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What Do You Mean By “Cook” and “Chef”?

Recently, I caught a podcast episode of The Splendid Table where “Nigella Lawson Defends the Honor of Home Cooking.” She recently wrote¬†an article on Lenny Letter¬†arguing that people shouldn’t say that they are “just a home cook.” The word “just” implies that home cooks are less than a chef where Lawson seems them as distinct crafts.

According to Lawson, chefs cook professionally, so a chef not only creates amazing food but also has to do it quickly and consistently. Chefs serve dishes all night to a wide variety of diners who each expect a culinary experience. On the other hand, a cook makes a single meal for a few people where the meal isn’t compared to a dozen other instances of the same dish as listed on the menu. A cook can change things up out of necessity to substitute missing ingredients or for creative flair for fun. A chef isn’t a better cook: they are just different.

Although my first thought was pride as a home cook, my next thought took me back to Tim Urban’s “The Cook and the Chef” (scroll down to the subheading for “The Cook and the Chef”) where he has his own definitions. Urban says that a chef is someone who invents recipes and works from raw ingredients (i.e. “first principles”). Cooks follow recipes either to the tee or build on top of something they have already seen. When chef need to make something new, they start from scratch. When cook need to make something new, they find another recipe.

And if you search further, you will find plenty of other opinions about the difference. A common explanation is that a chef has more extensive training and directs cooks. Everyone has opinions, but who’s right?

This dichotomy isn’t the first argument about what labels mean. “Nerd versus geek.” “Feminist versus womanist.” “Jock versus athlete.” There are many ways to define these labels and have amusing but unproductive internet discussions as well.

These social labels often have many connotations attached to them, and what these terms mean depends on the context. In a college philosophy discussion seminar I took, the most common response was, “Well, what do you mean by [insert word just used]?”

In the examples above, the writers use “cook versus chef” for very different reasons. Lawson wants people cooking at home to feel proud about their efforts and not worry about how it compares to restaurant cooking. Today, when celebrity chefs are on reality TV shows, cookbook feature more sophisticated techniques, and we are moralizing about our eating habits, Lawson wants to take away that pressure and make home cooking honorable again. It’s great just to cook to eat.

Urban is trying to make a point unrelated to preparing food. “Cook versus chef” is just an analogy for how people think and to distinguish Elon Musk from most people. Urban uses these terms because they are familiar to his readers and make it easy to understand what he’s actually trying to say. Once he is comfortable that his readers are on the same page, “cook” and “chef” become faster ways to say “people who think by following” and “people who think by first principles.”

For the food industry, “cook versus chef” distinguishes levels in their career hierarchy. Amongst many people who work in a kitchen preparing food, these terms are a good way to summarize one’s role and experience on a resume or to organize a workplace like any other industry-specific job title.

I think people get sensitive about these labels in online discussions because we use these labels to identify ourselves as part of social groups. These labels encompass large parts of who we believe we are and how we fit into the world, and any disagreements about meaning become attacks on one’s ego.

My blog’s title is “Work and Workings of a Nerd,” and I have a specific idea of who I am as a “nerd.” When “nerd” comes up in discussion, I can easily mistake the intent here versus the context in discussion, and I may feel the urge to state my opinion to defend my ego. And that will have successfully derailed the discussion into a shouting match about labels.

So going back to the original question, what sort of cook or chef am I? By all definitions above, I am a cook. We try to cook dinner every night unless we have other social arrangements or leftovers to finish. Most of our recipes come from cookbooks or recipe sites. Although Julie is stricter than I am, I still try to stick to the recipe as much as possible to fulfill the author’s origin intent rather than my own desire for creative expression. Given a binary choice, I prefer a tasty meal over a self-originated one.

Even when I’m not cooking from a recipe, I can clearly attribute a source to the meal. I learned how to stir-fry from my mom. I discovered my favorite scrambled eggs from seriouseats. I make guacamole the way that Julie makes and likes it. I sometimes romantically wish that I had more recipes passed down orally and in practice through my family, but I’m pleased with how the internet has taught me to cook, too.

And by Lawson’s definition, I am proud to be a home cook. Especially in the Bay Area culture of obsession over “scaling,” I am satisfied to regularly spend an evening cooking a new pasta dish or baking banana bread for a few friends or just Julie and me. The results aren’t as good as I would expect from a restaurant, and in fact, I once criticized a restaurant for serving “the same thing I would make at home.” I enjoy learning new recipes and techniques, but as long as I’m cooking something, I’m happy.

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