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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Ponderings of Frank... The Meaning of "Chef"

Cooking can be seen as a hobby. Cooking can be seen as a craft. Cooking can be seen as art. Cooking can be seen as a science. But most importantly, cooking can be seen as a passion, a gift.

Started by World Association of Cooks Societies (WACS), International Chefs Day is celebrated on October 20th of each year. It is a day to pay regards to the culinary professionals of the world, and to recognize the hard work and dedication they give to their craft.

This past International Chefs Day really got my mind churning about what it means to be a chef. I really came up with what I thought it meant, but was curious about others' answers to that question.

I posed the following questions, worded exactly as I have typed here, to several culinary professionals that I know:

"What does it mean... "chef"? What makes someone a chef? What does that word really mean... in YOUR mind? What's the difference between a chef and a cook?"

What follows are some of the responses I received. They vary greatly, as one might expect with a sampling across such a wide demographic. Some of the respondents are older, some are younger. Some are currently working in the food industry, some are not...

"Chef means anyone who runs a professional kitchen. The word means chief, like chief of the kitchen. All people beneath the chef are cooks. Not really my opinion; it's a fact."
Jason Miller
Executive Chef/Owner of Instant Karma, Joplin MO

"Well, I suppose like a Skipper on a boat, it can mean several things. Professionally, it has a very different meaning, I suppose. Chef being a position. But when folks like me tell you that you are a chef, it is a title of respect. A cook seems more of someone who does it as an avocation, a hobby, or as a profession, a technician. You jumped out of the hobby cook when you decided to share your passion with others on TV or with your demos. Someone that clearly has a level of expertise. It is important too, for me to call someone a chef."
Stephen Block
Chef and Cookbook Author, The Kitchen Project, Palm Springs CA

"I was told once you need to be given the title, not by friends of family. I think it is a combination of experience and performance. Classically, a chef needed to have the ability to be a general, command a kitchen. Have a solution to every problem and flawless service every time, no excuses. I think today, most of that is still true, unfortunately everyone calls themselves a chef. I think TV has made a lot of people think they are chefs. I remember on graduation day from culinary school, parents were calling their kids chefs, and all the kids corrected them. We were told we had to earn it. Not through education, but experience."
Justin Mason
Chef/Owner of Red Labs Farm, Neosho MO

"Hmmmmm... when I was 18 and straight out of my father's bakery/restaurant, it meant the boss, ring leader in a circus of chaos, mentor. The chefs in those years of my career really impacted me tons. Not so much in my ways I am now, but my confidence. Those chefs gave me a chance when I didn't know what the fuck I was. In my early 20's I got to work for a "celebrity chef." Then, I looked at a chef as a demigod, hero, idol. If you couldn't do 100 hours and make anything you weren't close to a chef. Chefs are machines, maniacal, fanatical geniuses that live in a subculture. Then, a chefs meaning was nothing to me. I had lost my passion and therefore, my thoughts of what a chef was. About seven years ago, my fire was relit. Now, what I feel as a chef has emerged from all the chefs I've ever trained under, ran with, competed against, or read about. A chef, to me, is someone who is passionate about cuisine. The type of cuisine doesn't really matter; it's the passion. If they are producing at their optimum level and striving to be better. Constantly testing oneself. Being a chef is one of the most intimate professions, ever. What else gives you that foodgasm feeling when you take the perfect bite? A chef planned it that way, and executed for you and only you. Each and every dish. So, if you're a home chef, noobs line chef, or seasoned executive chef, we all sweat and bleed the same way. With passion and fire for food in our veins. Or I could be full of shit!"
Andy Teixeira
Executive Chef of Walpole Country Club, Boston MA

"To me, it means completely in the know: food safety and sanitation, all the way to flavor combinations that may not have occurred in his/her head. Either yes it works, or no, it won't. And always there, even when they are not."
Sean Flanagan
Chef/Owner of The Bruncheonette, Joplin MO

"The difference between a chef and a cook would be training, I suppose. I've never been classically trained as a chef, but my friends who are chefs call me a chef. To me, it just depends on where your head and heart are at. Some people cook as a means to earn, some in their spare time for fun, some because of the art. I get to combine all three."
Jeremy Canada
Executive Chef/Kitchen Manager at Eagle Drive In, Joplin MO

"Sometimes it can mean, you paid for your education and have proper training. It can also mean that you cook for a living and are constantly learning and striving to try new things and always improve. What makes a chef? First and foremost, Standards! Pride! Although you have to take criticism and be professional. I have quit jobs that ask me to compromise my standards and I don't regret a fucking thing. Basically, if you have bad standards, you're no better than a McD's 'line cook.' Most of all, you must maintain control (hopefully calmly) over your restaurant FAMILY. Difference between a chef and a cook... Passion. Not playing it safe. Pushing boundaries in this drab, dreary time. Most food looks like food, but it's not. I try to get local fresh ingredients as much as possible when making specials. It means a lot to build a relationship with local farmers with great products that you cannot get other places. Trying to show people what farmers used to have and really supporting the local farmers... it's key!"
Brandon Minear
Cook, Eagle Drive In, Joplin MO

"Chef: I think of a chef as an expert in food preparation, either formally or through an apprenticeship or self-taught. Typically that person is a professional in charge of a kitchen, but I don't know if that it is a requirement. After all, a chef who changes careers and no longer works as a professional in a kitchen still has the knowledge and skills. A chef in any kitchen is still a chef. That said, it is a title that I use cautiously because it is an honorific title."
Eileen Nichols
Market Manager at The Webb City Farmers Market, Webb City MO

"A chef turns food into art. More than just visual, but taste, texture, and smell. A cook can make things but the chef always strives to improve his skill and push the limits of his understanding and knowledge. A lot of times I feel like a mad food scientist and the kitchen is my laboratory. It is so rewarding to make people happy with food and that is much more important, I believe, to a chef than just a cook."
Brian Ferguson
Le Cordon Bleu Minneapolis graduate and former restaurant owner, Joplin MO

As you can see, the answers did vary. Some similarities focused around the defined definition of the word "chef". Many answers contained references to the passion one has, or the professionalism, or their knowledge.

You may be asking... "Frank, where do YOU stand on this?"

For a long time, now, people call me a chef. Chef Frank, etc. Often when I do dinner demos, or other similar events, they say I'm the "chef" for the night, or what not. I almost always correct them, and give my spiel about how chef means chief in French, and how the chef is the leader of a kitchen brigade. Then, I normally get an earful about how they see me as a chef, even if I don't have a brigade to command. So, normally, I just give up.

I have no formal culinary training. I have some number of years in the kitchen as a vocation, but none, truly, as any type of leader. So, I still refuse to see myself as a "chef", but as far as some of the answers above, I do feel that I have the passion and creativity aspects. But I have never earned the right to be called a chef.

What do you think? What does a non-culinary professional think "chef" means? I'd love to hear your feedback.

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