The thin line between chefs and cooks

Is a culinary degree the sole standard to be a chef?

Photo by Conor Samuel/Unsplash

Organic, artisanal, and craft are just some words that have been excessively slapped on food like a pastrami at Katz’s Deli. But if there’s one word that makes people in the F&B industry cringe when it’s abused, it would have to be “chef.” For some, the title comes with the culinary diploma. For others, it applies so long as you’re tossing pans in a professional kitchen. A majority, though, believe that you have to earn your stripes before you can be deserving of the title. It’s a matter that treads the gray line. Even so, eyebrows are raised whenever it is attached to a name they deem not worthy of the recognition.

That’s why former restaurant owner Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi is quick to drop the reference. “I always correct people when they call me ‘chef’ because I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right to be called that,” she says. “I love to cook and did turn it into a business but being a chef entails so much more and is a title that is difficult to earn. In France, you start at the very bottom, as a commis, working your way up to chef de partie then sous chef. Then if you’re lucky, you become chef.”

Zubiri may have taken basic cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris back in 2003, but she says after a three-month course she’s still far from being qualified for the title of chef. “It takes years of experience; some people never even make it to chef after 10 to 15 years in the kitchen. I also feel like being a chef has a whole managerial aspect to it—running the kitchen, the staff, costings, inventory, etc.—which I’m absolutely horrible at! So yes, ultimately I’m proud to say I’m just a kusinera.”

In the case of celebrity chefs Rachael Ray and Nigella Lawson, neither trained professionally but have made big careers out of cooking, with bestselling books and highly rated shows to boot. They profess that they are not trained chefs and have not worked for a long time in a restaurant, but have nonetheless been warmly welcomed in their realm and have earned people’s respect in the process. 

The truth is, there is no industry standard, certifying agency, or governing body that decides who can bear the title of chef and who cannot. As with any recognition, it should be given and not self-imposed.

By textbook definition, a chef is a professional cook in charge of running a restaurant kitchen. But in this day and age, industry practitioners such as culinary teachers, TV entertainers, and food brand endorsers are often referred to as chefs as well, be it out of courtesy or ironically, the lack of a more familiar term. “It is usually given to someone who is in charge of a kitchen or the head of a team of cooks,” says J Gamboa, who is an active member of the LTB Philippines Chefs Association. “We are supportive of all people and activities that support the culinary profession. We likewise prefer the title of chef be reserved for the professional who makes his or her living by cooking and holds a supervisory role in a commercial kitchen. Otherwise, the term cook is more appropriate.”

The same sentiment is shared by food writer Micky Fenix, who herself has been called a chef because of her line of work. “It’s an overused term,” she says. “I asked a real chef about that before and he said that the title is supposed to be given to you by your peers.” And that’s how she plays it. “I only call someone a chef if I know he deserves it. For the others, I don’t.”

Partly due to popular media, the elusive title comes with some esteem and form of status not just from the industry but also from the public. And this is perhaps the reason why people want to be called one, and consequently, why it has become such a hot debate. The truth is, there is no industry standard, certifying agency, or governing body that decides who can bear the title of chef and who cannot. As with any recognition, it should be given and not self-imposed. So don’t just claim it, because frankly, doing so would be unbecoming of the very title you’re aiming for.

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