Chef: Chef means leader.  Chef de cuisine means head of the kitchen.  A chef who no longer cooks in his or her restaurant should be referred  to as chef-restaurateur.  Executive chef typically refers to one who oversees an entire kitchen or food operation.  See also brigade.


Just back from South Beach (and the profoundly silly Golden Clog Awards, covered here and here, but for complete coverage of the weekend, don’t miss Adam Roberts excellent videos and interviews)—and I’ve thus been delayed in Monday’s Element, but having just been at a festival swarming with actual chefs, legions of cooks, scores of television cooks, some of whom are actual chefs and some of whom are not, it strikes me that the business of professional cooking has reached such a pitch of hype and celebrity, that it’s important to clarify what exactly the term means, or ought to mean, and more completely than the above definition does.  Even I am called a chef, and worse, celebrity chef, in enough publications to be sufficiently alarmed by the muddy waters here.  I am not a chef, though I have cooked for money and cooking remains part of my work.  The sinister Bourdain is a writer and television host and producer, not a chef, though he once was.  Rachael Ray was never a chef and never pretended to be.   Ming Tsai is a chef on TV and the chef of Blue Ginger in Wellesley—and when he’s on the road doing demos at South Beach (“the worst kitchen accidents at home are the result of dull knives,” he told an audience on Saturday—so true!), there is someone in his restaurant who is chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen.
    The above photograph is of Bradford Thompson, most recently executive chef of Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale (“executive” meaning he leads the restaurant but is not a partner or owner), at an event at the wonderful Culinary Vegetable Institute last spring, instructing two apprentice cooks.  Though he would very likely address them in the kitchen as “chef” simply as a term of respect, another excellent use of the word.
    One of the most memorable encounters I had over the weekend was with two young cooks, who’d come to town to help local restaurants prep for the numerous food events of the weekend, in the hotel elevator carrying their knife kits.  “We’ve been here three days and have only been able to walk around for about 30 minutes,” he said.  Not a complaint, just a fact of the life of a cook.  As any chef will tell you, they’re the real heroes of the restaurant industry.


35 Wonderful responses to “Elements: Chef”

  • Bob delGrosso

    “the worst kitchen accidents at home are the result of dull knives,”

    I’m not so sure this is true. All other things being equal (depth of cut, how long the blade is applied to the flesh, location of the wound) I’m sure the dull knife does more damage however, that does not make it the “worst” kitchen accident that can befall one at home.

    The worst home kitchen accident that I know of happened at the home of Anne (who was then my boss at a NYT 2 Star) from Ridgefield Ct.

    Anne’s brother and sister were in the kitchen of their old and very long-in-the-tooth 19th century Victorian home making dinner, when her sister realized that she had not fed the family dogs.

    Distracted, she reached into the pantry, pulled out a can of dog food and without noticing that the can was swollen, popped it onto the electric can opener. Of course, the can blows open and the smell of the rotten dog food causes her to vomit. Then the vomit hits the electrical outlet and causes a short.

    This would be not such a big deal in a modern house with GFI circuits or even circuit breakers but the wiring in this place had not been updated since the it was first installed.

    Long story short, the fuse failed, the wires overheated and the half the house burnt up.

    If anyone here knows Ridgefield Ct. Anne’s house used to be next to the public library. After the fire they moved out and the house was torn down.

  • Jaxie Waxie Woo

    I was gonna post about my own non-knife-related kitchen nightmare, but after reading Bob delGrosso’s story, I fold…

  • ruhlman

    jeez, bob, that’s an amazing kitchen disaster.

    So you’re right–to clarify, dull knives are far more dangerous in the kitchen than sharp knives. They force you to push harder, tend to slip off food and not go where you want them to and the cuts they leave a jagged and not clean.

  • amber

    yikes to the above story :O

    thanks for spelling out exactly what the word “chef” can actually mean (with examples to boot!) lord knows i often get confused. however, being just a regular person, not in the industry, there are several people that while may not be considered chefs anymore, if i were to meet them, i’d still refer to them as chef [insert last name] — purely out of respect. much the same way i always address the physicians i work with as dr. so and so.

  • rockandroller

    I love Mary Elaine’s, it is beautiful and what a view. I planned an event at the Phoenician and got to organize a small dinner at ME’s. But man, they are serious “special occasion” prices.

    So often great “chef” food is only available to normal people like me once in a lifetime. I certainly don’t begrudge them charging what they wish, I just wish there were more outposts where you could sample the food in a less expensive atmosphere. Like Bouchon bakery, which I’ll be getting some catering from at an upcoming event, which is probably as close as I’ll ever get to eating Keller’s food.

