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"No Chefs in my Kitchen"


Jmahl
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There has been such increasing interest in cooking over the last decade (which is good) that it has spawned all kinds of interest among the general public; including TV shows, thousands of cookbooks, and eGullet itself.

But all this has, as the linked article indicates, resulted in some people believing themselves to be chefs from a few hints picked up from the grand old lady of TV French cooking to Keller - and eGullet itself.

But before one can be a chef - one first has to learn to cook, and learn how to cook simply and with simple ingredients. Once learning these simple things, one may no longer desire to achieve the status of "Chef" and be happy with just being a halfway decent cook.

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I think one of the problems of this culture of the "chef" is the worship of perfection. The notion that "chefs" know how to do things somehow and other normal people do not completely misses the idea that cooking is about learning. As a cook, you're always on the road to perfection, but you're never there. As a "chef" (in the popular imagination at least) you're totally there.

I don't think this keeps people away from cooking; it just reinforces the notion that they can't cook in contrast to those who can. The point that experimentation and learning involves failure sometimes and that cooking is hard but really rewarding is missed by those that think of cooking in terms of "chefs" and mere mortals. That's what's the shame about this.

nunc est bibendum...

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This is just another example of how people generally give little importance to using language correctly. "Chef" has become one of the most misused words in the English language. The way it has become used in common parlance, it means anyone who cooks. The meaning as Ms. Hazan points out is much more specific than that. The common usage denigrates those who have come to earn the term as it should be used. There is nothing wrong with simply being a "cook."

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I like to feed people and expand my knowledge whenever possible. As for obtaining the title of "Chef", I think the ACF has done an excellent job of defining that term. That doesn't mean that you have to obtain that certification though, having creative control and being in charge of the kitchen would cause me to call you "Chef". I however have none of that and am a cook. Those who have it, oddly enough, try to avoid that title when referring to themselves, even when everyone else calls them "Chef". Humility and respect are required in its use. Chefs in some way or fashion have usually earned the title.

I equate it to the old top sargeant who the privates call "Sir" and his response is, "Don't call me Sir! I work for a living!"

Edited by RAHiggins1 (log)
Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.
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I know when I started my cafè earlier this year, many here at eG, and friends and customers, all argued that I was a chef. To this day, I don't care to have that term applied to me. By definition I am, but the way I am doing things doesn't feel chef-esque to me. I experiment more than practice fundamentals in all aspects of the business (recipes, finances, staffing). To me, a chef offers consistency. My goofy parallel - If I go to a doctor, I believe I have good odds of being helped. If I go to a witch doctor, I hope I will be helped.

I like the idea of certification because it demonstrates a certain level of knowledge - school learned or self taught. And in her closing words, she puts me right where I believe I am:

After all, what experience of food can compare with eating something good made by someone you can hug?

I know easily half of my customers (small town perk), and most of those will get a hug from me before their meal.

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I agree with all the sentiment being expressed here, but also think there's room for a bit of flexibility. Getting back to the roots, "chef" means chief; it describes a role. In the world of professional cooking, it really describes many roles, ranging from an executive chef who oversees multiple kitchens and never touches food to a chef-owner who cooks all of it and then does all the dishes.

I think there's room for acknowledging some people as chefs in their home kitchens, if you're clear that you're calling them a home chef. It identifies the difference between someone who follows recipes or a tradition and faithfully executes the food, and someone who has a vision and who pursues it createively.

In group cooking situations, it also identifies who's in charge. I've often been asked to come to someone's house to cook. My question is always, "who's chef?" If it's someone else, then I'm happy to do whatever I'm told ... to chop carrots, and do it the way the chef wants it done, and trust that he or she knows what they're doing. If it's me, then I have to take responsibility for the meal, for the ideas behind the meal, and for the organization required to get it done. And to serve that vision, I need everyone else in the kitchen to do what I say. It's really the same role as in a pro kitchen; just a very different kitchen.

There are captains of small fishing boats, captains of aircraft carriers, and captains of yachts. Their wildly different contexts makes them completely unequal, but their similar role makes them all captains.

