Uncovering Culinary Roles: The Difference Between Cook and Chef


If you’re not familiar with the culinary industry, then you may not be aware that there is a distinct difference between cook and chef as a professional title. While they may both be dressed in chef’s coats and work in a kitchen, their daily responsibilities vary quite a bit. One takes a bit more of a leadership and management role, while the other puts all his time into cooking and preparing dishes.

To get more into the details, let’s look deeper at the difference between chef and cook.

A chef vs a cook

The Definition of a Cook and Chef

While they may sound very similar (and they are to some degree), the definition of a cook is different from that of a chef. Let’s break down what each of these professions entails, paying specific attention the responsibilities of each position.

What is a Cook?

A professional cook is a person who prepares food using cooking techniques and a variety of ingredients to create specific dishes. However, you should know that there are actually different kinds of cooks, so the exact definitions might slightly vary. Here are the most common types of cooks you can find in a kitchen:

  • Kitchen Porter / Prep Cook — this is a person who helps with food preparation by chopping, measuring and mixing different ingredients. Sometimes this person also has some cleaning duties.
  • Junior Cook/Commis — someone who works under a line cook to learn the basics in a specific section of the line.
  • Line Cook — a person who works at a specific station in a restaurant kitchen, like the grill or salad area.

An important note about this role is that all cooks follow recipes and instructions from their supervisors to make sure the food tastes good and is prepared according to the restaurant’s standards.

What is a Chef?

A chef is an experienced culinary professional who has taken on more of a managerial role after working in this field for many years. They’re not just someone who cooks food, but an expert who creates recipes, plans menus, and manages the kitchen. Their responsibility spans across all of the different cooks that are working under them.

This is the level when chefs start to focus less on physically preparing food and more on being able to step into any role in the kitchen when needed.

Just like with cooks, there are also different levels of chefs:

  1. Executive Chef: The top chef who’s in charge of everything in the kitchen.
  2. Sous Chef: The second-in-command who helps the Executive Chef.
  3. Chef de Partie: In charge of a specific part of the kitchen, like soups or meats.
A chef preparing food

Distinguishing the Duties of Cooks and Chefs

The main differences between a cook and chef have to do with the duties that each position is responsible for. As the chef of a kitchen will be higher up the corporate ladder than a cook, this affects the day-to-day obligations of each.

The Duties of a Cook

A cook in a restaurant kitchen will potentially plan, prepare and cook any of the dishes that are being offered at that location. But this is only a small part of their duties. Let’s take a look at other tasks they should be taking care of.

  1. Keep the kitchen clean: Cooks make sure their work area and tools are clean and tidy.
  2. Store food properly: They put ingredients and leftovers in the right places to keep them fresh.
  3. Measure ingredients: They use the right amount of each ingredient for recipes.
  4. Cut and chop: Cooks prepare ingredients by cutting them into the right sizes and shapes.
  5. Cook food: They use different methods like boiling, frying, baking, or grilling to cook meals.
  6. Plate food: Cooks arrange food on plates to make it look nice.
  7. Keep track of supplies: Cooks let their bosses know when ingredients are running low.
  8. Follow schedules: They make sure meals are ready on time.
  9. Adjust recipes: Sometimes they need to change recipes for people with special diets.

The Duties of a Chef

The duties may vary based on the level of the food establishment and the chef’s role, but here are the basic responsibilities of a chef:

  1. Create menus: Chefs decide what dishes the restaurant will offer.
  2. Invent new recipes: They come up with new and exciting dishes.
  3. Lead the kitchen team: Chefs manage and guide other cooks and kitchen staff.
  4. Train staff: They teach other cooks new skills and recipes.
  5. Ensure food quality: Chefs make sure all dishes taste good and look great.
  6. Plan kitchen operations: They organize how the kitchen works to run smoothly.
  7. Order supplies: Chefs decide what ingredients and equipment to buy.
  8. Solve problems: They fix issues that come up in the kitchen, including work conflicts.
  9. Budget management: They help control how much money is spent in the kitchen.
  10. Food presentation: Chefs decide how dishes should look when served.

