Tiffin Project

A Cook Is A Cook

by Jacob Galbraith on October 3, 2011

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There is a certain unflattering imagery that accompanies the professional label of “cook”: a sad, tired individual wearing a stained apron and a dirty shirt, simultaneously grasping a spatula and a fry basket. “Chef”, however, paints a more favourable picture, and so it makes sense that a large portion of my contemporaries shy away from referring to themselves as cooks, opting instead for chef. In some parts of the world the two are synonymous, but around here they aren’t. Not by a long shot, and I like it this way. Cooks who call themselves chef are piggybacking, and in doing so, do little to rescue the word “cook” from the dark side of people’s imaginations. You see, becoming a chef isn’t as simple as holding a knife and wearing the uniform. Graduating from culinary school doesn’t even earn you the designation. So what does it take to be a chef? Well, it’s kinda complicated, but I’ll do my best to explain it from my perspective, which is that of a cook.

I once sniffed a sous chef gig, got scared and ran away. That’s as close as I’ve been to being a chef, which really isn’t all that close. Every day spent in the kitchen is another day closer to being ready for the day it happens, and chances are when it does you won’t actually be ready. Maybe you’ve been toiling as sous in the same kitchen for a half decade, maybe half a month, but at some point, the guy at the top is gonna clock out, leaving the still warm throne vacant for you. I imagine it would be like being tossed from a frying pan and into a deep fryer. Ready or not, you’re a chef now, and you get to tell people that’s what you are, and they can “oooh” and “ahhh” while you do the same for entirely different reasons: they’re impressed, and you’ve got a migraine. There’s a chance that you’ll get a fancy coat with your name and title on it, possibly some business cards to go with it too, but these things are vain, and amount to just a wee portion of what truly separates a cook from a chef.

All that time spent being a cook is either a way to keep busy while chasing bussers and hostesses, or a period of research and development for when your time comes. Or both. While there is plenty of time spent doing, the best spend as much time as they can watching. Watching the boss, watching the peers, and watching the dishwasher try to steal beer at the end of the night. This ongoing observation is the only way to pick up on the subtleties, the things that go unmentioned. The way a chef responds to adversity is something you have to see to appreciate. The way a chef handles mistakes. They way a chef handles a burnt out and poisonous line cook. The way a chef handles new hires. The way they fire people. The way they cook. They way they teach. The way they lead. All of this is picked up via peripheral vision and direct experience, there simply is no other way. You aren’t a chef until the cooks are watching you, asking you a million questions, and calling you on your days off.

What I would like is for all the good cooks out there to identify themselves as cooks until they’ve made the jump. Intended or not, referring to oneself as a “chef” gives the false impression that you’re something that you not. A cook is a cook, a sous chef is a sous, and a chef is THE chef. This little piece of nit pickery primarily revolves around the discussions we have with outsiders. Terminology and titles get mangled within the confines of the kitchen, and in that place everybody has a keen understanding of who’s who and if anybody is actually somebody. As a dishwasher I would introduce myself to new hires as the sous chef. The ruse lasted only a second because my coworkers would snicker audibly at the thought, and I would soon find myself performing the dirtiest and shittiest tasks available in the restaurant. That, my friends, is funny. Telling strangers and outsiders that you’re “a chef”, however, is misleading and an indication of insecurity. Tell people you’re a cook, and go about making yourself a great one. Then, in all likelihood, you’ll find yourself wearing the fancy jacket, answering all the questions, and sleeping less than a crackhead.

~ Jacob Galbraith

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerry October 3, 2011 at 5:29 am

Hey Jacob:

As a long time “Chef” who more often speaks of himself as a cook, this is an interesting topic. My wife gets more indignant about this than I do. She often tells me of someone whos partner is a “Chef” who is actually guarde manger at the White Spot. She is quick to point out that I worked 80+ hours a week for 15 years carrying the Chef title and that I earned it.
I myself am more concerned that in the long run it demeans the title and the job. There were and are many great cooks both on the line and at home, but they are not Chefs in the classic definition of the word. Recenty I have begun to notice that the jobs offered by headhunters and on various websites are offering lower wages for the Head Chef or Executive Chef position than they were when I came here 17 years ago. Longer hours, smaller kitchens, bigger menus, less staff, and lower wages seem to be the trend. I wonder if there is any correlation between the recent Art Institute grad who calls hinm or herself a “Chef” but has less than a year in the kitchen and the “Executive Chef positions that pay 37K. That usually means less than minimum wage when you divide by your hours.

Neil wyles October 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I was at a photoshoot a few years back with about 50 of the top chefs in the city…………….I was the lone “cook”

Anyways, all of them, to a man, was calling each other by their first names and it was a jovial event.

The lone person that was refered to as Chef, by one and all, in the entire crowd, was Michel Jacob.

It spoke volumes to me. No matter how big or small the brigade, there is only one “Chef”, and he had earned the respect of every person in the group.

The term Chef is bandied about a little to easily, and usually by people who have not earned the right to use it. Technically, I am the “chef” of my kitchen as I am the chief of the brigade, but I am not in the more classical sense of the word.

Neil Wyles

Pia October 11, 2011 at 9:03 pm

The difference, a cook cooks to live and a chef lives to cook

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