The Definitive Difference Between a Chef and a Cook

There’s lots of confusion among the general public about the difference between being called a chef and being called a cook. In this article we’ll look at the main differences so we can settle this once and for all!

From my experience as a chef, the main difference between a chef and a cook is that a chef earns their title when they have passed a culinary qualification and can create dishes from scratch. Cooks are typically not qualified and prepare food to a given set of instructions.

However, chefs don’t have to be qualified, and many years of experience working in good quality kitchens may earn someone the right to call themselves a chef.

So the main difference between a chef and a cook in a nutshell, is qualifications and experience. However it’s not quite that straightforward and this is where the ambiguity comes in.

We’ll take a look at each factor below so readers can be confident they are using the correct terminology and not causing offence to anyone out there!

The Definition Of A Chef?

As a chef, the main factors we look for when deciding if someone should be called is a chef is their culinary qualifications alongside what experience they have in real kitchens.

However, this is not always straight forward. If someone left school and completed a two year culinary course, with no real world experience, would they be entitled to call themselves a chef?

In contrast, if someone has worked in a professional kitchen for 20 years but doesn’t have culinary qualification are they not a chef? This is a matter of opinion and where the ambiguity comes in.

How to be called a chef

  • Experience: Chefs will typically have at least 2 years of experience working in good quality kitchens. Up until this point they are likely to be referred to as a trainee chefOpens in a new tab..
  • Level of Cuisine: Chefs will prepare food from scratch and avoid using any pre-made dishes.
  • Knowledge: Chefs have a sound understanding of the basic cooking techniques and classic dishes, plus an ability to recreate what is required by the Head Chef Opens in a new tab.with minimal supervision.
  • Technique: To be a chef, a range of different cooking techniques are required and an understanding of the pros and cons to each method.
  • Knife skills: Chefs are proficient with using knivesOpens in a new tab. and know which knife is best suited to which task. They also typically have their own set of knives which they have bought.
  • Nutrition: Chefs understand the basic nutritional factors of various food groups.
  • Food Hygiene: Chefs posses a sound understanding of food hygiene regulationsOpens in a new tab., and have the relevant qualifications necessary for their part of the world.

So these are the main factors to consider.

Overall I would suggest that the ability to cook dishes from scratch avoiding pre-made items is considered one of the most essential components of being a chef.

Some readers may be wondering, ‘but a cook does all these things?’ so let’s take a look at the definition of a cook.

The Definition Of A Cook?

In my experience as a chef, a cook does not have a culinary qualification or experience working in high level kitchens. They tend to prepare and cook food to a rigid set of guidelines.

This is not to say that cooks can’t be successful in what they do (more on this later). For example, if someone owns their own pizza vanOpens in a new tab., are they a chef or a cook?

The main factors that define a person as a cook are;

  • Qualifications: Cooks typically don’t have any culinary qualifications.
  • Experience: A Cook’s experience tends to be focused more on kitchens that are a little lower on the cuisine ladder.Opens in a new tab. By this I mean restaurants that buy in a lot of their dishes pre-made or produce simpler dishes.
  • Cooking Techniques: Cooks may only have a focus on one or two cooking techniques. For example, microwaving pre-made dishes, using the deep fat fryer (in the case of fish and chip shops), or batch oven cooking large quantities of a set menu.
  • Knife Skills: Cooks usually have basic knife skills. However, they tend not to be expected to own their own knives and instead use those provided by the kitchen.
  • Knowledge: Most cooks don’t have the same knowledge of the classic dishes that chefs have. They are more governed by their supervisors, and the menu they cook is written by others.

As readers can see, the definition between the a chef and a cook is not black and white. There are no governing bodies that define people as chefs. Instead, there are lots of factors to consider and ultimately it is up to each person’s opinion.

I’ve mentioned qualifications a few times but is that the main difference?

Do You Need Qualifications To Be A Chef?

In the UK, a person does not need a qualification to be a chef. However, it is generally accepted that a chef will have at least a level 2 NVQ in professional cookery. If a chef has many years of experience, but no qualifications, then this will not typically hinder them from getting a job and calling themselves a chef.

For anyone beginning their chef career journeyOpens in a new tab., it is absolutely worth (in my opinion) getting a culinary qualification along the way. They can be completed alongside your normal work and are relatively straightforward if you are already working in a place producing good cuisine.

A qualification is a signal to employers that you care enough to put the effort in to get one, and that you are serious about a career in the catering industry. They provide a great foundation for building a chef career upon.

Like many industries, there is an acceptance that experience and knowledge are just as good as a qualifications for some people. For example, if a chef has worked for the past 20 years in Michelin star kitchensOpens in a new tab., but did not get a qualification, are they not allowed to call themselves a chef?

However, in my opinion the above example is the exception rather than the rule. So whilst a person may call themselves a chef without a qualification, most chefs will have one.

How To Progress From A Cook To A Chef?

