It happens now and again, that question comes up on-line, usually from individuals new to a professional kitchen, or those who have little idea about how kitchens work. “What is the difference between a cook and a chef”? Sometimes, it depends on how you ask the question. As an example, I remember one very moving presentation to a room full of culinary professionals by Andre Soltner (a consummate chef whom I will forever admire) during which he directed all who were in the audience to remember that we should “never forget that we are all cooks first”. But to the first group I mentioned, the question was meant to try and delineate the two titles.
So, I felt compelled to define a few points of differentiation that might help cooks aspiring to the title of chef and current chefs who may not be entirely clear on their role.
A CHEF IS (A baker’s dozen):
 The Role Model for the Kitchen
THE LAW: Look to the chef to see how the kitchen will act. It is the chef’s responsibility to set the standard for others to follow.
 A Team Builder
THE LAW: It is not enough to hire competent people. The chef must be the coach who recognizes strengths and weaknesses and builds consensus around common goals so that the machine works properly.
 A Teacher and a Trainer
THE LAW: It may be the responsibility of the cook to constantly enhance his or her skill set, but it is the chef who must create an environment of learning and provide the tools for others to gain knowledge and skill.
 The Ambassador for the Kitchen
THE LAW: The person in the role of “chef” is responsible for the image of the kitchen through his or her actions – BOTH ON AND OFF THE JOB.
 The Person Who Establishes the Direction for the Kitchen
THE LAW: Unless you know where you are going, any road will take you there. The chef must define that destination: how the restaurant wants to be perceived by all stakeholders.
 A Mentor to Others
THE LAW: Chefs have a responsibility to help each employee set a course and stay on course to reach his or her professional objectives. It goes with the turf. When a chef’s cooks succeed in life, so too does the chef.
 A Leader in Every Sense of the Word
THE LAW: Take this very seriously – how chefs act, how they look, how they treat others, the standards they set for product, the expectations they establish for work habits, and the commitment that the chef has for excellence is what others will emulate. If a chef fails to understand this, then he or she will eventually fail in that position.
 A Business Manager
- Cost Controller and Analyzer
- Marketing Resource
THE LAW: First and foremost – the restaurant must be profitable! Unless this becomes a guiding principle then all other objectives of the chef will be unattainable. The chef must be able to build realistic, measurable, and challenging budgets that push and pull everyone in the organization to meet and exceed expectations. To do this, the chef must understand and practice solid cost control measures such as inventory control, recipe costing, portion control, as well as theft and waste control. And, the chef must play an active role in assisting, and sometimes driving marketing initiatives.
 A Negotiator
THE LAW: The chef is in a position that requires negotiation with vendors, employees, and other managers. This requires patience and diplomacy – something that many cooks fail to embrace.
 A Problem Solver
THE LAW: Chefs can never view problems with a fatalistic eye. Problems are really challenges and opportunities. Others in and outside the kitchen will look to the chef to solve problems. The chef must have the answer or know where to go to find the answer. It’s that simple.
 The Source of Creative Energy
THE LAW: All individuals have the raw ability to be creative, it is up to the chef to channel that creativity, encourage it, and feed it, but also temper it when it lacks direction. By referring to the chef as the “source” need not require that all creativity originates from the chef – in fact, the greatest use of creative energy is to set the stage for others to be the innovators.
 A Consummate Organizer and Planner
THE LAW: Every day brings a need for planning and organizing; it is the experience of the person who earns the title “chef” that provides the ability to develop systems that will allow this to work consistently. This is also where mentorship comes into play. The chef should guide his or her sous chef to build the necessary skills that organization and planning require. The best planners are also great trainers, teachers, and delegators.
 A Resource for Cooks
THE LAW: The chef must always serve as the resource encyclopedia in the kitchen. Sometimes, the chef will tap into experiences that he or she has in their job portfolio, other times, the chef simply knows where to look or whom else to contact for the answers a cook requires.
This is only a partial list, but one that I believe all accomplished chefs would agree on. All of these aptitudes and skills are built over time with ample experiences; some resulted in positive outcomes and others, not so positive. They all add to a chef’s ability to function in the position. As talented as a cook might be, as knowledgeable and skillful as he or she might be about preparing food, and as enthusiastic as the person might be for the work – without the experience to solidify what the cook may know, it would be (at least in my opinion) impossible to be effective as a chef. There are no real shortcuts from cook to chef – it takes time and a willingness to learn. All chefs are cooks (and Andre Soltner will not let us forget that), but not all cooks are chefs.
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