  • Joseph Bayot

    This is a very appropriate post after this weekend.

    Oddly enough, when I was trailing at per se for a day, everyone was called chef (maybe with a lowercase c? haha) I remember when Chef Keller walked in and he was shaking everyone’s hand, saying, “how are you doing Chef?” to everyone, from Chef Benno all the way down to me, the stagiere picking chervil tops in the corner.

    It took me a few hours to get used to it, then I went to Tabla to trail. At tabla, we all called the chef de cuisine by his first name, Ty. The Executive Chef, Chef Cardoz, was the only one who was called “Chef”

    Confusing to say the least.

  • DPoem

    I’ve seen some first class kitchen disasters, but nothing can top Bob’s tale.

    About as close as I can come was when I was working at Burger King a billion years ago, and someone set the five gallon bucket of pickles too close to the fryer. Eventually, it tipped right into the hot grease, and from there, it was pretty much a “run like hell” situation.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Ruhlman you are chef des belles lettres, non?

    Anyway, what are you complaining about? I’m sure you have been called worse things than “celebrity chef.” 🙂

  • Darcie

    Bob, I was going to chime in with a kitchen disaster involving fire, but I don’t see how anyone can top your story.

    I occasionally cook at a small mountain resort for my boss and his business associates. He will sometimes introduce me as a “gourmet chef” and I quickly (but politely) correct him. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression.

    I think to people outside of the food world, the term chef is much more loosely applied.

  • Claudia

    So. Still no Cloggy Awards video, on, OR And coverage of the Cloggies is being done by the official FN blogger, no matter how acerbic and independent of FN “sanitizing” he might be? Is THIS why there is no video? Is there censorship and suppression involved here? A vast, empty network suit conspiracy? (;D!)

    What’s going on, Michael? Inquiring minds want to know (!)

  • Nickole

    Claudia –

    There’s footage of the Kitchen Aid tent Bourdain talk at SOBE posted at YouTube.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Did I read u and Tony were inebriated all day and night? And Ming was fox-hunting the females??? NO NO…impossible, not my ming?

    Bob, was the dog ok?

    I had a kitchen accident the first nite of Passover a few years ago…when hubby, never one to care about the oven, decided to put my new self-clean Jennair on to clean itself without telling me. I had 20 coming for dinner and in the middle of the night, after having finished all the cooking, I awoke with fumes coming thru the vent into my bedroom. I run downstairs just in time to prevent my husband from opening the oven door with flames shooting through…NO NO I scream like a banchee, and so we watched my brand new oven flame into neverland while waiting at 3a.m. for a firemen to come and make sure the oven was ok to open, at that time the flames died down.

    Four firetrucks come screaming down the street waking the entire neighborhood. .Got to the door before they hacked it down and dirty boots and all 5 Fireman come into the house making the dog so nervous he peed on my $3000.00 indian rug, just purchased for the great passover event…..5 of the most gorgeous firemen: young, tall, well-built ….anyway back to the story: They discuss amongst themselves to take the oven and throw it onto the back balcony into the snow…I am not consulted in any way…”No way,” I say, I am having 20 people for dinner…the fire is out leave the oven where it is” (only sorry I couldn’t have gotten dressed and put some makeup on…)

    Whereupon one of them turned to me and said abruptly – and those words resound in my ears to this day…”Lady: shut it.. this oven is going outside onto the balcony and I don’t care if you like it or not, got it?”!

    Then they proceeded to do just that…I am in complete shock and worse, individually, are walking back and forth, in and out of the house, stepping on the new rug the dog just peed.

    the next day I had to call for a rental oven to do the reheat in the garage: ever try calling a rental place the eve of Passover???….Since then the oven survived albeit with a lot of manual cleaning and I have never used the self-clean again.

    oh yeah, I forgot to call the alarm company and about two hours later they called saying my alarm went off and is everything ok?

  • Sues is not Martha

    Sooo true about the knives. Which reminds me, I need new knives veryyy badly!

    Glad the Golden Clog awards were a success…I blogged about them the other day 🙂


  • The Foodist

    “We’ve been here three days and have only been able to walk around for about 30 minutes,” he said. Not a complaint, just a fact of the life of a cook. As any chef will tell you, they’re the real heroes of the restaurant industry.

    Sad, but true. Cant help but laugh at folks when I tell them I’m headed to South Beach to work after graduation. “Oh the sun and the beach you’ll love it there” *Snicker* Folks the only light Ill be getting is from fluorescent bulbs in a kitchen while vacationers lounge poolside.

