I graduated Culinary school – the best, in fact. The Culinary Institute of America was my home from 2001 through 2003 and I’ve cooked professionally for about 10 years.
But, I’m not actually a Chef.
At the risk of you not taking my professional experience seriously, (and I did get a tremendous amount of experience) I wanted to write this anyway. There is a misconception about the word Chef – and it’s not quite what you might believe it is.
First, it is NOT someone who graduated culinary school. Nor is it someone who is a self-professed foodie. Nor is it someone who is a really good home cook.
The word Chef comes from “Chief”. It stems from the French Brigade system that was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier. (French Chef and food writer from the 1850’s- 1900’s better known from his book “Le Guide Culinaire”) “Brigade de Cuisine” is essentially a hierarchy of kitchen staff to divvy up responsibilities.
I won’t go into each level of the brigade, but for the point of this article; just know that the “Chef” or “Chef de Cuisine” is the “Chief of the kitchen. The top of the chain so to speak. They are responsible for management of all aspects of the kitchen: Menu development, ordering, cost analysis, quality control, and supervising and training staff just to name a few. Mostly, but not always, this is in restaurants, catering, cruises, etc. While I started working and cooking in kitchens since I was 17, and continued cooking through different restaurants, I never actually held those responsibilities.
Instead, I took it slowly and I remained a year in each position learning and growing as a cook to learn the “station” in and out. Prepping fundamentals, including knife skills, Garde Manger (cold kitchen), vegetables, pasta, baking and pastry, sauces, saute, grill and fish. I was hungry. Hungry to learn about everything in the kitchen. A lot of my days included reading the Dining section of The New York Times and Cooking Magazines (before blogs were popular) and my nights consisted of planning all aspects of my station. Also crying. Creating lists and lists and making sure I had prepped enough to get through that day or night’s service. Crying some more. Mise en place became my life. It was a Cook’s culture. It was the way you THOUGHT, not just the fact that you gathered your ingredients. I had to make sure my knife skills and food was soigné (pronounced “swanyay”) as the Chef’s would say. “Well groomed, taken care of”.
My head was always toward my cutting board, and my “chattiness” had succumbed to few words including “Oui Chef” – but I liked it. Even though there were a lot of tears, it was because I cared. It was my passion and I wanted to work past all the frustrations and get it done and done right. I learned the “dance” of the kitchen on the line. I had many in the beginning of my journey tell me that it was a “man’s world” and that I would never make it, but I just kept following that fire inside of me that told me this was my passion and I was going to pursue it no matter what – and I did!
Out of respect to the many Chef’s I had the honor to work with, I know the title is not to be thrown around lightly. I do realize that using the alternative “cook” can sometimes down play a person’s position as well. (including myself) and it is hard to label. Professionally trained cook? Culinary Professional? So, as an occupation, no – technically speaking, I am not a Chef. I am aware however, that nowadays, many have come to use the title in a much looser manner, and people have come to associate the title with Culinary related activities.
It’s deeper than all of that though; because it’s not just about the title or the position in a professional kitchen. It’s how a Chef crafts his (or her!) craft. One could argue that a cook knows how to cook, but a Chef knows WHY something happens, or how to fix a mistake. A cook may not have the consistency that a Chef does, or know the intricacies or the fundamentals of technique that comes from years of practice.
So why am I not a Chef? Because I’m still learning. ***EDITED: all Chef’s are still learning.
I love all things Culinary, I’ve been professionally and classically trained, and have years of experience under my belt and I want to share it all with you. I want to give home cooks confidence in the kitchen!