Notes from the underbelly

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Very thoughtful comments. Perhaps this is a start in returning the term chef to its true meaning. My late son Philip's comment went something like this, " when chefs you respect begin to address you as chef perhaps then you are one." Perhaps he was right.

Jmahl

Père du Cuisinier

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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Here's my $.50 sociological explanation for Hazan's observations:

I suspect the shift in terminology from "cook" to "chef" has a lot to do with the shift in how Americans eat. People eat out much more than they used to. Americans' palates have become more sophisticated, in large part because of the increased prominence of food in media: think of Top Chef or any of the dozens of other prime-time cooking shows, or movies like Ratatouille (which wouldn't have been made a decade ago), or books like Michael Pollan and Bill Buford which get national attention, or food-related websites. Food, and sophisticated discussions of complex food, is everywhere.

At the same time, cooking itself has increasingly become a hobby for a few. The net effect is a professionalization of cookery: people associate good food with something cooked in a restaurant, by a chef, not a cook, whether that's the guy at the hot bistro downtown, or the celebrity chefs we all know and love, or Iron Chef Italian or whoever. So they that's the term they use.

Finally, while I agree that the loss of distinction between the two words is a shame-- it makes the language less precise-- I don't think there's any going back. Chefs will have to find another way of distinguishing themselves from mere cooks.

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I don't disagree with Hazan's contention that the term chef is often misapplied, and I won't quibble with her definition ("a chef is someone who cooks professionally, usually in command of a restaurant’s kitchen brigade"), though it's a bit restrictive. I will, however, argue that Hazan is just using this linguistic slackery as a way to complain about something else: that people eat out too much, and when they do, they don't do it right, and they often do it for the wrong reasons. Along the way, she makes assertions that are at the least, arguable, if not outright wrong:

  • If Marcella's standard for restaurant fare is home cooking, that's her choice. That doesn't make the only correct choice. More often than not, I go to restaurants to find something that I can't or won't make at home, whether it's a matter of technique or ingredient.
  • She digs an artificial divide between a chef who works at "entertainment, spectacle, news, fashion, science" and the "old world of Mediterranean . . . cooking." Of course there's a difference, but to put it in Manichean terms insults all those working in the continuum that links the two poles. Besides, what's wrong with a surprise -- even if it's nothing more that a perfect hamburger?
  • Hazan says "A caring family cook is just as capable as a skilled chef at turning that first bite into a blissful moment." Really? All you need is love?
  • "A restaurant will never strengthen familial bonds." I can't count the number of examples from my own life that say otherwise, starting with the diner lunches my brothers and I enjoyed with our mother while waiting two weeks for our misplaced furniture to arrive after a cross-country move; to a birthday dinner with a menu designed just for me; and ending with the meals I share with my children, who live an hour or more away.
  • Finally, to back up a bit, I'll pick my own battle with loose language: "gourmet cook" is at least as misused as "chef," and Hazan is guilty; how does she know that her hairdresser's husband is any good? It reminds me of a passage in one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. When the titular detective is referred to as a "gourmet cook," he points out that "When a man takes an interest in preparing food well, he's called a 'gourmet cook.' When a woman does it, we call her a 'housewife.'"

Like Hazan, I wish people would be more heedful of what they eat, where it comes from and how it's prepared. It's unfortunate that she derides so many who do pay attention on her way to making that point.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I want to take one part of Dave the Cook's post above and comment on it.

Hazan says "A caring family cook is just as capable as a skilled chef at turning that first bite into a blissful moment." Really? All you need is love?

A caring family cook, with experience perhaps handed down over generations, will produce a meal equal to, or exceed, that of any fancy chef any day. It may not be as interesting to the palate, but it will be blissfull. Part of the reason for that is that it was cooked with love for those who would eat the meal. One reason my Danish grandmother was the best cook I've ever known.

Her cooking was done with love for those who would eat it, whether family or others - and she knew her ingredients and how to prepare them. It was simple cooking at it's best, and I've rarely tasted (in my limited experience) anything from a so-called chef that provided not just a blissful moment at one part of the meal, but was blissful throughout the entire meal.

There is more to eating (and health) than sampling the latest razmataz from Adria and Keller and others.

