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Cooks vs. Chefs


I’ve had many people call me a chef. While I am flattered that people would describe my culinary abilities as chef-like, I more properly belong in the cook’s ranks. Like most of us, I’ve slung a few burgers in my day but, at best, one would call that a line cook position. True, I’ve acquired some skills along the way – I keep my knives sharp, I taste my dishes at all stages of their preparation, I’ve come to like anchovies, but what I do at home, and what I write about here, is from the viewpoint of a cook. I am a cook, not a chef.

What then is a chef? In the middle ages guilds were formed in France composed of different cooking specializations that were the foundations for today’s executive and sous chefs, pastry chefs, sauciers, and so on. Chefs are responsible, and are paid, for cooking for others – often many others. A chef understands how to cook many foods, what flavors go together, and what equipment is used to best prepare a dish. And where they have me dead to rights, is a chef does not need to read the directions in a recipe, and probably doesn’t even need to look at the ingredients, or their amounts.

Cooks can definitely outshine a chef in a certain specialty – my friend’s shrimp rémoulade comes to mind. I would put the cedar-planked, sockeye salmon I grilled a few days ago up against just about anyone’s. But we cooks don’t stand in a stifling, hot kitchen for 15 hours a day and we wont be browbeaten by the executive chef if the velouté is too salty.

I am always pleased when I perfect a technique learned by watching the professionals. I’ve learned, for instance, that I almost always set my stove-top burners too low. To get a good sear you need a smoking hot pan. Also the more prep you do ahead of time (mise en place) the faster and more efficiently you will cook. Add salt and other seasonings gradually, not all at once, and taste often. Simple dishes with top quality ingredients are usually best. I could go on and on. (Watch for an upcoming post with more of these tips from the pros.)

Ever wonder just what a sous chef does? The term pastry chef is fairly self-explanatory but what about a saucier or manger? My favorite is the personal chef – we should all be so lucky. Here’s an interesting article from the Cooking Schools website that explains the terms:

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