I’ve already confessed my preoccupation of all things reality TV. (See, for example posts about The Private Chefs of Beverly Hills and Real Housewives of New Jersey). But leave it to reality television to raise the important questions for the masses to ponder. Thank you Kelly Bensimon, the self-described ”intellectual” of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York’s gaggle for bringing an important question to light. What makes a chef a chef and a cook a cook?
The short story- Kelly’s archenemy Bethenny Frankel is a well-known chef, best-selling author and caterer. However in this week’s episode, Kelly questions Bethenny’s cooking chops. Because she isn’t Alain Ducasse and because she isn’t an executive chef, it’s Kelly’s contention that Bethenny is merely a “cook.” (This, coming from the woman who thinks the phrase “making lemons into lemonade” means psychoanalyzing people. Grain.of.salt). Nervous breakdown aside, Kelly’s deep thought was formed without knowing Bethenny’s culinary pedigree (she did after all, attend the National Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts), let alone having ever eaten anything Bethenny prepared. When pressed for support for her characterization, it was apparent that Kelly hadn’t really given the issue much thought and just wanted to lash out. But what gives, and why does it matter?
Michael Ruhlman wrote a lengthy post about what makes a chef. He proposes that, “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.” That’s certainly a good start from someone who has given a lot of thought to the life of a chef (“The Making of a Chef,” “The Soul of a Chef” and “The Reach of a Chef” are all books written by Ruhlman). Wikipedia simplifies it even more: “A chef is a person who cooks professionally. In a professional kitchen setting, the term is used only for the one person in charge of everyone else in the kitchen; the executive chef.” On the other hand, Wikipedia defines a cook as “a person with little to no creative influence on a menu and little to no command over others within the kitchen, such as a line cook. These are usually all members of a restaurant kitchen that are underneath the sous chef in the brigade de cuisine.”
All this matters because whether you are in culinary school, work in the restaurant industry or you are a person who just enjoys good food, the term “chef” is a moniker of distinction and a show of respect. Not everyone is a chef and conversely, not everyone is a cook. And that’s okay. Since when is calling someone a cook uncomplimentary? I’m thinking about the “Kiss the Cook” aprons my grandmother used to wear with pride. She was by no means a chef, but as the sole cook in her kitchen, the meals she prepared for her family of six were appreciated, delicious and for this reason, she was beloved and respected. And isn’t that the whole point?