What's the difference between a cook and a chef?

TV 'cook' Nigella Lawson and 'chef' Anthony Bourdain.

TV 'cook' Nigella Lawson and 'chef' Anthony Bourdain.

Sometimes it takes a six year old to remind you of the inherent status that comes with having a penis.

For example, a friend's daughter is doing a ballet concert where all the girls are cooks and the two boys in the class are chefs. I asked her six-year-old girl to explain the difference between chefs and cooks. "Chefs cook nicer food," she replied.

In grade one, this little girl has reached the firm conclusion that chefs are boys, and that, by definition, they possess superior skills in the area of food preparation to the cooks who are girls.

But maybe my little friend has simply misunderstood. Perhaps, she’s been brainwashed by her mother’s feminist friends to create a gender distinction where there isn’t one at all.


Not clear on the distinction myself, I headed to the food and beverage industry publication eatdrink.com.au, which says that the difference between chefs and cooks has nothing to do with meat and potatoes and everything to do with qualifications and hard work.

"Cooks are not Chefs!", proclaims the online resource for food & beverage industry professionals, "To qualify, earn and deserve the title of ‘Chef’ you need to have completed a full 4 year apprenticeship as a fulltime employee and also to complete 3 years of  TAFE 1 day a week. It costs money; it involves many hours work including nights, split shifts, double shifts and weekends. It’s hot and sticky, it’s stressful and tiring."

That would be why the unqualified Nigella Lawson is referred to as the ‘queen of food porn’ but is only sometimes called a chef. And Julie Goodwin, Master Chef’s season one winner is so keenly aware of the distinction that when I referred to her as a chef several months ago during an interview she corrected me by saying, "I’m actually a cook."

But Adam Liaw, winner of Master Chef series two, on the other hand refers to himself as a cook on his website but everybody else seems to think he’s a chef.  So we can all assume that he’s qualified. And he is. He’s qualified in, well…law.

Similarly, famous Australian TV 'chef' Geoff Janz has a pharmacy qualification and Peter Russell-Clarke who was the ‘chef’ for the Prince of Wales’ Silver Jubilee dinner began his career as a cartoonist. 

Sonja Ebbles who has 18 years experience working in and managing restaurants can understand why people would prefer to be known as chefs rather than cooks.

"There is an extreme hierarchy in kitchens," she says. "To get respect you need to be a chef. Cooks get very little respect and they are not paid anywhere near as well as chefs."

Ebbles agrees that men who are not qualified as chefs are more likely to adopt the title of chef than are unqualified women.

"I’ve interviewed a lot of men for jobs who claimed they were chefs and expected to be paid at the chef pay grade. But when I asked to see their qualifications, it turned out they weren’t qualified at all and they were actually just cooks. In all my years in hospitality, I’ve never seen a female cook claim that she’s a chef." 

I’m sorry to get all pedantic on you, but perhaps it’s time we clarified the definition of chef to avoid any more confusion or contradiction. It would seem that as a general rule, in order to have the elevated status of a chef, a person must be:

a. Qualified as a chef or

b. In possession of a penis.

If you don’t have three years experience and a TAFE qualification, or a penis, then it seems most people are going to refer to you as a cook.

I’m sure many people will accuse me of manufactured outrage. It’s political-bloody-correctness gone mad! What does it matter if men are chefs and women are cooks?


Because all these little distinctions that elevate the status and entitlement (not to mention pay) of men and boys for no other reason than their gender, are noticed and internalised by our kids.

When I asked my friend if she was going to say anything to the ballet school she said she wouldn’t because she’s sure that it wasn’t deliberate. And I have no doubt that she’s absolutely correct.

But that’s just the point: the fact that these distinctions pass unnoticed and unremarked upon makes them seem entirely natural — and therefore beyond question.

Just because something’s not deliberate, doesn't mean that it's not wrong or harmful. While there are dinosaurs spouting a lot of sexist claptrap aplenty, sexism, as with other forms of ideology, works most effectively when it doesn’t call attention itself; when it just appears to be part of the order of things.

It’s the business lunch where a man sits at the head of the table. It’s the meeting where the women carry out the cups and saucers when the blokes just wander back to their offices.

It’s these small, everyday distinctions which makes male privilege appear natural and normal while women are rendered invisible. And, of course, when women do call attention to this fact and demand that it be corrected, they are routinely criticised for wanting "special privileges", or else playing the victim card.

On the one hand you might argue that having boys in a ballet class in the first place is a challenge to these tiny ways in which gender stereotypes are reinforced everyday. But if the boys simply learn that boys have a higher status than girls for no other reason than they are boys, then we can hardly pretend to call this progress. 


Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 30-Something and Over It and 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking.www.kaseyedwards.com




  • Cook is to chef as handyman is to carpenter.

    I have a trade (and a masters degree) and it has never ceased to amaze me the way that university educated people look down on people who have done trades. As if doing all those difficult menial jobs is nothing, sticking at a job for four years, being hazed by adults, going to collage and so on is worth nothing. When you have done your trade you have actually done the work and experienced what it takes in a real pressure situation over and over again. The trauma of failure, the joy of success, but more often than not the drudgery of working in the same place over and over. Not being allowed to talk to your co-workers, not allowed to sit down, all your breaks enforced by older people who have power over you.

    Self paced learning at home and being able cook food you want when you want to cook it is not the same as catering for demanding customers in a restaurant on a tight schedule no matter how good the food is. Yes the article does highlight some areas of sexism, but it show the usual contempt for trades shown by 'educated' people.

    Date and time
    August 28, 2013, 8:48AM
    • As an 'educated' person (I have a degree from a prestigious university) I think it is a shame that sweeping generalisations are made about any group in society. Some of the most intelligent and hard-working people I have met are not university educated, do not have a trade and did not even finish school.When I need plumbing or electrical work done around the house I call a tradie as they have the skills needed. When I eat out I appreciate the skills and talent of those involved in preparing what is offered (including the service).

      As a four year university trained teacher, I also worked long and hard - and yes, there was 'the trauma of failure, the joy of success' and just plain old hard work and drudgery at times. Can we all please just realise that the most important thing is being true to your calling, working hard and respecting the abilities and efforts of others. We need people who are skilled in trades but we do also need people who have been to university.

      Date and time
      August 28, 2013, 4:43PM
  • I worked in the industry for almost 20 years as well as in the TAFE sector training young apprentices. Chef in French translates to "Chief"

    Classically in the kitchen, a chef is the person in charge of an area/ section, as in;
    Chef de cuisine, Head Chef
    Sous Chef, second in charge
    Chef de partie, station chef
    Cooks in an area report to the chef

    There is also Chef De Rang a station head WAITER
    In the Olympics they have the Chef de Mission

    So people like Nigella, Goodwin, Russell-Clarke etc a TV presenters who cook on TV,

    Date and time
    August 28, 2013, 8:59AM
    • Since you wish to define what is a chef and what is a cook, - When you do an apprenticeship you actually get a qualification as a COOK not as a chef.
      The word chef is linked to the word chief, so technically the person who is a CHEF is the person in charge (i.e the head chef) of the kitchen. (chef de cuisine)
      (You then get terms like sous-chef which literally means "under the chef" and chef de partie which means "section chef")
      Everybody else in a kitchen is actually just a cook not a chef, qualification or not, possession of penis or not.
      So basically there are plenty of people running around calling being called "Chefs" when they are not. (higher pay or not, it does sound more empowering etc than cook)
      In all the examples given above the only one who is a "chef" would be Bourdain the rest are all cooks.

      Date and time
      August 28, 2013, 9:03AM
      • Some people can cook some can't, just because a chef has a piece of paper doesn't mean they can.

        Date and time
        August 28, 2013, 10:24AM
        • Well it does mean that they can meet certain standards under certain conditions. It offers a degree of assurance to an employer that being a cook does not.

          Date and time
          August 28, 2013, 2:31PM
      • Thanks for that, so further thinking to the interpretation is
        anyone can be a cook, but need to have qualification and experience to be a chef.

        As other had commented, chef is a chief, well you definitely need to be an experience cook

        Kitchen Ignorant
        Microwave wonder
        Date and time
        August 28, 2013, 11:03AM
        • I've noticed masterchef contestants referring to cooks my the annoying mantra of "Yes Chef"
          Its wrong and the producers should know better so should the contestants

          Date and time
          August 28, 2013, 11:04AM
          • "I’m sure many people will accuse me of manufactured outrage."

            Yes, but not for any of the reasons you have claimed, just for the reason that you have gone ahead and made up a definition that you not only provide any evidence to support, but actually provide several examples in the article that directly contradict your own argument.

            Even your anecdotal evidence from Sonja Ebbles confirms that while men do seem more likely to claim they are a chef when applying for jobs, nobody is actually accepting those men's claims without question.

            Date and time
            August 28, 2013, 11:07AM
            • A chef has to do several work trials without being paid to get a gig - can't think of another job that has tnis unique selection process!

              Date and time
              August 28, 2013, 12:47PM

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