Some time ago I attempted to describe the attributes that should make up the character of a chef. Now I want to expand on those thoughts to further debate whether we should be identified in the contemporary foodservice kitchen as “cooks” or “chefs”?
Should cooks and chefs wish for the commercial preparation of food to be seriously accepted as a specialized professional career path by the wider community, we need to stop the exploitation of confusing pretentious titles and accurately use the terms “cook” and “chef” in their appropriate context.
Unless cooks and chefs make a concerted effort to describe their role accurately, both titles may well evolve into pretentious and diluted designations, with the unfortunate potential for cookery as a trade to become an old-fashioned vocation and fade into history.
Cooks and chefs alike are losing the confidence of the general public and their perception of cookery as a trade. We are losing the public understanding of the role of chef, with the result the trade may well vanish into antiquity — as will the respect of the public for a trained cook as a specialist.
For decades cooks and chefs have attempted to elevate cookery to a respectable professional level in the community. If we lose the community perception of the trade as a meaningful lifelong career, we may also be unable to maintain industry standards. What will it be like to be a chef in twenty years’ time? Will the position degenerate into just a job and not a lifelong career?
To stop this erosion I contend that people who prepare and cook for a living should be called “cooks” and not “chefs”. Further, I also argue in most cases current chefs should be honest and face reality by calling themselves a cook and not a chef.
“Chef“ used to clearly define a position of responsibility and experience and “cook“ was to describe a noble career or vocation that led to the ultimate responsibility of being a chef. Unfortunately and wrongly, a professional cook is now considered by some to be an inferior title to that of a chef, but in reality a cook should be an equally legitimate professional title. In fact the title of cook should be even more revered by genuine chefs, as they cannot run their kitchen without their cooks.
A cook is a trained professional who prepares food in a commercial kitchen and chefs are first and foremost professional cooks. There is a paradox here, as cooks can earn their living without being a chef; however a genuine professional chef must first be a cook, and secondly have cooks on staff.
When asked “What do you do for a living?” It is illogical to say “I am a manager, foreman or supervisor” without qualifying what or whom you actually manage – just as “I am a chef” is also technically inaccurate, unless the person’s role is to actually manage a kitchen brigade.
In reality no one is really entitled in commercial cookery to call themselves a chef – unless they are actually responsible for the operation of a commercial kitchen. However an exception to the rule is one may be called a “chef” by their colleagues, even while working as a cook, when and only when, the term is used as a compliment to acknowledge a person’s experience and knowledge in commercial cookery.
In this case it is an honorary title bestowed as an accolade only and should not be used by the individual to define their career.
I take the liberty of adding the two top lines to the renowned quotation by Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton (1831–91):
We may live without chefs and live without bars
We may live without phones and live without cars
We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
While there has been a community shift in the interpretation and understanding of the title “chef”, the evolution of the change in the interpretation has been basically driven by self-interested people, many outside the real kitchen.
I suggest it may well be in the professional interest of all cooks and chefs to rechristen themselves and return to being cooks.
At the very least:
Cookery teachers could explain the fundamental difference between a cook and a chef to their students. Apprentices need a goal: they need to understand that it takes years of training and experience to reach the position and title of chef, that nothing worth doing is ever easy and be given a challenge to reach the ultimate target.
Trained chefs should take on the notion and reality that they are fundamentally cooks by trade – that being a chef is a mindset as well as a position description, while understanding and protecting the trade of cookery not the misnomer trade of “cheffery”.
Head chefs should only use the designation “chef” as a reward when appropriate to compliment a member of their brigade for an extraordinary effort. This would actually be a motivational tool and staff will appreciate the title for outstanding performance.
The Australian Culinary Federation and Les Toques Blanches should promote themselves as a cooks and chefs association as they have in reality members who are both cooks and chefs.
And last but not least, restoring the correct designation “apprentice cook” instead of using the pretentious title “apprentice chef“ will go a long way to reinstate the status and accurate description of a chef.
— George Hill (Trained Cook)
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