For anyone who is currently working as a cook but wants to become a chef,Opens in a new tab. there is one simple, but challenging step to get started.

To progress from a cook to a chef, find a kitchen job that allows you to cook from scratch and learn the techniques required. This is something I had to do on my chef journey and can be challenging, but is definitely worth it in the long run.

If you have been a cook for several years, you may have climbed the ladderOpens in a new tab. in your industry. Starting a path to becoming a chef can often mean having to go back to the beginning and starting again, by taking a Commis ChefOpens in a new tab. role. Although this can be tough, it is so worth it to be on the career path you wish to be on.

It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you wish to climb then half way up one you don’t.

A cooks experience with food and general understanding of how a kitchen operatesOpens in a new tab. is highly desirable to those looking for trainee chefs / Commis chefsOpens in a new tab., and will give you a great advantage over those who are straight out of culinary school.

Can You Be a Successful Cook?

A person can have a very successful career as a cook. There are some very successful people who call themselves cooks, such as;

  • Nigella Lawson: Nigella LawsonOpens in a new tab. is a famous TV cook around the world. She actively says she is not a chef. However, she has huge appeal because she teaches people how to create wonderful dishes that they can recreate at home.
  • Wedding Caterers: Large bulk cooking to a set few items is the usual for wedding caterers but they are often financially successful.
  • Catering Van Owners: Someone with no previous experience may buy a pizza van, learn to cook a few pizzas perfectly, and then have a rewarding career cooking at various events. 

I guess it depends on the reader’s version of success. If your version of success is having a profitable business and getting to cook great food every day then you absolutely can be successful.

Are Cooks and Chefs Paid Differently?

Cooks and chefs tend to earn different amounts of money. Cooks are usually hourly paid, where as chefs are salary paid. This means that when you compare the amount of hours they both work, cooks can sometimes earn more because they are paid for each and every hour they work.

However, as a chef progress up the kitchen rank structureOpens in a new tab. their pay will go on to outperform that of a cook.

This is the biggest starting difference between the pay for chefs Opens in a new tab.and cooks. Although a cooks hourly rate is rarely very high, they often work 50-60 hours each week so their pay can quickly add up.

As chefs are salaried their hourly rate when compared on a 40 hour week may be higher. However the chef will often have to work the same 50-60 hoursOpens in a new tab. as the cook but will not receive any financial compensation.

This is true in the beginning and something I myself experienced when I transitioned from a line cooks job in a chain restaurant to a Commis chefOpens in a new tab. role in a 2 rosette restaurant.

However, as you move up through the kitchen ranks, a chefs pay typically overtakes the cooks pay even when taking the working hours into account. The ceiling on the hourly rate a cook can earn is quite limited. As a chef progress their career the salary they receive gets better and the ceiling on a chef’s pay is quite high.

The Head chef of a Michelin star restaurant will earn substantially more than the Head Cook (or Kitchen Manager as they are usually referred to) in a chain restaurant.

As mentioned earlier this is a pain point I had to endure on my chef journey. But the job satisfaction and knowledge I was gaining increased 10X, so I was more than happy to make this financial sacrifice.Opens in a new tab.

Can A Chef Stop Being A Chef?

I may be biased, but in my opinion the answer to this is no.

In my experience, a chef can never stop being a chef. Being called a chef is a title that they have worked hard to achieve. Once they have earned this title, they don’t lose it. Even if we stop cooking, we still have the knowledge and experienced gained over many years in a hot kitchen.

As we have seen, being a chef is about gaining knowledge and experience. Once you have knowledge and experience in any area of life, you don’t lose that knowledge. Being a chef can be a very demanding job and there is a shared camaraderieOpens in a new tab. among everyone in catering.

From a personal point of view, I left catering Opens in a new tab.over 7 years ago and of course no one goes around calling me chef in everyday life (that would be weird!) but I do still consider myself a chef.

Some people may disagree, but in my experience the industry is very tight nit and whenever I chat to other chefs there is a mutual respect for one another.

Does It Matter Whether a Person is Called a Chef or a Cook?

In some chefs eye’s being called a cook is slightly disrespectful. Some chefs feel they have worked hard to earn the right to be called a chef. Other chefs are perfectly happy to be called a cook, and use the two words interchangeably.

Equally some people that are doing a job which would traditionally class them as a cook, would view themselves and prefer to be called, a chef. My advice would be to treat everyone in the industry as a chef unless they correct you otherwise. That way you will avoid accidentally offending someone if they have strong views on the subject either way.

Ultimately I hope we have shown that really the differences come down to personal opinion. A person can become a hugely successful cook or a hugely successful chefOpens in a new tab.. The title isn’t necessarily important, success depends more on the route the individual chooses for their career.

I hope this article has been helpful in clearing up the difference between being a chef and being a cook.

Dave Nicholas

Having spent around 10 years working as a qualified chef in high end restaurants, my mission is to use this experience to help others as they begin their career in catering!

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