What is a Chef?

“A good cook is the peculiar gift of the gods. He must be a perfect creature from the brain to the palate, from the palate to the finger’s end.” – Walter Savage Landor

I’ve recently had cause to research the word “Chef”, as one of those wonderfully gutless anonymous posters decided to take umbrage with a regular contributor over his use of the word in regards to himself (luckily, this is a moderated blog, so I got to push the button on that one.)

Now…before I get all preachy, please understand…I really don’t care. I have an opinion (as always) but I’m not runnin’  a flag up the hill amid a hail of bullets on this one. Call yourself whatever you want to call yourself, as long as you can back it up on the plate.

However, I’m also not a fan of elitism…which I (personally) feel is creeping more and more into the cooking scene, thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to Food Network stars with sheepskins from places like CIA and Le Cordon Bleu.

NOTE – I think those are GREAT institutions, and I think they have a lot to offer. But…can you only call yourself a Chef, if you have a degree from one of these places.

This guy’s opinion? – No.

My grandfather was a professional chef in many kitchens, including the opening of Timberline Lodge (thanks WPA), but he never went to school for it (in fact, I’m not sure he ever went to school, period.) My father did have a Chef’s degree, but he ran kitchens for MANY years before he decided to go to school for it.

Me? I’ve done an awful lot of cooking (some of it pretty awful, lol) both in and out of restaurants, but I’ve only taken a couple of college courses. I did most of my learning in my dad’s kitchen (as he did in HIS dad’s kitchen)…which was sort of a cross between Marine Boot and a war-time concentration camp…but with better food.

So, believe me, I learned.

However, I don’t have a degree for it…yet I hire out as a personal “chef”, for which I sometimes even get paid.

Here’s the dictionary definition for the word chef…

chef [shef] –noun

1. the chief  cook, especially in a restaurant or hotel, usually responsible for planning menus, ordering foodstuffs, overseeing food preparation, and supervising the kitchen staff.

2. any cook.

1826, from Fr. chef de cuisine,  lit. “head of the kitchen,” from O.Fr. chief  “leader, ruler, head” (see chief).

I noted the words “especially” and “usually” in the first definition, as they seem to leave an awful lot of wiggle room, and the second definition even more so. Still, it seems to me that the maximum requirements would include some or all of the following:

1. Menu planning
2. Food ordering (shopping)
3. Food prep and/or the overseeing of food prep
4. The supervision of kitchen staff, if any

I don’t see any requirements for getting paid or for having a degree. On that note, I checked the Oregon State licensing website, and there is no educational requirement (or any requirements) for the position of “Chef”, save the generic food handlers card.

Also, and I think many folks don’t know this, a culinary school diploma does not grant one the title of chef. It’s simply an associates’ degree (sometimes just a certificate, depending on the school) in culinary arts, hospitality, pastry arts, food service, etc. No title is conferred with the degree. While the degree is a lot more common than it used to be, it’s still neither a requirement nor an automatic conferral.

Here’s a great comment I found on a similar post, that looks at the title in a different way:

“IMHO, a ‘cook’ is someone who has a good mastery of basic cooking/kitchen techniques and can follow a recipe and turn out really good food. A ‘chef’ takes cooking to the next level by creating new dishes, new combinations of flavors, etc. Kind of like the difference between someone who can read music and play an instrument vs. a composer.”

So, I guess I just don’t see a “chef” being a solely professional position, as much as a position of accepted, or granted, responsibility. At the same time, a little education can go a long way. Not everyone is lucky enough (mostly lucky) to come from a multi-generational professional cooking family, and if you’re gonna be great at anything, you have to learn somewhere, right?

So, please don’t take this post as a bash on schools like CIA or Le Cordon Bleu. If the latter was good enough for Julia, it’s good enough for me. I just hesitate at the (often knee-jerk) opinion that you can’t be a chef unless you’ve been to culinary school, when there are many, many fantastic cooks out there, running the kitchens in some great restaurants, who’s entire culinary education started at the dish-washing station.

Many of them don’t speak much English, either.

For me, maybe the real question is…is anyone else calling me Chef?

What do you think?



Filed under Ponderings

7 responses to “What is a Chef?

  1. Fantastic read sir, and as someone who doesn’t have a formal degree and really has just learned to cook from my mother/friends/cookbooks – its something I want to continue to strive for and work on with this passion for food I have. I may never go to school formally but I agree it wouldn’t or shouldn’t hold me back from mastering my passion – nor should people not recognize the effort and the hard work that comes without the “title”. I think that anyone who actively cooks and goes through the 4 bullet points – whether it be a mother cooking for a family, a “head cook” (chef) at a top restaurant or friends trying to start a catering biz/food cart – when the love for food and execution is there and it shows up on the plate – they have earned the title, “Chef”.

    And with that I leave you with an old favorite TV series I used to watch with my dad growing up:

  2. I will definitely call you Chef. Especially if that means you continue to come over and cook for us! 😉

    Another sign that you are a chef? How about that you can and will critique what you see on the cooking shows and say to anyone within earshot “that’s not how you cook Risotto!” as you comment on whatever culinary crime is being committed on the air.

  3. Yeah, lol, I got opinions on risotto…

  4. Make sure to watch part 2 of the video!

  5. yeah i should of posted that clip!

  6. I certainly don’t think one needs a culinary degree to be a chef, but I do think (as your definition points out) it means the chief cook. As one who has spent years becoming a good and assured cook, and who has supervised other cooks-and who parenthetically did go to culinary school at some point in that career, although certainly not at the beginning of it- I have come to resent the very loose and easy use of the word. I still believe a chef must pay his/her dues.

  7. I don’t consider myself a chef, mainly because I have no experience in a commercial kitchen. I meet the definition as written but in my head “chef” implies professional experience. Very good post, Perry, it makes one think about their notions.

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