    Such is the life of a cook, but I wouldnt change it for the world.

  • luis

    There is an issue here somewhere. As I peel the onion of my own ignorance somethings stand out.
    I read enough of amateur gormaids sappy restaurant reviews and saw enough pictures of meals at fancy restaurants to formulate the following opinion:
    Very simple, I love simple protein and veggie stir fry’s. Less oil and fat and more flavor. You could spend a great deal of time improving stir fry’s and tempuras and simple fish and beef and pork dishes. No question that great restaurants are cooking great meals out there but imagine me going to a four or five star restaurant and looking at the pricey menu. Money is no object type situation. Menu is the issue. Nothing but nothing in that menu seems apetizing to me. NOTHING!.
    The beautiful thing about “HOGS HEAVEN” in the keys was that for a mere $7.50 they would cook your clean and filleted fresh fish to your liking and throw in a couple of sides with it. Of course their salads were probably nothing to rave about but imagine tying up to their dock and having a real pint of real beer and having them cook the fish you catched that very day. I am a fan of that. In fact next time I am boating in their neck of the keys… I will take them up on it. Hell they might let me cook it myself once they get to know me better. I should have tried their loin instead of their poboy…fiasco.
    But it was lunch not dinner. Seriously if you visit amateur gormaid and see his reviews on fancy restaurants…you would never eat out.

  • one swell foop

    “Bradford Thompson, most recently executive chef of Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, ….. instructing two apprentice cooks. Though he would very likely address them in the kitchen as “chef” simply as a term of respect, another excellent use of the word.”

    This statement troubles me because it may lead some readers to believe that it’s OK to address a random person as “chef” in order to show respect. Having someone like Chef Thompson address a cook as “chef” is a sign of respect. When my mother calls me a wonderful “chef” (I’m a home cook, my only back house food service experience was making and slinging dough at a pizza joint in college) it’s because she doesn’t know that chef is a title that you earn and she’s proud of my cooking.
    In short, if you’re a chef, for real, sure, call someone who’s not a chef a “chef”. If you’re not, don’t until you’re a chef.

  • Tracie

    I read Tony’s blog about the awards and couldn’t hold back a giggle when I read about that bruise his wife gave you. Glad to know both Bourdain’s can and do kick ass.

    Hope it’s getting less painful.


  • Marie

    Hey, thanks for that post. I get asked all the time “so, how long you’ve being a chef?”. When I answered “Never.”, the person that asks looks dumbfounded…because they look at me, and I have a chef coat, and I have a chef knife and I cook…so they think I’m pulling their legs. I then go and explain that “chef” means “chief”, the one person who runs the kitchen and that I’m just a line cook or pattissier or prep, but that I wish someday to become a chef.
    The thing that won’t help here in Puerto Rico is that you have all this crappy technical institutes encouraging all these kids to study to become a “chef”. So the general public is led to believe that a student of culinary arts is studying “chef”.

  • Sarah

    Um, doesn’t education have something to do with being a chef? I do believe that Bourdain graduated from the CIA, which in my mind will make him a chef forever. You, Ruhlman are a chef WANNA-BE. You are writer, a very good one. And one who has developed a late passion for the culinary arts. I can only imagine that in the circles you roll in, you are constantly feeling a little bit inadequate…but don’t take Tony’s career sustaining title away from him just cause you didn’t go to the CIA, too.

  • Ed

    I am a little surprised that the pejorative connotation of the word has not been related. In most of the kitchens I have worked it can a be a rather sharp barb as well as in:

    Nice work “chef,” you executed the carbonization of that filet like a master.

    No worries “chef,” the guest has only been waiting 30 minutes for their app, take your time.

    Seriously “chef,” we like our basil oil brown, you didn’t get the memo?

    “Chef,” don’t forget to break the monte, it was perfect yesterday.

    In this sense it can be used interchangeably with other terms like greenie, Donnie Wahlberg (one of my faves), CIA (particularly good for a certain type of recent grad), young blood (a little less insulting), and so on.

    In this era of PC, HR Gestapo tactics the hazing of newbs (still an important part of our industry) requires a little more subtlety, you can no longer tell someone they suck, but you can imply it with the right tone.

    Passive aggressive to be sure, but there are occasions that demand a modicum of humiliation to get a point across, especially when other methods have failed.

  • Frances Davey

    Bourdain on Rachel Ray, “Hey, it’s her world. I just live in it.” I hope I heard that right, because it’s incredibly funny.

    Thanks again for the link Tags!

