Cook or chef? You decide

Upon enjoying a wonderful meal at a restaurant, you are often driven to ask the name of the chef who created such a culinary delight.

You see, it is only natural to want to sing the praises of the person who created a most exquisite grilled fish dish from the dolphin (Mahi Mahi) that was hours before swimming in the warm currents of the Caribbean Sea, or to express appreciation to the one who possesses the skills to create a black forest cake with a perfectly heavenly texture.

However, we would like to alert you to a few facts we hope you will find useful the next time you’re treated to an exciting and memorable gastronomic experience.

In order to properly answer the question “who is the chef/cook?”, there has to be a clear understanding by the person to whom the question is addressed, as to the difference between a chef and a cook, for there is a world of difference between the two.

A world of difference, you say? How is that so?  Simply put, the job of the cook is to prepare and cook the meals. So the fish cook would have seasoned, flipped and perfectly timed the grilling of your dolphin, while the pastry cook was busy preparing the heavenly dessert.

So then, “what’s a chef?” you may ask.  Although the term “chef” is sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably with “cook”, the truth is, a chef is so much more. Every chef is a cook, but not all cooks become chefs. Chefs are more highly skilled and more comprehensively trained than cooks. Chefs basically “run the show” and that means that they have responsibility for the entire kitchen, including the cooks.

In countries with long established formal dining cultures, the terms chef and cook, along with many others, are widely appreciated. For example, other food service occupations are executive chef, sous chef, chef steward, working chef, chef de partie, night chef, banquet chef and so on; these are followed by several categories of cooks.

 In such a setting, the chef is the person in authority in a kitchen, the person who has complete charge of all food preparation and supervises the serving of foods for the dining rooms, banquets and all other functions.

In the very large establishments, the executive chef is in charge of the kitchen, with a full staff at his/her command. He/she plans and writes the menus, as well as coordinates all activities pertaining to the kitchen. The executive chef attends daily conferences with the manager and other heads of departments related to the food service, such as the purchasing agent, chief steward, maitre d’hotel and wine steward. It is his/her responsibility to see that all food served from the various kitchens in the establishment is prepared and served according to the standards and practices of the organization.

Chefs, in fact, are linked intrinsically with the restaurants they run and it is expected that the best will eventually set up their own brand of restaurant. So, the person in the tall white hat and ladle in his hand is usually the head cook or sous chef, who may even run the kitchen when the chef is off duty.

To be called a chef, however, you need certain formal qualifications. These include proficiency in all areas of cookery, i.e. knowledge of wines, food and beverage management, sanitation and safety, purchasing, menu planning, food costing and controlling, kitchen design and layout. 

In addition, a chef must also be a teacher. Apprenticeship is an important stage in the education and development of cooks at all levels, so the kitchen in which they work must always be a training ground. Since the position of the chef is so highly regarded, the food emanating from his/her kitchen will be considered his/her own style and brand of cooking. Therefore, the chef must train the staff to reproduce the same standard and style of cuisine that he/she would.

It is easy to confuse or blur the lines between the positions so that one is seen as no different from the other, especially with the casual use of culinary jargon. A cook may fall into one of several areas of specialty. For example, there may be a sauce cook, a roast cook, a fish cook, a pastry cook and even a staff cook.

To achieve certification, the chef must be well versed as a cook in every department. The head of each department may have an assistant who reports to him, but each department head is, in turn, subordinate to the chef.

Therefore, if the term chef is used to describe all these functions – and we know you’ve seen ads for pastry chefs and commis chefs, for example – then what is the fuss we are making all about? Good question; we are getting to that. In a country ringed with fine hotels and restaurants and a local population that has an enviable choice of government-sponsored tertiary education institutions, we must address the issue of locals being employed at the highest levels in the tourism industry.

Now, if your son or daughter is a chef, as far as you are concerned he/she is doing great things and has reached the highest echelons of that field. That’s why this seemingly small point is so important. 

Chefs are highly experienced, highly trained persons who can do great things, culturally speaking. They can make people sit up and take note of the cuisine and eating habits of a particular group of people and proceed to influence the wider world one palate at a time, thereby contributing to the evolution of the culinary arts.

Note that if one becomes a cook, he/she may make a table sit up and take note, but in the end, the cook will only be reproducing what the chef, probably an imported chef, has required.

Hence, if a cook is to reach chef status, that person must be aware that training and apprenticeship are vital. It will take formal training in a culinary school and there are several levels that he/she must pass through before being recognized as being able to run a large kitchen.

All of those talented persons who started out in the hotel kitchens of the south and west coasts and have gone on to establish themselves in their own restaurants, deserve admiration for their talent and entrepreneurship.

However, an educated public will see sooner or later that we may be lulling ourselves into a false sense of having “arrived” when our major industry (having given Barbados its share of the limelight in the international press) may be either running kitchens with persons less qualified than their international counterparts, or running kitchens with the vast majority of top posts being held by expatriates.

Sadly, there are only a few Barbadian certified executive chefs; only a handful of persons who can go to work anywhere in the world and be recognized as a trained professional in the field.

A better understanding of the career track and professional achievements as set out above will help the innocent, but delighted, patron understand the answer to that simple question the next time it comes to mind. It also gives the young aspirant a different view of what a chef really is.

In the same way that every person who wears a stethoscope is not a doctor, everyone who wears a chef jacket is not a chef. Therefore, the person you see along the roadside wearing a tall hat and a white coat, posing over a half-barrel and cooking pigtails, is most likely not a chef.

So, “cook or chef?” You decide.

(Peter Edey is a certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’Ecole Ritz Escoffier Paris and a certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainder

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