The Difference Between Chef and Cook

Last night, your friend cooked you a meal, and it was so good that even Gordon Ramsay would approve. As they placed your plate in front of you, they say, “Compliments of the chef!” But does cooking good food and having pride in your product make you a chef, or are you just a wonderful cook?

Though we may like to think these terms are interchangeable, there is a major difference between the two. And misuse of the words could get you in trouble with a seasoned restaurant professional.

Chef

A chef is a cook who has years of professional training, either through work experience or culinary school. A chef also takes a larger role in a restaurant or hotel kitchen, managing line cooks, and often expediting food orders. The title is a sign of respect and experience, just as “doctor” is for medical professionals and academics.

In a professional setting, you will encounter two different types of chefs.

Executive Chef

An executive chef creates the menu, manages the team, and takes care of kitchen operations. In some restaurants, you may encounter a Chef de Cuisine. A Chef de Cuisine can be an executive chef or someone who actively runs the kitchen and reports to an executive chef. Either way, the two titles are very similar to each other.

Sous Chef

A sous chef is an executive chef’s second in command. They also take on a higher managing role in the kitchen and supervise the food as the team sends it out.

Cook

How you define a cook depends on the setting.

Amateur & Home Cook

Outside of the restaurant industry, a cook is simply someone who cooks. No one will chastise you for calling yourself a cook — so long as you actually do it.

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Professional Cook

A professional cook is anyone who cooks underneath an executive and sous chef in a restaurant or hotel kitchen. Unlike home cooks, a professional cook has restaurant experience or went to culinary school. There are a few different cooks in a restaurant kitchen.

  • Line Cook: In a kitchen, there are different stations (soup, pastry, fish, meat, etc.), and the cooks who run these stations are line cooks.
  • Junior Cook: Junior cooks work within a particular station underneath a line cook. These cooks may have very little professional experience or just graduated from culinary school.
  • Prep Cook: Some restaurants hire prep cooks who come in hours before the restaurant opens to prep food. They do not work on the line. Tasks that befall a prep cook include peeling potatoes, chopping onions, and pre-slicing cuts of meat.

Are You a Cook or a Chef?

Before you call yourself “chef,” remember, you need professional experience to earn that title. But there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself a cook! Cooking, regardless of the setting, is an indispensable skill. And just because you’re an amateur doesn’t mean that that mac n’ cheese you made for your roommates last night wasn’t worthy of a menu.

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