  • luis

    Sarah, when it comes down to it. Bourdain said it himself. He is tired of putting in the long hours and ardous work it takes to be a chef. Eating out sucks. Because I suspect the real chef is Emilio… who has to slave in the hot kitchen to prepare the meals the celebs won’t anymore. When you see what you get vs what you can make with little effort in your kitchen… well, eating out really really sucks.

  • Marie

    Sarah wrote:
    “Um, doesn’t education have something to do with being a chef?”

    It may a stepping stone but I don’t think you study “chef”, you study the culinary arts and hopefully with experience, developed skills, innate talent, hard work and a tiny bit of luck you can eventually become a chef.
    I have met some kick ass sous-chefs and chefs de cuisine who started as dishies, never went to school and are ended up as chefs, because they had everything I listed above; but the formal schooling.

  • Sarah

    I am enjoying this discourse, friends. The (playful) tongue lashing I would like to give Ruhlman is born out of my deep respect for people who actually work their way up in the brigade system to finally earn their due and befome a “chef”. It seems unfair to me that once an individual chooses to retire from the trade, people (like Ruhlman) believe that they should be stripped of that hard earned title.

    I agree that having a culinary arts degree does not make one a chef (I myself have one), and that one can become a chef by the virtues of passion and hard work. But the word chef is not only a professional title; it is a badge of merit, an identifying characteristic that umbrellas a spectrum of skill, nascent talent, and desire to understand and build upon hundreds of years of culinary tradition.

    I ask you all…
    Is an out of work actor not really an “actor”?
    Is a writer who is suffering from a creative block to longer a “writer”? Is a musician who works days as a paralegal because she can’t pay the bills with her saxophone, not a “real musician”?

  • Steven Morehead

    Is a laid off UAW member still over paid and under worked?

  • Steven Morehead

    Sorry, being from Detroit I should have known better. Maybe that was taking this friendly discourse/ tongue lashing too far?

  • luis

    Sarah , Earth to Sarah!…

    Sarah said…”I ask you all…
    Is an out of work actor not really an “actor”?
    Is a writer who is suffering from a creative block to longer a “writer”? Is a musician who works days as a paralegal because she can’t pay the bills with her saxophone, not a “real musician”?”

    Sarah the real world is trial by fire. Sometimes you get burned and burned again. Sometimes you win. Everything else is bullshit, wether it is on a diploma or written in the constitution. I like you and maybe I have a different take on life. Don’t hold it against me because I am not wanting to make anyone mad or pick any fights.
    Unfortunatelly it is like in the dino movies… ” life will find a way thing”.
    I may have knowledge to do things but I may not have the energy or the right build and age to carry them out. This makes me not an artist nor an astronaut nor anything other than some old fart.
    This is what Bourdain is fast becoming….not a chef.. just an old fart.

  • jason

    I had a line cook preparing Keller’s rabbit terrine, and she had the smallest hands I’ve ever seen, so when some sinew got caught on the auger, she put her hand into the grinder. She didn’t know her engagement ring was on her finger til the surgeon found it during pre op cleaning. Three fingers later, she’d perfer her house burning down any old day.

  • N. Farias

    Sarah: Bourdain is certainly not “out of work,” nor does he suffer from lack of — or need for — culinary inspiration, nor does he need a second job to pay the bills. He was the chef at Les Halles; now he writes, travels and films. If we subscribe to the common definition of the word in the restaurant world — and to Tony’s definition of himself as he stands now — then Bourdain is not a chef anymore.

    Marie: I’m in the same boat, so to speak, with regards to being called a chef instead of a cook. I find a maritime analogy helps people understand: just because you’re a sailor doesn’t mean you should be called “captain.” Yar.

    Ed: At my work, mistakes are met with terse grunts or tense, disapproving silence. I’m not sure whether sarcasm would be an improvement.

  • luis

    Farias said “Sarah: Bourdain is certainly not “out of work,” nor does he suffer from lack of — or need for — culinary inspiration, nor does he need a second job to pay the bills. He was the chef at Les Halles; now he writes, travels and films. If we subscribe to the common definition of the word in the restaurant world — and to Tony’s definition of himself as he stands now — then Bourdain is not a chef anymore. ”

    I agree with Farias 1000%. Aaron Sanchez said a chef is expected to do two things:
    One: meet customer expectations.
    Two: do it consistently.
    That is the key to understanding what a chef is in my opinion.

  • bob mcgee

    Somehow it gets even colder when your chef preceeds the “chef”, with a “oui”.
    As in, “Have we fired table 43 yet?”
    Oui Chef