do not have to have a culinary degree or even have attended a culinary school, but it is assumed that they are "trained" in their field. For many chefs this training takes place on the job and they may or may not be paid for this work. There is no set course of training or length of time over which practice may qualify one to be sufficiently learned; some learn and progress quickly from novice cook to chef, while others require years of preparation to adequately hone their skills.

By most standards, chefs are skilled in all aspects of food preparation (from butchery and sauce work to vegetable preparations and pastry), but in practice chefs tend to specialize in a specific area.


Opinions vary widely as to who should and shouldn't call themselves a chef, but most people agree that a chef cooks professionally – they are paid to cook. This means all chefs are cooks, but not all cooks are chefs. What this doesn't mean is that a chef is better at cooking than a cook.

While we often think of chefs in a restaurant environment, other businesses have chefs, too. Hospitals, catering companies, schools, manufacturers and food producers, test kitchens and yes, even grocery stores employ chefs. Cooking professionally doesn't necessarily mean cooking in a professional kitchen either, as personal chefs are paid to cook in their clients' home kitchens.


The word chef is the kitchen equivalent of "boss." A chef is in charge of a kitchen. Deciding what to cook, when and how to cook it and deciding how to spend a food budget are the professional chef's obligations, but these duties are part and parcel to many peoples' experience at home, too. Even though they aren't "paid" for their efforts (assuming hugs, kisses and kudos don't count), a home cook may certainly be commander-in-chief in their own kitchen. Many such people, being particularly passionate about food and cooking, like to casually call themselves chefs merely as a way of describing their interests.

Some professional chefs worry about informal use of the term chef despoiling that which they have worked extremely hard for, decrying such use of the term as fraudulence by anyone not professionally trained, restaurant-experienced and/or well paid, even going so far as to suggest that calling oneself a chef without having such credentials is akin to a someone who is enthusiastic about medicine calling themselves a doctor. Confident professional chefs, however (even if they aren't thrilled with colloquial usage of their title), know it's not difficult to distinguish between "chefs" who are just avid amateurs and those professionally recognized and actively engaged in a workplace for their skill.


The formal hierarchy for naming chefs in a professional kitchen was most famously documented by turn-of-the-20th-century French chef Auguste Escoffier. Called the brigade system, it defines the various jobs in the kitchen in great detail. The three main categories of chefs are described below, starting with the chef de cuisine. The shortened term for this top-of-the line cook, the word chef means the director or head of a kitchen:

In practice, a chef de cuisine may carry the title of executive chef, chef manager, head chef or master chef. They are responsible for all activities related to the kitchen, from planning the menu to purchasing products and ingredients and managing staff.

A sous chef is next in line, filling in when the head chef is absent and assisting staff. They are generally given managerial responsibilities related to inventory, cleaning and training other chefs, cooks and other kitchen personnel.

A chef de partie may be referred to by the particular "station" in which they work (such as a pastry chef) or as a line cook. They are in charge of a particular area of food production. In very large kitchens each station chef may have one or even several assistants.

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