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I think of the word " cook" as derogatory.

In my job( cooking for Seniors 2x a month at a church), I'm called a "cook" and my uniform is a medical scrub top. Would a "chef" ever wear a scrub top? I doubt it.

This is neither here nor there, but I think only people in the medical field should wear scrubs.

I asked if I could wear my "chef" jacket and was told I could. But, its HOT and there is no A/C in the summer. Such a double edged sword.

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Hi,,

We used to go to a wonderful French restaurant that was only opened for lunch. The cook used to survey the diners, standing at the counter wearing a dirty t-shirt, with tattooed arms.

The restaurant remodeled and re-opened for upscale evening dining. We took a group of friends, really looking forward to a nice dinner. They acquired new waitstaff, very preppy, friendly and young.

We were talking to our waiter about the changes to the restaurant and I commented about the cook, who used to watch over the luncheon diners. He responded, "Oh, you mean the CHEF!"

I naively asked, "What's the difference between a cook and a chef?"

The instant response, "Just the quality of the tattoos!"

Tim

ps: Yes, the food was wonderful, tatoos or not.

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I agree with many posters, the term "Chef" is probably the most abused word in the englisch language currently.

Examples:

"Chef's blend" dog food at most grocery stores.

My coffee supplier is trying to fob off "Chef's Choice" coffee on me. The worst tasting coffee, worst beans, with the living beejus roasted out of them.

When purchasing restaurant equipment a few months ago, I was asked by a young energetic sales person where I "Cheff" at...

But mostly I have to agree with calipoutine. She feels that the word "cook" is a derogatory term and has feels that "Chef" is more appropiate.

And that, I feel is the whole root of the misuse.

Now take for example, a large local pasta chain here in B.C. It proudly advertises on the back of it's menus that all of its "chefs"--and here we are led to believe that means anyone wearing a white uniform --are qualified "Red Seal Chefs". The chain has advertised largely with the backing of Iron-chef Rob Feenie doing frequent TV ads.

I beg to disagree. "Red Seal" is a cook's qualification, not a Chef's. Anyone who wears white in the kitchen is not a "Chef". The only "Chef" is the person who hires, fires, trains, delegates, makes menus and works with the F&B or owner. Those who handle food, who cook, are cooks. It is not a derogatory term.

My brother is an architect, so I have learned how and whom to blame for bad things happening. Who do we blame for the misuse of the word "Chef?

1) The media. Hey if it sells then do it. If people think the word "Chef" means double-plus-good cook, then let them believe it, it's our job to hype it up.

2) The cooking schools. I get very, very angry when I see cooking schools put out ads that promise to take a complete kitchen virgin and turn him/her into a "chef" within 6 mnths. Cooking schools DO NOT produce "Chefs", they produce cooking school graduates.

And don't get me started on tatoos. I've told my kids if they get any, it'll come off with a belt sander loaded with 80-grit paper. Tatoos are there for one, and only purpose: To attract attention......

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In my mind, being a chef is all about being trained and experienced enough to be in charge. Even though I had a "personal chef" business for 4 years and did many things a chef would do, I always considered myself to be somewhere between a cook and a caterer. This gig is the only one I ever did where I felt that I was acting as a real chef, and that was when I cracked the whip over a bunch of green 12-15 year olds to cook and serve a plated sit down wedding anniversary dinner for 50.

Here in France it's complicated by the fact that when I refer to myself a cuisinière, which is a cook, in order to indicate to someone my seriousness about cooking, the universal question is "which restaurant do you work in?"

Personally I don't find the word cook to be derogatory at all. I think the satisfaction lies in the quality of the food I put out, and the ease with which I create it, not in what they call me while I'm doing it.

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If the word "cook" has taken on derogatory tones in American English (I don't think it has), that would be as much a travesty as the way the word "chef" has come to be used.

I think the problem comes from people being lazy and wanting to inflate value as a chef is rightly perceived to have a higher role than a cook. That, however, in no way denigrates the concept of being a cook.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I want to take one part of Dave the Cook's post above and comment on it.
Hazan says "A caring family cook is just as capable as a skilled chef at turning that first bite into a blissful moment." Really? All you need is love?

