What Is the Difference Between a Chef and a Cook?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated March 31, 2022 | Published July 7, 2021

Updated March 31, 2022

Published July 7, 2021

People outside of the culinary industry often use the job titles chef and cook interchangeably, though they have differences within the industry. Both indicate employees who work in a kitchen and prepare food for others, but there are plenty of factors that distinguish one from the other. Knowing the difference between the two can help you decide which career path is right for you. In this article, we explain what chefs and cooks are and review the differences between the two positions.

What is a chef?

A chef is a trained culinary professional. They have the educational and practical experience to understand the creative side of food preparation. Chefs make up their own recipes and can make custom dishes for pleasure or upon request. They often plan shopping lists and menus for their establishments. Some chefs also have supervisory roles in their kitchens.

Related: How To Become a Chef

What is a cook?

Cooks are food professionals who prepare meals in any setting. They typically follow someone else's recipes or meal plans. They may prepare food in mass quantities. Cooks can also perform other duties, like cleaning the kitchen, shopping for supplies with a predetermined list or completing other tasks as instructed by a supervisor.

Related: Line Cook vs. Prep Cook: What's The Difference?

Chef vs. cook

Chefs and cooks have a variety of differences between them regarding their responsibilities, management structure and other factors. Some distinctions between the two professions include:

Specialties

Cooks may be less likely to have a specialty designation related to their culinary skills. They can often make anything from a recipe, such as the main dish, a side dish or a dessert. Cooks may, however, have different titles in the kitchen based on their years of experience. They include:

  • Line cook: These cooks control one particular station in a kitchen, such as a griddle or a fryer. It takes approximately four years of kitchen experience to advance to this role.

  • Prep cook: These cooks clean produce, prepare ingredients, chop vegetables, cut meat and perform other pre-cooking duties to get ingredients ready for the line cook. They often have one year or less of kitchen experience.

  • Short-order cook: These cooks typically work in places like fast-food restaurants and diners where they take multiple orders at once and use more simple preparation techniques such as microwaving, frying and grilling. There isn't usually an experience requirement for this position.

In contrast, chefs may earn special distinctions based on their expertise in a certain type of food or preparation technique, coupled with education and experience. Some of these roles include:

  • Executive chef: This chef is often the main supervisor in a kitchen. They can typically make any type of food on the menu or as requested by a customer, and they also often plan meals and make decisions about establishment offerings.

  • Sous chef: These chefs serve as assistants to executive chefs. They complete duties as assigned and supervise the kitchen staff.

  • Pastry chef: These chefs focus on creating unique desserts and similar items like cookies, cakes and bread.

  • Garde manger: This type of chef works with cold dishes, such as salads and different types of dressings.

  • Chef de partie: This type of chef is like a line cook because they often control one particular section of the kitchen, such as cooking meat or making sauces.

  • Commis chef: This type of chef is typically a trainee or apprentice, and they focus on food preparation, such as chopping, slicing, peeling and other related tasks. Commis chefs are like prep cooks, but they are training or studying culinary techniques to advance through the chef hierarchy.

Read more: What Are the Different Types of Chefs?

Kitchen hierarchy

Cooks are typically on the lower end of the kitchen hierarchy, in entry-level positions. They may take orders from supervisors but typically only give orders and advice to people who work on the service floor, such as servers or bussing employees. In contrast, chefs may sit at the top or in the middle of the kitchen hierarchy depending on their exact positions, experience and level of responsibility.

For example, an executive chef may be the leader in the kitchen and report only to the establishment's manager or owner. They may give orders to line cooks, servers or anyone else working in the kitchen. A sous chef may report to the executive chef but have the authority to run the kitchen when the executive chef is unavailable.

Related: Jobs in a Kitchen: Examples

Responsibilities

Cooks prepare food for others by following recipes. They perform basic kitchen functions like chopping or boiling. They may execute meal plans created by a supervisor and handle other responsibilities like cleaning the kitchen and ensuring proper storage procedures.

Chefs have more creative input in the kitchen. They have more knowledge of food creation and preparation techniques. Chefs create meals without a recipe and may make changes, improvise or experiment with ingredients as needed. They may also set the menus for their establishments and can consult on decisions about the staff or future of the eatery. Chefs may also have management or supervisory duties in the kitchen.

Work environment

Cooks often work in settings where you're not going specifically to get a meal, such as schools, prisons or hospitals. Chefs, in contrast, work in places that you visit specifically to get a meal, such as restaurants or resorts. Cooks may also work in restaurants but under the supervision of chefs.

Customer payments

Chefs almost always work in settings where customers pay to eat their food. They're regarded as professionals in their fields, and their meals are a commodity. Cooks, in contrast, don't always work for customer payments. While they may earn an hourly wage or salary for performing their duties, the people eating their food may not pay for each meal.

For example, a cook who works in a nursing home may earn a salary for their job, but the residents typically aren't paying per meal to eat their food. Cooks may also volunteer their time and services more readily than chefs for events such as fundraisers, festivals or other community gatherings.

Training

Cooks may have little or no professional training before starting their careers. They may be self-trained or have an interest in cooking or baking that they pursue on their own time with their own resources. Cooks often know basic preparation techniques and food storage and safety best practices from personal experience.

In comparison, chefs have a lot of practical training before earning their positions. They may even start as cooks to learn basic skills and functions of a kitchen but advance to pursue a culinary apprenticeship. These programs incorporate practical training under an established chef to increase skills and knowledge of the industry.

Education

Chefs often have a broader formal educational background in the field than cooks. Cooks may have a high school diploma or GED. Some may have vocational education or an associate degree in a related field, and others may have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field. Cooks typically have no postsecondary education requirements.

Chefs may attend culinary school and earn two- or four-year degrees from these institutions. Some chefs may have vocational schooling or community college educations, but it's typically expected for chefs to have a postsecondary education in place of or coupled with extensive training.

Salary

According to Indeed salaries, cooks make an average of $38,472 per year. Their benefits packages include perks such as:

  • AD&D insurance

  • Commuter assistance

  • Disability insurance

  • Employee assistance programs

  • Employee discounts

  • Flexible schedules

  • Flexible spending accounts

  • Food provisions

  • Health insurance

  • Referral programs

  • Vision insurance

  • Wellness programs

Chefs typically make more money on average, at $44,806 per year. Their benefits packages may include:

  • AD&D insurance

  • Commuter assistance

  • Dental insurance

  • Employee discounts

  • Flexible schedules

  • Food provisions

  • Health insurance

  • Paid time off

  • Referral programs

  • Vision insurance

  • Wellness programs

  • 401(k)

Job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they expect available jobs for cooks to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than average compared to other occupations in the United States. The BLS expect job opportunities for chefs to grow by 6% within the same period, which is still faster than average compared to other industries.

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