When you see someone in the kitchen whipping up a delicious meal, do you refer to this person as a chef or a cook? Is there any difference between the two terms?

Well, there are many words in the English language that we think are completely interchangeable. If you aren’t feeling well, you may decide that you should see your doctor… or you might say that you’re going to see your physician. The words “doctor” and “physician” here effectively mean the same thing, but there is a distinction to be made.

A “physician” would refer specifically to the medical professional, whereas a “doctor” is anyone with a doctorate degree. A person with a Ph.D. in environmental science, as bright as they may be, probably won’t the person you see if you’re coughing up blood. Given this, can we consider chefs and cooks to be the same thing? They’re just preparing a meal, right?

Le Chef de Cuisine

The term “chef” originally comes the longer French term “chef de cuisine.” This literally translates as the head of a kitchen. “Chef” means “chief” in this case and “cuisine” is the kitchen. In this way, the term usually comes in the context of a “head chef” or an “executive chef.” These are folks who are (typically, but not always) responsible for more than “just” cooking the meal. They may be the manager of the kitchen. They might develop the menu.

Of course, there are chefs who aren’t necessarily the “head” of a kitchen, as would be the case with an “assistant chef” or a “sous chef,” but the connotation remains. The term “chef” comes a little bit more prestige and it may imply a certain level of creativity or mastery of the craft. If you go to a nicer place like Fable Kitchen, you’d assume there is a “chef” somewhere in that kitchen.

Just an Amateur Cook

Whereas you find a “higher” association with the term “chef,” such is not necessarily the case with the term “cook.” Again, thinking typically but not necessarily, a cook is someone who simply cooks a dish. He or she may be following a basic recipe and the end result is nothing special. Someone who cooks up a cheap lunch special is more likely to be called a “cook” than a “chef.”

That’s why we hear about “home cooks” and “amateur cooks,” for example. Even in a more professional kitchen, the person with the more basic, assembly line-type responsibility would be called a “line cook.” They’re typically not expected to be all that creative or masterful; they just need to do the task they are assigned and do it well.

A Matter of Semantics

More and more, however, the lines are blurring between what a chef and a cook really are. You see reality television shows where an “amateur home cook” gets the opportunity to showcase their skills and graduate to becoming a “master chef” instead. Some people associate “chefs” with high cuisine, but the guy who whips up a mean bowl of pho or an excellent hamburger can justifiably call himself a “chef” too.

We see this with many other careers too. What is the difference, really, between a freelance writer or a professional writer? How do you differentiate between a janitor and a custodian engineer? When you look between the assumed connotations and implied characters, all you’re really left with is just another job title.