The Difference Between a Cook and a Chef

June 15, 2011 41 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:

arrow A two- or four-year culinary degree

arrow 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)

arrow Responsibilities that include a supervisory role

arrow The ability to create and implement menus in a restaurant setting

arrow Management roles in the kitchen

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

arrow Prepare food on a daily basis

arrow Perform kitchen duties, as needed and directed

arrow Clean and wash the kitchen

arrow Use recipes and follow someone else’s menu plan

arrow 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 Wed 22 August 2018 10:33 am

Comments (41)

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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.

    • brandon says:

      Personal experience of ten years as a true pro chef who earned it and knows what they are saying. any spelling or grammar problems and its clear why i am a chef and not a English teacher.

  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.

        • Jacqueline says:

          I believe you said it best!!

        • Sharon says:

          Oh brother. I have a sister who took a 4-day course and now claims to be a “certified chef.” Yet she has never worked in any food service capacity other than a sampler server at a grocery store and a lunch lady at a school. Your definition reminds me of the same type of sneer she has when differentiates between herself and “cooks.” The only difference between a professional cook and chef is how expensive the restaurant they are working in is! I have known head cooks in smaller restaurants who run the staff, construct menus, orders the supplies and wash dishes, just like you claim. Pull your nose out of the air! You might learn some things from people you consider lower than you.

          • TG says:

            I work in a multi million dollar facility catering to government parties, oil and petroleum CEOs as well as other major players in Western Canada. I have trained in Cuba and have been taught by amazing chefs from Japan, Austria, Switzerland and others and I’m a certified Chef having completed 5 years of industry training and schooling. Yet I’m just a cook more over a line cook. I take part in management, recipe creation as well as washing the floors and general cleaning. Chefs according to the old traditions have at least 15 years of experience under their belts. Anyone who hasn’t worked at least 5 years isnt taken seriously and even made fun of for thinking they are a Chef. Doesn’t matter what type of restaurant you work in or how much the ingredients cost. It’s all about experience, knowledge and understanding how food actually works in each case. Not how expensive the restaurant actually is. That is a big lie.

        • Chef Stu says:

          It seems that you and I have travel similar roads throughout our careers. Your definition is dead on, in my opinion anyway.
          I’m going to use it in my Marketing and as part of my Chef position description. Awesome, Chef Stu!

          • Chef Stu, thanks for your comments. I would love to contact you and hear more about your company and what you are doing. Maybe we can do a short interview too.

        • Elissa Castro Bitos says:

          Stu F.
          I agree most definitely!
          We are… Almost on the same boat 😊

      • Francisca Duhaney says:

        I completely agree with you.

    • Jeremiah says:

      I’m a cook with over 12yrs experience. Never went to hotel school, I learnt from my mom, other cooks and I’ve worked with people from culinary school which is a shame for some that cannot cook. I’ve also had to create and improvised dishes to bring a change to add new types of food. So why can’t I be called a chef? I’ve also had 2 weeks training in a high class restaurant and saw nothing impressive nor different.

  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..

    • Sharon says:

      There are MANY famous cooks who would completely disagree, like Nigella Lawson, Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, Tom Colicchio (Top Chef fame!), Jamie Oliver, never went to culinary school. I’m sure they would insist they lived to cook.

    • Joni Marten says:

      A chef friend once asked me what was the first thing I thought of in the morning. I responded “What was I going to cook for dinner that night.” He said “Then you are a chef”. I don’t have any formal training but have worked in the food industry for over 30 years. Personal chef, catering, banquet server. My sons have been taught to cook since they were 3 years old and were required to plan and prepared one meal a week from scratch since they were in middle school. They are both very capable in the kitchen and I love seeing pictures of their food masterpieces and hearing the compliments they receive from their friends.

  7. Yonah Nkhuwa says:

    its so great cause alot of us usually misuses the two

  8. Beanball says:

    I’ve spent nearly 30 years of my life working in kitchens of all sorts, from fine dining to family style. I’m a chef. I’ve put in the work and the training to be called that. I am not a cook. The difference between a cook and a chef is somewhat like the difference between a shade-tree mechanic and an ASE certified tech. Chefs know techniques and flavor profiles that cooks generally aren’t aware of. That’s not to say that cooks can’t make damn fine food. But rarely is it elevated. A chef is familiar with all the nuances of a dish in order to bring out the food’s inner greatness. A meal with a cook is good. A meal with a chef is memorable and something you take with you.

    To illustrate, let’s look at the common french fry:
    A normal cook takes a potato, cuts it into fries, and fries them at 350 degrees until done. Finish with salt. Serve.

