“What’s the difference between a cook and a chef?” That’s a question those in the culinary world hear frequently. Most people understand that not all cooks deserve the title of chef. (The term technically means “chief.”) But you may not realize that most high-level chefs actually do very little cooking. While top chefs have to know how to cook, they spend most of their time managing (something aspiring chefs may want to keep in mind).
The designations and responsibilities within a kitchen aren’t exact, and can vary from place to place. But in any restaurant, the person in absolute charge of the kitchen is the executive chef. In many cases, this is the man or woman who oversees the kitchen from day to day. But in the case of most celebrity chefs, that’s not true. When chefs have numerous restaurants and responsibilities, it’s simply impossible.
Rick Moonen is executive chef of two Las Vegas restaurants in Mandalay Bay, but frequently travels to educate on sustainable seafood, and collaborate with other chefs and seafood experts. He sees the role of an executive chef as “hiring, maintaining, embracing and creating a culture that coincides with your style of cuisine and running a business.” And Moonen says you’d be hard-pressed to find him cooking in his restaurants, because he’s experimenting with flavors and ingredients elsewhere. “I don’t cook as often in my restaurants as I do at home,” he explains.
Some globetrotting chefs, such as Michael Mina, opt to designate the day-to-day head chef in each of their restaurants as the executive chef. Says Mina’s corporate executive chef Gary LaMorte, “We choose to call our [local] executive chefs ‘executive chefs’ because, in reality, they are.” Other chefs, including Moonen and Thomas Keller, follow a more traditional French system and designate those chefs as chef de cuisine.
“My job is: food cost, quality and labor,” says Moonen’s chef de cuisine, John Church, somewhat oversimplifying his many daily tasks.
Josh Crain, chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in the Venetian, describes his job similarly: “Looking at costs and numbers, scheduling, the direction of the kitchen and staffing.” All of these managerial responsibilities don’t leave a lot of time for cooking. While Church says he makes sure to touch a stove daily (“I’ll lose my mind if I’m not cooking something every day”), Crain says he rarely cooks in his kitchen. “The times [that I cook] are very few and far between,” Crain admits. “This definitely is more of an orchestrating position.”
The next step down the chef hierarchy is the sous chef. Most restaurants have several, including an executive sous chef. But guess what? These guys aren’t doing a lot of cooking either.
Matt Alba, executive sous chef at Bouchon, says his duties include “the majority of produce ordering, fish ordering, meat ordering. [Chef Crain and I] write the schedule together. Occasionally I expedite at dinner. And then I expedite in the morning.” The sous chefs below him are charged with inspecting the pre-meal prep, creating daily or weekly specials, orchestrating the preparation of meals and mentoring up-and-coming chefs.
So who’s actually cooking? That task falls to one of the lower levels of the chef hierarchy: the chef de partie. Otherwise known as line cooks, these are the guys and gals responsible for making most of your meal, assisted by entry-level cooks known as commises. Each chef de partie is assigned to a particular station to handle a specific task, with a sous chef coordinating their efforts to make sure all of the parts come together to create the perfect meal.