Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Musings: Chef vs Cook

People most often refer to me as a chef. That's accurate, but I prefer to call myself a Cook. Chef is a job title, like Manager or Foreman or Shift Supervisor. There are different kinds of jobs that require a chef. There are restaurant chefs, pastry chefs, personal chefs, executive chefs, sous chefs, corporate chefs, Even McDonalds has an Executive Chef, aka the "Senior Director of Culinary Innovation" (does pairing McDonalds with "culinary innovation" seem as oxymoronic to you as it does to me?).

If you graduate from a Culinary School you get a diploma that verifies that you are theoretically qualified to be a chef, not unlike the diploma one gets when he or she graduates from college with a degree in education and teaching, theoretically qualifying him or her to be a teacher. And just as there are good and bad teachers, chefs also can be good or bad, competent or incompetent. 

Cook, on the other hand, is a title that seems more personal. A Cook is a craftsman, a tradesman, at times a composer, and once in a while maybe even an alchemist of sorts.  The act of cooking is the act of creation, creating with raw and beautiful materials from the earth.

Being a chef is more about management. A chef's job does of course involve food, but it also requires (if the chef is at all competent) people skills, financial and numbers skills, organizational skills, communication skills, teaching skills, leadership skills and more. The job skills of a good chef are not unlike those of a good CEO. (Mario Batali is, in practical reality, certainly more CEO than cook these days.) I've done that job, being a chef, am pretty good at it and enjoy it.

But being a cook is more about food, in both the literal and figurative sense...about connecting food to people, and that means that it's also about community. Being a cook is like being an artist, in that the act is largely about creation and pleasure. Mostly pleasing or satisfying other people, which in turn is also satisfying to oneself. When you cook, the feedback is immediate; the food is either good, bad or okay, and people have immediate reactions to and opinions on it. I like that.

I think of the Chuckwagon Cooks on the cattle drives of the Old West, feeding hungry and appreciative cowboys, and I think of the Navy Cooks on battleships from WWII until today, feeding hungry and appreciative sailors. (That romantic view goes for the Cooks in all the other branches of the military too. My Dad was in the Navy, and my Granduncle Lester - from whom the original Stumpjack was birthed - was a Cook and Paratrooper in WWII).

Given a choice, I'd rather be a Chuckwagon Cook than a Mario Batali.

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