    A chef takes the same potato, cuts it, soaks it lightly salted water for several hours to release the starches then drains. He then blanches the fries in 335 degree oil until soft and tender but not yet cooked through. After draining and resting until room temperature, he then places the fries in a 375 degree fryer with either peanut oil or duck fat to crisp and puff the fries until they are light and pillowy on the inside yet have a good crisp on the outside. Salt immediately after taking the fries out of the oil so the potatoes draw in the salt as they cool. Serve.

    Sure, chefs my seems arrogant (many are) but try working my hours (usually between 60-80 hours a week) for years on end. I’ve trained with some great culinary minds and enured a lot of stress and heartache at my craft as well a success. I feel I have rightly earned the jacket that I wear. There is nothing wrong with being a cook. It’s good honest work. But making the same foods over and over again is more akin to a factory job than being a creative chef. Anyone can cook by numbers, but not everyone can get meat temps consistently right. That takes practice and training. Anyone can ladle gravy or sauce over a plate of food. But can you create the perfect sauce to pair with the dish being served? If you can, then congratulations. You’re a chef. Chef means “chief” as in “in charge of your area”. That’s what I’m expected to be each time I walk into that kitchen.

  9. Dorothy P-H says:

    I have cooked for over 40 years and done a lot of outside catering as well. I am a versatile and very good cook but have never done a “proper” training course although I did do a Cordon Bleu short course more than 40 years ago (at the insistence of my mother). My food which is carefully prepared whether for outside or home is often praised and I am asked for recipes. Does this make me a chef or a cook?

    • What a great question Dorothy.

      • Dorothy P-H says:

        I perhaps should have added: I adapt recipes to make them better, I do make up my own recipes, I use wines etc to flavour sauces, and I hold food hygiene certificates. I know how to use my bundle of cook’s (extremely sharp) knives and I enjoy cooking for others.

        • Maria says:

          My son went to Le Cordon Bleu for a short time. He also has the set of knives and knows how to use them. He can make his own recipes and improvise when needed and his cooking is incredible! He hasn’t had many years of experience, but he loves creative cooking. Chef or cook, people love his creations.

  10. Cooks service in Chennai says:

    Hi, you said about cook and chef difference is agree that and before reading you are post i have confusion to chef and chef. Now I am clear about the difference. Thanks for you

  11. Cat says:

    Then you should try being a cook… In your own restaurant. 😂 Better pay, and you get to be the boss, be hands on, and work less hours. 😊 Just saying.

  12. Keith Calhoun says:

    Chef’s are pretentious snooty,self absorbed and like to cook. Cooks are underpaid unappreciated and like to cook. These attributes are interchangeable. Chef’s play with their food. Cooks follow standardized recipes.When i worked at a country club I was called “chef” when I worked at Coney Island I was called a “cook”. I am both.

  13. Marc says:

    IMO, What makes a chef vs a cook has nothing to do with a formal education, whether you use a recipe, etc. IMO a cook can make you a damn fine meal. They can substitute an ingredient if they need to, they can create a new dish. A good enough cook can pretty much accomplish in the kitchen anything a chef can. The difference isn’t in what they can do but in their understanding of it. A cook can where as a chef can, understands why and how and the history of it. See the cook might know some secrets, but the chef understands why they work. With experience a cook learns. They can learn by trial and error, but without knowledge, they don’t know why. I think several here hit on some aspects of it. You need an education to be a chef but with today’s technology, you don’t need a formal course. You can teach yourself. To use an old fashion term, I’d say the difference is book smarts.

  14. John says:

    Well, technically, the word “chef” is derived (and shortened) from the term chef de cuisine (French pronunciation: the director or head of a kitchen. I don’t know where this ‘way of life’ stuff came from, but isn’t that really a personality trait that’s NOT a requirement for being a chef? So it boils down to, a chef is the Boss regardless of the performed duties.

  15. Eon says:

    Some people want to be Chefs and some want to be Cooks, like the difference between a nurse and doctor. Some want to leed and others want less responsibility. As a team we accomplish success, the kitchen is like a band, when it works together it’s amazingly creative.
    Professional Chef with over 30 years experience.

  16. natalie Cortez says:

    I believe as a chef you can be that whether with proper schooling or a state of mind. I feel like with schooling and a chef as a boss I’m already thinking and acting like a boss.

  17. Jasmine says:

    I would like to know if you can open your own diner or restaurant and also be the head chef or cook of your own business?
    I have searched all over for the answer to this question and can’t seem to find a yes or no.
    I am interested in opening up my own small business someday and wanted to know if you’re allowed to be the manager but can also be the head cook. And if you are the head cook do you HAVE to have a certification for that if it’s your own business? Or do you just have to meet the business standards for inspection of health safety?

    • Jay says:

      If it’s your dream you can do it however you want. Only “official” thing you’d need in some places is a certification in food safety, which in Illinois, USA costs around twenty dollars. Good luck!

  18. Abby says:

    Personally I think, Chef is a formal and Cook tend to be informal in public view.

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