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I Am Not a Chef

by Nick

I frequently get referred to as a chef and I always sort of cringe when I hear the word applied to me. To me, a chef is a very specific career and description and what I try do is simply not the same.

I asked the question “What makes you a chef?” to my Twitter friends and the answers were really interesting so I thought I would share them with you all and try to flesh out why I don’t love being called one.

What is a Chef?

I sent a tweet out over the weekend asking my followers what they think defines a chef. The answers were pretty much inline with what I thought which is that while chefs have to cook, they also have to do many other tasks.

Porchettanyc was quick to point out that chef is just French for chief so it implies some sort of leadership.

Ruhlman, one of my favorite food writers out there, says that a chef is “someone who leads a professional kitchen.”

MissTanya went a step further and says that a chef needs a restaurant with a chef designed menu. In other words, if you are a line cook at McDonalds, you aren’t a chef.

To me, a chef is someone who is in charge of a professional kitchen. I don’t really care so much about the menu they are cooking. If they make their own menu, and it is good, then maybe they are a better chef, but it’s not a requirement.

Chefs go to school to learn not only how to cook, but how to manage. They learn how to manage food costs, staff, and various other things. In other words, they do much more than simply cook.

To be honest, that’s why I have no desire to be a chef. When asked why, I generally reply that I like to cook, not run restaurants. Chefs run restaurants.

I’m much more interested in what happens in home kitchens than in professional kitchens.

Chefs Are Not Necessarily Good Cooks

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but I really think that roughly 90% of restaurants in the United States are horrible. Actually, if you count fast food shops, that’s probably being pretty generous.

I think many restaurants are over-priced and focus more on quantity than quality.

All of these bad restaurants have at least one chef leading them into the abyss. These chefs lead a restaurant. They make purchasing decisions, make sure orders come out on time, and run a kitchen. A lot of them suck at cooking though.

Now, of course, there are thousands of chefs out there that are amazing cooks and are passionate about cooking and serving great dishes.  But just because someone is a chef doesn’t mean they can cook better than your microwave.

I’m a Home Cook

Ok. Actually, I would like to think I’m many things including web guru, photographer, writer and that dude with pool-party abs.

But at the bare minimum, I’m a home cook. Besides one crazy venture into the world of catering, I’ve never fed more than a handful of people at a time. I never have to worry about filling seats or Yelp ratings.

All I worry about is feeding the people immediately around me good meals and showing others how to do the same.

When I sent out my tweet Michael Ruhlman went on to say that “being a home cook is an honor.”

I agree with him and I’m totally happy with being that and nothing more.

Awesome wok photo by liber.

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15 comments on “I Am Not a Chef

  1. My step daughter is an outrageously good cook, but she takes umbrage if someone calls her a chef. Not for herself, but for respect of the professionals.

  2. A chef is a professionally trained position. You can be several kinds of chef so it isn’t absolutely necessary that you are managing a professional kitchen. Sous chefs manage a station within a kitchen. My ex was a chef. He had formal education leading to his degree (a chef training program) and then he worked within an apprentice system to work his way up to managing his own kitchen. It is sort of like a doctor who gets the degree and the title, but then has to go through a post-educational training period or residency. At least that’s my understanding of it.

  3. I agree with you 100% I do not know why people refer to us as chefs, and I am tired of correcting them so I have stopped responding, especially on Twitter.

  4. Alton brown said it best in the intro to his book “I’m just here for the food” –

    “Let’s get one thing straight right up front. I still am not a chef. I don’t have much interest in creating tantalizing new dishes, which is a good thing because I don’t have the talent for it. What I am interested in is making food make sense. And food that makes sense (if that makes any sense). I want to understand what makes food tick and how to control the process known as cooking. In that regard I’m more mechanic than a cook.”

