In its simplest of definitions, a chef refers to an individual who prepares food professionally for others. Stricter terminology dictates that a chef is educated and skilled in different aspects of food preparation from ingredient sourcing to mis en place (pre-preparation) and cooking and presentation.
The word is originally taken from the French term “chef de cuisine”, literally “head of a kitchen” which refers only to select individuals adept at “haute cuisine” or high class or meticulous food preparation.
In the serious world of formal food preparation, various titles are designated to the members of a professional culinary team. Most of the titles were coined by Auguste Escoffier, a turn of the century French chef, restaurateur and culinary writer who updated traditional French cooking and created the brigade system which manages kitchen operations. This is the way big institutions like big restaurants and five-star hotels set up its organizational chart but some have adapted multi-tasking to allow for cross exposure, training and development.
The executive chef is overall in charge of a team that can reach dozens or hundreds of employees. He or she is on top of menu creation, its development and updating; management of kitchen staff and operations; and purchasing and inventory management. The executive is seconded by a sous chef “under-chef” who fills in when the top man (or woman) is not present. With women fast taking on executive roles in any field of expertise, female executive chefs are not an uncommon sight anymore.
Depending on the size of the establishment, the experience and credentials of the chefs, the executive can earn a very big salaries equivalent to top management. For some restaurants, he or she is also the owner who chooses to focus more on the culinary operations and assigns dining room management to a fellow owner or employee.
In big hotels that have multiple food and beverage outlets, the culinary team features a hierarchy of responsibilities in line with the experience of the employee. Chefs de partie or station chefs are charge of specific tasks and may or may not have staf to supervise. Though it sounds highly specialized (and boring), there are actually job titles like sauciers who manage all sautéed items and corresponding sauces; assigned chefs on top of fish preparation, roasted and braised meats, grilling, frying, cold items like sandwiches and salads; and the envious title of pâtissier who creates all the sweet treats.
For those who just enjoy eating and doesn’t bother much about how the meal is prepared, a chef is just the guy who cooks the food. But becoming one is a serious matter which either entails going to culinary school and spending thousands of dollars or being self taught learning from professionals or even just by experimentation though some wouldn’t call them “chefs”. That certainly doesn’t mean that the self taught cannot go on to become successful in their chosen field as long as they’re passionate and love what they do.
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