A caring family cook, with experience perhaps handed down over generations, will produce a meal equal to, or exceed, that of any fancy chef any day. It may not be as interesting to the palate, but it will be blissfull. Part of the reason for that is that it was cooked with love for those who would eat the meal. One reason my Danish grandmother was the best cook I've ever known.

Her cooking was done with love for those who would eat it, whether family or others - and she knew her ingredients and how to prepare them. It was simple cooking at it's best, and I've rarely tasted (in my limited experience) anything from a so-called chef that provided not just a blissful moment at one part of the meal, but was blissful throughout the entire meal.

There is more to eating (and health) than sampling the latest razmataz from Adria and Keller and others.

It strikes me that Hazan is being disingenuous in this article. While she pays lip service to the notion that the term "chef" should be reserved for, well, professional chefs (and that's what almost everyone here has focused on), her real point starts with this comment:

But I’m troubled by the word for another reason, one that goes beyond the precision of language and gets to the heart of how we experience food.

The upshot of the rest of the article is that we should aspire to cook like she does, and not like Keller or Adria or, in fact, anyone professional; that her cooking is more "real" than theirs, and we shouldn't be fooled by the "chefs." We should, in fact, like her food better than Keller's, and if we don't, well, there's something lacking in our souls.

I take exception to that. My mom was a good cook, and in that I was lucky. My best friend in college had a Mom who was a terrible cook -- she hated it and did as little as possible. Did that mean my mom loved me but her mom didn't love her? Or does it mean that her mother's cooking really was good? (Really? Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti in a box?) This topic, The Worst Cook in Your Family, is filled with example of loving but bad cooks.

On the opposite side of the coin, I resent her assumption that no professional chefs cook with passion and love. I think of chefs like Chris Cosentino at Incanto in San Francisco, or Joe Truex of Repast in Atlanta (to name only two) and passion is the only word to describe how they cook.

Maybe Marcella sees the world of cooks and chefs in black and white, but I disagree.

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I want to take one part of Dave the Cook's post above and comment on it.
Hazan says "A caring family cook is just as capable as a skilled chef at turning that first bite into a blissful moment." Really? All you need is love?

A caring family cook, with experience perhaps handed down over generations, will produce a meal equal to, or exceed, that of any fancy chef any day. It may not be as interesting to the palate, but it will be blissfull. Part of the reason for that is that it was cooked with love for those who would eat the meal. One reason my Danish grandmother was the best cook I've ever known.

Her cooking was done with love for those who would eat it, whether family or others - and she knew her ingredients and how to prepare them. It was simple cooking at it's best, and I've rarely tasted (in my limited experience) anything from a so-called chef that provided not just a blissful moment at one part of the meal, but was blissful throughout the entire meal.

There is more to eating (and health) than sampling the latest razmataz from Adria and Keller and others.

It strikes me that Hazan is being disingenuous in this article. While she pays lip service to the notion that the term "chef" should be reserved for, well, professional chefs (and that's what almost everyone here has focused on), her real point starts with this comment:

But I’m troubled by the word for another reason, one that goes beyond the precision of language and gets to the heart of how we experience food.

The upshot of the rest of the article is that we should aspire to cook like she does, and not like Keller or Adria or, in fact, anyone professional; that her cooking is more "real" than theirs, and we shouldn't be fooled by the "chefs." We should, in fact, like her food better than Keller's, and if we don't, well, there's something lacking in our souls.

I take exception to that. My mom was a good cook, and in that I was lucky. My best friend in college had a Mom who was a terrible cook -- she hated it and did as little as possible. Did that mean my mom loved me but her mom didn't love her? Or does it mean that her mother's cooking really was good? (Really? Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti in a box?) This topic, The Worst Cook in Your Family, is filled with example of loving but bad cooks.

On the opposite side of the coin, I resent her assumption that no professional chefs cook with passion and love. I think of chefs like Chris Cosentino at Incanto in San Francisco, or Joe Truex of Repast in Atlanta (to name only two) and passion is the only word to describe how they cook.

Maybe Marcella sees the world of cooks and chefs in black and white, but I disagree.

