Friday, October 9, 2009

Chef or Cook?

A lot of people have asked me what is the difference between a Cook and a Chef. Most of them are wanting to know if they, or their grandma, or their favorite uncle is good enough with food to be considered a "Chef." Where exactly do you draw that line they ask? What is it that a chef has that a cook lacks?

The short answer is two words: FOOD COST.

A chef has a responsibility to keep his food cost in check from week to week and month to or he loses his job. If a chef goes out and buys "only the best!" of everything and then sells it for what their guests can actually afford, that kitchen is leaking money like a sieve and a bunch of people are going to lose their [adult word] and their jobs. If a good home cook spends a ton of money on a really righteous thanksgiving dinner... They get extra hugs from their guests? I don't know really, do you see the difference now?

Chances are pretty good that if you give a decent chef carte blanche with the check book they can cook you some food that will blow your mind. "Why don't you put this on the menu?" An intrepid friend might ask; "It's amazing! I would order it every time!" The chef's reply might be something like: "How many $50 or $60 plates can you order because that's what dry aged ribeye with porcini mushrooms and truffled potatoes would sell for."

Of course it tastes amazing! Unbelievable ingredients often translate into unbelievable food when prepared with a modicum of skill. When you have dry aged kobe or fresh caught wild salmon, the only thing you have to do with is not [adult word] it up and people will think you are an amazing cook. That's not what chefs do. Chefs are left with using their craft and their knowledge to take lesser priced or lesser known ingredients and turning them into something people will happily fork over hard earned cash for... aaannndd have that plate cost add up to PROFIT. Or, take those higher priced ingredients (so you can get that name on your menu) and strrreeeeetchhh that flavor out as far as possible so you can actually afford to buy more food the next week.

A good hobby cook's reaction to a slab of expensive beef might be "I hope I don't screw that up!" while a chef would only be thinking about the price per pound, the yield ratio, trim loss, and how to make the rest of the plate cheaper so that the final price to the customer remains within the bounds of reason.

A chef screws up on the food cost just a few times over the course of a month and their percentage for the month is shot they lose their bonus which is usually a substantial part of their income. A salty dog sends out bad steaks that come back to be thrown away because they're overcooked, that chef is hosed and they know it. Someone walks by and bumps the stove and five gallons of soup get scorched and ruined? Badness. Another salty dog decides that timers are for [adult word] and lets 25 pounds of chicken turn into the equivalent of shoe leather before wandering in from his smoke break and peeking into the oven.... "Sorry chef, is there any more chicken?"

You only need a few of those a month for everything to go to hell. Home cooks ruin food and they have a funny story to tell their dinner guests as they all decide to go out to eat instead. That's the difference.

You put a pro chef in someone's kitchen and chances are good that they can put together some awesome meals without even having to think about it. You put your buddy the backyard grill genius on the line or in charge of $15k worth of perishable inventory and you are going to lose some money over the course of that month. All chefs can cook, some better than others. Most chefs can manage as well. Home cooks? It's a toss up. Some of them can do some amazing things with food, but it's like an old salty dog chef once told me: "Any [adult word] can give food away and have people like it, but it takes a chef to be able to sell that food to people... and then make money off it."

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