    That’s exactly how I feel

  5. I was once a professional executive chef in charge of a large restaurant kitchen and I too cringe when people refer to me now as a “chef”. Personally, I think it’s a professional title, though you don’t need a degree. Being a chef is one of the last great careers in which you can apprentice your way to the top if that’s the way you want to do it (I did).

    I still work in the restaurant business for a company which owns multiple restaurants. In the restaurants where the person leading the kitchen creates the menu items, they are called “executive chefs”. In the places where they run the kitchen with no menu input they are called “executive kitchen managers”.

    I now consider myself a “former chef” and a happy home cook. Though I must say “once a chef, always a chef” is a bit true. You can’t shake that experience, even when cooking at home, once you’ve had it. :-)

  6. Great post! Sums it up perfectly. I never had any desire to go to culinary school. I like to learn from other great cooks but I’m not interested in all the other bulls#%! that separates me from what I love to do, which is to cook.

  7. Ah, Nick, what a great post. I’ve been to culinary school and I’ve worked as a professional cook, but I’m no chef and I probably never will be. I work at a culinary school now as a career advisor, and I’m constantly warning students about email addresses like “chefjoe@yahoo.com” – if you’re applying for a job as a line cook, you’re going to get hired by a chef, but you’re not one yet!

  8. You got involved in a tweet convo with @ruhlman? Nice! Dude is usually just tweeting @tomcolicchio and maybe @altonbrown! The food network will be next for you. Or, maybe they follow your blog, so I’m going to suggest Top Chef: Bloggers and please bring me along if they pick up this idea. Should join twitter? I don’t get it. Feel free to post about it for the food loving tech losers if you ever have time…. Cheers to being a successful blogger and home cook!

  9. I’ve been cooking for 30 years or so and this post sums it up nicely. Everyone always says, “You should open a restaurant!”. I myself would not want to risk that much on personal bankruptcy. I have fun cooking and can explore all types of cuisines without putting my future on the line. Plus, I like having normal 8 hour days, and sure I’ll make some obscure pickle at 10pm just for my own amusement, but at the end of the day cooking is for me and mi familia. Cheers for expressing what I have often though in succinct verbage.

  10. Hey Nick! Long time since I’ve been around. I love this post – and good for your for taking a stand!
    Have you heard of this top 10 list?

    http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2011/05/10_reasons_you_cant_be_a_profe.php

    Here are my thoughts on this matter – I’m after working 60 hour+ weeks, not including commute. My blog has suffered. I do it because I LOVE my craft, or I’m sure I would have ended it long ago.

    That’s the problem these days. The Food Network has bred a class unto it’s own – it’s a celebrity thing. Thing is, people like Emeril, Mario Batali, Giada, and Paula Deen PUT in their time. (Some as much as 20+ hour days.)

    I call myself chef because I LITERALLY paid for the title in blood, sweat, and tears. In the end though, the paradox is that I am really a cook. I get paid to not only impact on the line, (cooking and execution) but also to manage labour, food costs, and coach/train people on the fly. It’s about communication, team building, and ultimately NOT managing your kitchen – building a system so that god forbid – you might get to take a day off. Maybe. If you’re feeling lucky.

    Again, it’s because I love the business. Otherwise, I might have shot myself a long time ago. Har Har.

  11. Nick: I’m not a chef! I’m not a chef!

    Vladimare: ehh… but you are dressed like one.

    Nick: They dressed me up like this!
    All: naah no we didn’t… no.
    Nick: And this isn’t my toque, it’s a false one.
    Vladimare: Well?
    Person: Well we did do the toque
    Vladimare: The toque?
    person: …And the apron, but he is a chef!
    (all: yeah, yelp him yelp him!)
    Vladimare: Did you dress him up like this?
    P1: No! (no no… no) Yes. (yes yeah) a bit (a bit bit a bit) But he has got an Urbanspoon profile!
    (P3 points at iPhone)
    Vladimare: What makes you think he is a chef?
    P2: Well, he made grilled cheese with pumpkin!

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