The Difference Between a Cook and a Chef

June 15, 2011 11 Comments

Difference Between Cook and Chef

Do You Know The Difference Between a Professional Chef and a Cook?

To most people, a cook and a chef are the same thing. The two terms are used interchangeably to indicate someone working away in the kitchen, regardless of whether that individual is cutting vegetables or masterminding the entire menu.

For those who work in the culinary field, however, there is a big difference. Although there is no single professional organization that determines exactly who is a chef and who is a cook, most agree that the difference lies in education and experience.

If you have a culinary degree and/or trained under a notable chef and have moved up the ranks, you are typically considered a chef. If you simply dabble in the kitchen at home or are just starting out at the bottom of the restaurant totem pole, you are almost always considered a cook.

What Makes a Cook a Cook?

Most people agree that a cook is lower-ranking than a chef, and that chefs themselves vary in rank. For example, an executive chef is the top of the line, while sous chefs, chefs de partie, and other professionals might have the right training, but are still working toward their top professional goals.

If you still aren’t sure exactly what it is that makes a chef a chef, consider these qualifications:

  • A two- or four-year culinary degree
  • Extensive training under a chef with the goal of gaining a culinary education equal to that of a degree (also known as a culinary apprenticeship)
  • Responsibilities that include a supervisory role
  • The ability to create and implement menus in a restaurant setting
  • Management roles in the kitchen

A cook, on the other hand, can expect to:

  • Prepare food on a daily basis
  • Perform kitchen duties, as needed and directed
  • Clean and wash the kitchen
  • Use recipes and follow someone else’s menu plan
  • Still be at the learning level of his or her career

There are some culinary institutions (including the American Culinary Federation) that offer designations and titles based on testing, work experience, and education. Although many organizations and restaurants recognize these distinctions (and will boost your career accordingly), they aren’t required to be a chef or to be successful in your own culinary career.

In most cases, the cook is below the chef in terms of prestige, pay, and career development. However, there are instances in which this isn’t true. Many home cooks or amateurs have skills and experience that surpass that of their chef counterparts; they simply may not make claim to the title.

Famous Cooks vs. Famous Chefs

In fact, many of the celebrity chefs we have come to know and love as a culture aren’t really chefs at all. Rachael Ray and Nigella Lawson are two of the biggest names in the culinary and Hollywood world, but both women profess that they aren’t trained chefs…and have never pretended to be anything other than cooks. Self-trained, self-motivated, and never having worked in a long-term chef capacity (such as overseeing a restaurant), they are just two examples of cooks who have hit it big.


Last modified on Mon 2 May 2016 3:10 pm

Comments (11)

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  1. Michael J.K.Bett says:

    Thank you for correcting my understanding about the difference between a chef and a cook. I hope many of those who work in the culinary field have seen this ellaboration. I have seen and heard a number of them use the two terms loosely. Thank you once again. Michael from Kenya.

  2. I disagree somewhat with your definition. By am a chef, both classically trained and with experience in hotel restaurants and banqueting suites across Europe. But refer to myself a cook when asked as this is my definition.

    A chef: produces single plates / dishes as part of a service in some form of restaurant.
    ingredients are usually of greater cost and garnishing is implicit.
    is likely to working in just one section of a kitchen and developing considerable talents in a specific area of cuisine.

    A cook: produces complete meals often consisting of a number of courses and dishes.
    is likely to be multi-skilled and able to work alone or as part of a team.
    is liable to show a career path within the educational, residential or hospital services.

    But for either, a chef or a cook, a continuing interest in food in all it’s aspects and a desire to produce the best possible experience from the ingredients provided is essential.

    • Jared says:

      I agree with Nugget’s definition as it dies well to generalize the titles of chef & cook on their own without making either one sound more professional than the other. Most times you will see it along with some specification such as pastry chef or sous chef, while the title of executive chef may best fit the definition of someone who runs a kitchen & creates their own menu, & would overall be a better fit for the definition given in the article. While a cook is a cook there’s normally not any specification added to it as most professionals in a kitchen are cross trained throughout the entire kitchen, they’re the ones who prepare entire meals to order in a timely manner usually as part of a team.
      I would also like to add that in a lot of kitchens most cooks are actually using premixed ingredients & actually just literally combining & cooking them while the prep person is the one following recipes & measuring ingredients, so they are actually responsible for more of the actual end product rather than the cook who is typically seen as higher ranking (normally due to the speed & accuracy they have to complete each order with, which creates a stressful environment) but in most cases someone will spend time doing prep before working the line so tht they become familiar with the dishes & know what the food is supposed to look & taste like & consist of.
      Really I believe anyone who has completed some sort of formal apprenticeship or educational degree, or has enough years of experience in a commercial kitchen to know all the ins and outs tht the formal education would’ve given them & especially anyone who can cook, prepare, or create dishes they have or have not made before without having to follow a recipe or measure their ingredients, has the right to consider themselves either a chef or a cook as they choose

      • Stu F. says:

        Here’s my definitions.

        Cook is a job title. Chef is a way of life.
        Cooks come in and prepare food according to a set series of recipes, without deviation.
        Chefs are allowed room to experiment and use/create their own recipes.
        Cooks have no say when it comes to other kitchen matters such as staffing or inventory.
        Chefs inputs are invaluable to the executive chef or kitchen manager and are directly involved, even if they don’t have final say.
        Cooks focus on an area of expertise but rarely leave it.
        Chefs may cook, wash dishes, run food, prep, bake, check on customers, usually all within one shift.
        I do not have a culinary degree. I have spent 20+ years in the industry, holding cooking positions in buffet, family dining, and four star fine dining. I have spent time learning from degreed chefs. My current position is with a family dining restaurant. There is the owner, the manager, and me. (in terms of kitchen seniority) I am directly involved with matters of staffing, menu planning, and inventory. In any given shift, I cook, bake, prep, wash dishes, run food, take orders, and touch tables. I have spent countless hours teaching myself, developing and tweaking recipes of my own creation. To me cooking isn’t a job, or a career, it’s an obsession and an addiction.
        Now, given my experience, training, and level of devotion to the craft, as well as the position I currently hold, I feel I am worthy to be called Chef.

  3. If you consult a dictionary, you see that a cook is simply a person who prepares food for eating. Given that it makes no sense to say that cooks are of a lower rank than chefs. It shows us that ‘cook’ is a genus while ‘chef’ is a species. Chefs are cooks. Chef is a rank or job title.

    The distinction in this article makes as much sense as saying that movie stars are higher ranking than actors. You can’t say that a species is higher ranking than its genus but you can of course introduce ranks within a genus.

  4. Rusty says:

    A cook follows a recipe; recipe calls for 3 table spoons of tomato paste and only have two? Throw out the whole meal and come up with something else.

    A chef with the same issue…just use a tablespoon of catsup!

    Its called FLAIR!

  5. Artemis says:

    In the establishment I work in (4-star hotel), everyone who prepares food is considered a chef of a certain rank. Our executive chef stresses that if you are experienced enough to be hired, and talented enough to pull your weight at our establishment, you are worthy enough to carry the title of chef. We all have some creative influence over the menu, as well. “A ‘cook’ works the line at Hooters”…his words. I understand that kind of socialism is rare in the culinary world; but our high SALT scores, low turnover, sales figures and profits speak for themselves.

  6. Neil says:

    A cook cooks for a living,a chef lives for cooking..

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