Chef: 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. See also brigade.
Just back from South Beach (and the profoundly silly Golden Clog Awards, covered here and here, but for complete coverage of the weekend, don’t miss Adam Roberts excellent videos and interviews)—and I’ve thus been delayed in Monday’s Element, but having just been at a festival swarming with actual chefs, legions of cooks, scores of television cooks, some of whom are actual chefs and some of whom are not, it strikes me that the business of professional cooking has reached such a pitch of hype and celebrity, that it’s important to clarify what exactly the term means, or ought to mean, and more completely than the above definition does. Even I am called a chef, and worse, celebrity chef, in enough publications to be sufficiently alarmed by the muddy waters here. I am not a chef, though I have cooked for money and cooking remains part of my work. The sinister Bourdain is a writer and television host and producer, not a chef, though he once was. Rachael Ray was never a chef and never pretended to be. Ming Tsai is a chef on TV and the chef of Blue Ginger in Wellesley—and when he’s on the road doing demos at South Beach (“the worst kitchen accidents at home are the result of dull knives,” he told an audience on Saturday—so true!), there is someone in his restaurant who is chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen.
The above photograph is of Bradford Thompson, most recently executive chef of Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale (“executive” meaning he leads the restaurant but is not a partner or owner), at an event at the wonderful Culinary Vegetable Institute last spring, instructing two apprentice cooks. Though he would very likely address them in the kitchen as “chef” simply as a term of respect, another excellent use of the word.
One of the most memorable encounters I had over the weekend was with two young cooks, who’d come to town to help local restaurants prep for the numerous food events of the weekend, in the hotel elevator carrying their knife kits. “We’ve been here three days and have only been able to walk around for about 30 minutes,” he said. Not a complaint, just a fact of the life of a cook. As any chef will tell you, they’re the real heroes of the restaurant industry.