September 14, 2022

To the uninitiated, a professional cook and a chef may look similar. They both wear chef’s coats, work in a kitchen, and prepare food. But the day-to-day responsibilities of these two roles are vastly different. One is a skilled tradesperson, while the other is a leader—and often a visionary.

Discover the important distinctions between these two kitchen roles and the skills necessary for success in each. Keep reading to explore the main differences between a professional cook and chef!

What Is a Professional Cook?

Professional cooks are skilled technicians who prepare and make food. Most of their work is hands-on, transforming ingredients from their whole states into finished dishes.

There are many different types of cooks, each with varying responsibilities. A prep cook, for example, does supporting work like chopping vegetables, pre-portioning cuts of protein, and concocting sauces or dressings. Line cooks, on the other hand, are responsible for the cooking, plating, and completing dishes for service.

Professional cooks are also sometimes defined by their work stations. A fry cook runs the fryer for a steady supply of hot, fresh french fries and other crispy snacks. A grill cook is in charge of grilled items like burgers, chicken, steaks, and some vegetables.

Male chef with black bandana cutting ingredients with a knife in the kitchen

What Is a Professional Chef?

A professional chef is a trained, experienced culinarian who has worked in a professional kitchen setting and usually occupies a more managerial role, either running a single-person department or leading a team of cooks. Chefs have a higher degree of responsibility than cooks and must be leaders as well as culinary experts. This means that they also must possess a high skill level of problem solving while under high pressure — being able to assess situations and create solutions quickly is imperative.

A chef often spends a great deal of their time supervising and managing the rest of the crew, rather than cooking. They must be able to jump into any position when needed and mentor other team members. But they may also get to create their own recipes and menus, influencing the restaurant’s reputation and helping shape its concepts. Therefore, while they have greater responsibility than cooks, they also receive more credit when a kitchen performs well.

Smiling chef holding two white plates with salad in a kitchen

What’s the Difference Between a Professional Cook and a Chef?

The ultimate difference between a cook and a chef is their level of responsibility. A cook completes the tasks assigned to them in order to deliver a chef’s recipe. To do so, they should have the basic skills needed to execute the menu. This can include simple tasks like chopping or mixing, but it can also require more advanced technical skills necessary for complex, multipart recipes.

A chef, on the other hand, is a manager, ultimately responsible for the food that comes out of the kitchen. This title includes the executive chef, who is the top leader of the kitchen and has control over the menu and overall direction of the restaurant’s culinary program. It can also include additional chef roles. Some kitchens have a chef de cuisine who manages the day-to-day operations. Most have a sous chef who serves as the executive chef or chef de cuisine’s “right hand.” There could also be a pastry chef who creates the desserts and may run a small team of pastry cooks.

Professional chefs usually start out as cooks and earn the title of chef later in their careers. They are often the people in the kitchen with the most culinary education and experience. Chefs may have attended a formal culinary school, or they may have worked in the industry for many years to grasp the necessary skill set. There is no degree or certification that automatically moves a cook into the realm of the chef. Instead, it’s a multi-faceted combination of education, experience, and leadership abilities.

Escoffier Chef Instructor Jesper Jonsson“We always say in this profession that you need to grow into the position that you aspire to have. So if you want to become a sous chef, as a lead line cook, you need to begin doing sous chef jobs already.”*
Escoffier Chef Instructor Jesper Jonsson

What Skills Do Professional Cooks Need?

A professional cook’s skill level can vary quite a bit, from entry-level to the most expert cooks at high-end restaurants. Cooks should know the basic cooking functions, like baking, roasting, steaming, broiling, and poaching, and when each is appropriate. They should also know the different kinds of cuts, so that when the chef asks them to chiffonade some basil or julienne a carrot, they’ll know what is being asked of them. Professional cooks should know additional foundational skills, like how to make an emulsion, which knives are appropriate for which tasks, and the basics of seasoning.

Additional skills can vary based on the cook’s position. A line cook must know how to identify “done-ness” in a cut of meat, for example. And a prep cook should be skilled at rapid chopping and pay close attention to labeling and dating their work.

Smiling chef cutting carrots and other vegetables on a white cutting board in a kitchen

When cooks attend culinary school at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, they can graduate with many of these skills in their toolbox. During their hands-on industry externship, which is required in order to graduate, students can work in a professional kitchen where they can practice their skills in a high-speed commercial environment. With this type of preparation, cooks can become ready for their first professional job, where they can then continue to build on their skills and discover new techniques.

Escoffier Chef Instructor Jesper Jonsson“A student who graduates from Escoffier can be able to participate in much better culinary conversations and understand a lot more about not just cooking, but how a business is run.”*
Escoffier Chef Instructor Jesper Jonsson

What Skills Do Professional Chefs Need?

A professional chef must have extensive proficiency to earn this title. They should have expertise in every skill that they expect their cooks to employ, so that they can provide precise instruction and guidance. They may also be specialists in a single type of cuisine (like French or Japanese) or a certain cooking style (like barbecue or plant-based cooking).

The responsibilities of a chef go far beyond the food. They should also be skilled in menu planning, since they could be responsible for the final restaurant menu–from appetizers to desserts. They may also be required to create dishes that are both delicious and profitable, keeping labor and food costs in check. They need to be strong leaders, inspiring their employees and keeping them motivated to put out excellent food, day after day.

Two chefs standing in a kitchen behind a table full of vegetables discussing the menu

Some chefs are also independent business owners. For example, private chefs and personal chefs often run their own small businesses. Some chefs are also owners of restaurants and catering companies, so they must manage the business as well as the food.

How does a professional chef discover all of this? It can start with enrolling in culinary school. At Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, associate degree students can begin their culinary education with cooking fundamentals and then move on to explore menus, leadership, communications, foodservice math and accounting, and entrepreneurship. While students do not graduate as chefs, they can start their culinary careers with a great breadth of knowledge to draw on as they progress through their careers.

A credential, like a degree or diploma, or a culinary certification from an industry association, can also help to prove to future employers that the recipient obtained a heightened level of proficiency. And this can demonstrate that the chef is passionate about growing in necessary competencies and in their career overall.

Nahika Hillery, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate“Every time I was approached by a food blogger or press, I was referred to as chef. I didn’t feel right having that title without the credentials. I was a really good home cook, but I lacked the confidence in my skills in a professional setting. The culinary industry is such a respected field and I wanted to be on an equal playing ground with other chefs that I had an opportunity to work with.”*
Nahika Hillery, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Chef/Owner, Kréyol Korner Caribbean Cuisin

Do All Cooks Want to Become Chefs?

The short answer is no! While many cooks do have the goal of becoming the “boss” of the kitchen, others prefer the life of the cook. A cook must perform to a high standard on each shift, but they are not responsible for the overall success of the kitchen or food service establishment. Some find that this means a lower stress level and better work-life balance. Plus, cooks get to do more hands-on professional cooking. If your culinary dreams involve cooking all day, every day, then a career as a cook may be the right place for you.

Whether you want to be a professional cook or move up the ranks to executive chef, a culinary education can be a great place to start. Contact our Admissions Department to explore more about degrees and diplomas from Escoffier and how they can help you achieve your goals.

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*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.