I agree with your point. Hazan is simply wrong to state that

A restaurant will never strengthen familial bonds.
, however, her main point about getting people and families back together by making and re-emphasizing the value of home cooking and being a cook is a good one, even if in the course of writing it, she took some ill advised liberties. I enjoy cooking and eating at home for and with my family, but I also enjoy eating out with them and with the right meal and the right place nothing is lacking. The most important element is not who is cooking or where, but spending the quality time together. If cooking at home allows that to happen more frequently, then so much the better.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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If the word "cook" has taken on derogatory tones in American English (I  don't think it has), that would be as much a travesty as the way the word "chef" has come to be used.

I think the problem comes from people being lazy and wanting to inflate value as a chef is rightly perceived to have a higher role than a cook. That, however, in no way denigrates the concept of being a cook.

Ah,. but it already has..

The word "cook" is verboten on the brochures and curriculum of every cooking school in N. America. Same with the media. Check out the ACF's website, t The word "cook" has been replaced with the double-plus-good-newspeak word of "culinarian".

You have to crawl before you can walk, and must be able to cook before you can command other cooks. Everybody wants to be the chief and not the indian......

a

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In my mind, being a chef is all about being trained and experienced enough to be in charge.  Even though I had a "personal chef" business for 4 years and did many things a chef would do, I always considered myself to be somewhere between a cook and a caterer.  This gig is the only one I ever did where I felt that I was acting as a real chef, and that was when I cracked the whip over a bunch of green 12-15 year olds to cook and serve a plated sit down wedding anniversary dinner for 50.

Here in France it's complicated by the fact that when I refer to myself a cuisinière, which is a cook, in order to indicate to someone my seriousness about cooking, the universal question is "which restaurant do you work in?" 

Personally I don't find the word cook to be derogatory at all.  I think the satisfaction lies in the quality of the food I put out, and the ease with which I create it, not in what they call me while I'm doing it.

Abra:

I am of the opinion that you are right on - correctly reserving the term (as the French do) as defined by you. As an American I can't agree that the term "cook" is a dirty word in English although because workers are not properly appreciated here in the U.S. the term may have formerly denoted an underpaid, unskilled, uneducated worker. But today, if a person takes the time to devote to develop the skills required then to be a "cook" is to be something to be admired and appreciated. To become a "chef" requires a long- term commitment as a cook. To be Chef you need Indians.

Jmahl

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I recently started running the kitchen of a small local restaurant. I made up the menu, I specify all aspects of purchasing, prep, and service; but I don't really consider myself the "chef".

Why? I'm not sure really. I sometimes describe myself as the chef for lack of a better way to tell people what I do, because I'm not exactly just a cook anymore. But in some ways I feel like the term chef holds too much weight to justify identifying myself as one. It entails a certain mastery of cooking and running a kitchen that I don't really feel I have achieved.

I mean, I run the kitchen and I run it well enough, and I have a decent amount of professional training, but most of my knowledge is self taught, and there are still large gaps in certain areas. I guess I hold a certain amount of reverence for the word.

It'd be nice to be able to describe what I do with one word and not feel sort of guilty about it though..

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What's the matter with calling oneself a "cook", even though you may be a professional "cook"? Or maybe it has to do with the prices charged on the menu. A "cook" can charge only so much. A "chef" can charge much more, even though the meal may not be any better.

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I recently started running the kitchen of a small local restaurant. I made up the menu, I specify all aspects of purchasing, prep, and service; but I don't really consider myself the "chef".

Why? I'm not sure really. I sometimes describe myself as the chef for lack of a better way to tell people what I do, because I'm not exactly just a cook anymore. But in some ways I feel like the term chef holds too much weight to justify identifying myself as one. It entails a certain mastery of cooking and running a kitchen that I don't really feel I have achieved.

I mean, I run the kitchen and I run it well enough, and I have a decent amount of professional training, but most of my knowledge is self taught, and there are still large gaps in certain areas. I guess I hold a certain amount of reverence for the word.

It'd be nice to be able to describe what I do with one word and not feel sort of guilty about it though..

Gabriel:

I believe that you have captured the essense of the conundrum.

Jmahl

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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