Executive chefs take on more of a behind-the-scenes role, while sous chefs and pastry chefs will still play a big role in the physical preparation process.

Chef vs Cook Skill Sets

Now, let’s get a look at the key skill sets of a Chef and a Cook:

Skill SetChefCook
EducationFormal culinary education (often)On-the-job training
ExperienceExtensive experience in professional kitchensVaries, often less extensive
LeadershipStrong leadership and management skillsLimited leadership responsibilities
Menu DevelopmentCreates and designs menusFollows existing menus
Culinary TechniquesMastery of advanced culinary techniquesProficient in basic cooking techniques
CreativityHigh level of creativity in dish creationPrepares dishes as instructed
SpecializationOften specializes in a cuisine or techniqueGenerally more versatile
Kitchen ManagementManages kitchen operations and staffAssists in kitchen operations
Food SafetyIn-depth knowledge of food safety standardsBasic understanding of food safety
Plating and PresentationExpert in plating and presentationFollows plating guidelines
ProcurementOversees food procurement and inventoryMay assist with inventory
Work HoursOften longer, includes administrative tasksTypically standard kitchen shifts
Recipe DevelopmentDevelops and tests new recipesPrepares recipes provided by chefs
Cost ControlManages food costs and budgetLimited involvement in cost management

What is the Difference in Salaries between a Cook and a Chef?

When comparing cook vs chef in regard to salary, a cook typically makes less money per year than a chef does. This is because a chef will have a position that supervises other staff members and takes on more responsibility than you would see within a cook’s role in the kitchen. However, advancing as a cook is a possibility. The more years you work, the more you will make.

Further reading:

  • Curious about how much chefs earn around the world? Take a look at our article about chef salaries in different countries. It will open your eyes to the surprising salary differences across countries and might even inspire you to pursue a culinary career abroad.
Educational path of a chef and cook

Educational Paths to Becoming a Cook or Chef

Some people start right out of high school, getting jobs in restaurant kitchens. They might begin washing dishes or helping prepare ingredients. It’s hard work, but you learn a ton just by being in a busy kitchen. If you’re eager to learn and work hard, you can move up to being a line cook and even higher.

Others decide to go to a culinary school. These schools teach you all about different foods, cooking techniques, and how to run a kitchen. You might spend a few months learning the basics, or go for years to get a college degree in culinary arts. In school, you get to practice in teaching kitchens and sometimes even work in restaurants that are part of the school.

Further reading: To have a better understanding of what the culinary program, take a look at our post about what you can learn in a culinary school.

Remember, the path to becoming a cook is often different from becoming a chef. Cooks usually focus more on cooking skills and can start working in kitchens pretty quickly. They learn on the job, picking up techniques as they go.

Chefs, on the other hand, often need more training. They’re the kitchen bosses, so they need to know not just how to cook, but how to create menus, manage people, and run a business.

If you are interested in getting started on the path to becoming a cook or chef, you can begin your journey at HRC Culinary Academy. You will start by learning the basics of your craft, with further instruction provided to really tailor your education to your passion and what you find interesting.

FAQ section

Can a cook become a chef?

A cook can become a chef, just like a soldier can become a general. In order to become a chef, you will likely spend a number of years working as a cook. Your career as a cook will provide you with valuable information and experience that will allow you to better manage other cooks in the future and run a successful kitchen.

Do All Cooks Want to Become Chefs?

Not all cooks are interested in furthering their careers to become a chef. A main chef and cook difference is that one has a lot more hands-on of a position. There are certain cooks who are far more interested in cooking and preparing food than they are in taking on a leadership role.

Can a cook call themselves a chef?

Technically, no. A chef is the trained and skilled professional who is in charge of a kitchen in a restaurant or other food service establishment. A cook, on the other hand, is someone who prepares food but may not have the same level of training or responsibility

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