Chef or Cook?

July 16, 2008 | By | Comments (15)


What is a chef? A cook? Is there a difference?

When I catered parties, worked as a line cook, and made wedding cakes to supplement my income during college, I never called myself "chef."  I reserved that title for the people cooking in places with white tablecloths.

When I went to culinary school at the CIA I thought: Hard Study + Diploma = Chef. 

In hindsight, my first truly mature thought about the question came at my CIA graduation. I received an Academic Achievement Award, which earned me a nifty statue, and, more excitingly, a few moments with the graduation speaker Eric Ripert.

Eric Ripert
is the soft spoken, hugely talented force behind award winning restaurants such as Le Bernardin. A cookbook author, a philanthropist for causes including City Harvest, and a recent guest judge on Top Chef, he is deservedly admired both in and outside of professional food circles. He is also my age and already SO accomplished. So when I asked him for career advice, I was not being polite; my ears were wiiiiide open.

He was kind, unhurried, and specific. (Imagine this in a heavy French accent):

"Learn how to be the best cook you can be. To be a great chef you must first be a great cook.  Have the ego to try new things, and to fail, and to try again — and have a small enough ego to always be learning.  If you can no longer learn, you are finished."

Eric Ripert is a really, really smart guy.   

I thought long and hard about his advice, and I took it to heart. I understood that learning basic skills and practicing them over and over and over is the absolute breath of good food. No breath, no life. No basics, no tasty food.

I grasped that the world is full of great lessons in food and cooking — they can come from schools, but also grandmas, books, push-cart operators, lunch programs, magazines, soup kitchens, etc. A street vendor’s carnitas or the blue-plate special downtown hold the same potential for excitement and pleasure as the latest haute cuisine.

I don’t think learning necessarily means liking. For me, tasting foods that I do not like is just as important and informative as munching on favorites. Personal taste — and the cooking you do as an expression of it — is a constantly evolving thing. I try to keep my mind, heart, and palate open to the world. Because that’s where good food comes from. 

I now call myself a chef because I parlay my food and cooking experience into making a living. It is a professional label. I call myself a great cook because I work on my skills with diligence, I craft food with pride and pleasure, and I try to learn every day. 

If you say I am a good chef, I will appreciate it. If you say you love my cooking, then you will have complimented me to my core.


  1. private chef bristol

    I think both are the same. Cook is just a layman’s term. While Chef is for the refined ones.

    February 7, 2012 at 9:04 pm
  2. nyc catering

    This story is very inspiring. I absolutely agree when you said that in order to be a great chef, you need to be a great cook first. You cannot be a chef if you are not open to try out new things and learn more about the craft.

    January 2, 2012 at 9:00 pm
  3. Weslie Fox

    The only real Chef left in this modern day is Chef Emile Labrousse in charge of the glorious kitchen in Greenville, South Carolina’s “Poinsette Club”. Live this knowledge and learn. He did cook Jaques Pepin’s birthday dinner 13 years ago in a gorgeous setting. It was amazing to behold. If only Richard Hamilton weren’t there to hack it up! One time.

    November 8, 2009 at 1:48 am
  4. Kathryn

    That’s a really great point, Ted. Thanks so much for the comment. KC

    July 23, 2008 at 8:48 pm
  5. ted

    Great piece. How we define ourselves is too often overshadowed by how others define us. Hope to try some of your cookin’ some day

    July 23, 2008 at 8:20 pm
  6. Kathryn

    Thanks Steve! KC

    July 23, 2008 at 8:51 am
  7. Steve

    Kathryn, Thanks for this wonderful post I thoroughly enjoyed reading your note. I need to pass this on to students.

    July 23, 2008 at 8:13 am
  8. Kathryn

    Thanks for the comment Chris!
    I stopped by your website- and it looks like you have Chef, Cook and even Artist duties well covered.

    July 22, 2008 at 9:09 am
  9. chris Styler

    Thanks for this post- it is a question that has followed me through my 35 years of working with food. During my years in the restaurant business and running catering companies it was easy to call myself a chef. Now that I consult and do several other non-restaurant jobs, it is a little more difficult to label myself. I always thought of a chef as someone with cooking skills who ran a kitchen (of any description). Now that I am not running a kitchen, am I still a chef? I think so…
    Also, love the distinction between chef and cook and agree: I am a chef in my business life and a cook at home- hopefully I’ll always be a curious cook and a progressively better one too. Thanks again- a fun and interesting topic.

    July 22, 2008 at 7:31 am
  10. Kathryn

    Hi Heather – according to Merriam-Webster, the etymology of chef is: French, short for chef de cuisine head of the kitchen.
    That title has become a largely self-granted and self-defined term – hence my desire for a personal definition. As to other professions having a similar linguistic situation –I do not know. As for industry rationale – my take is that since the title “chef” carries a idea of rank and success and can be used without any official sanction (the food industry is SO large and varied – and as a whole does not have a single test or set of exams that confer the title – though there are specific groups that have ranking systems) – then it will be used by a variety of people for a variety of reasons. Thanks for your thought provoking comment. KC

    July 20, 2008 at 6:31 pm
  11. Heather

    Very well said, Kathryn. I would love to know when it’s appropriate to call one a ‘chef’. For example on the show Top Chef, everyone calls each other “chef”. Obviously it’s a competition for chefs. I find it interesting this profession has a hierarchy which is defined by only a few titles uses ‘chef’. Are there other professions where this form of addressing colleagues exists? Is there some industry rationale for it? Curious designer.

    July 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm
  12. Kathryn

    Thanks for commenting Cindy! It’s a bit weird to look at myself 10 years ago – glad you enjoyed it. Eric Ripert doesn’t look different to me -other than his hair color!

    July 17, 2008 at 3:26 pm
  13. Kathryn

    Thanks for your oh-so-well put note, Court. It does seem like we evolve so long as we let ourselves… Cheers!

    July 17, 2008 at 3:23 pm
  14. Cindy

    Loved reading this, Kathryn, and seeing your beautiful picture. Thanks for sharing!

    July 17, 2008 at 1:34 pm
  15. Court

    I agree! So often people limit their ‘learning’ to what they enjoy, and so keep such a small circle of experience. How else to fall in love with a new flavor combination, unique ingredient or a foreign taste than to try something you might not like. Its what we don’t enjoy that also defines us!

    July 17, 2008 at 3:01 am

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