Chef vs Cook: What’s the Difference?

The terms “chef” and “cook” are often used interchangeably. While they’re similar, the two positions often have different backgrounds and responsibilities. When you’re hiring restaurant employees, it’s important to understand the nuances of chef vs. cook roles.

Chefs vs. cook: what each role means

The concept of chef vs. cook can vary from restaurant to restaurant. After all, both positions are responsible for preparing ingredients and cooking the food that’s served to customers.

In a commercial kitchen, a chef usually has formal culinary training and experience — and high-level responsibilities. They might supervise lower-level employees, develop recipes, cook food and ensure the kitchen runs smoothly.

Cooks also prepare food, but they have more flexibility in terms of education and experience. Small, casual restaurants may not require formal training at all; cook jobs may be entry level or have minimal experience requirements.

Some restaurants have both chefs and cooks; others have one or the other. In a small restaurant, the chef and cook may be the same person. Larger kitchens typically have multiple types of chefs and/or cooks, each with nuanced roles.

In general, cooks are more common in chains, casual restaurants and small eaters. You’ll often find chefs in high-end restaurants and fine-dining establishments.

How do you become a chef or cook?

Education is the core of the difference between chef vs. cook roles. To become a chef, workers must typically attend culinary school. After that, they often start with a commis chef position and work their way up through the ranks of different restaurant kitchens.

Cook positions don’t usually require a culinary school degree. Many cooks start out with entry-level prep cook jobs. As they learn new recipes, build food-prep skills and gain experience, they can move up to line cook and head cook jobs.

What are the different classifications of kitchen roles?

“Chefs vs. cook” is a high-level classification; many restaurants have multiple positions within each category.

Common chef jobs include:

  • executivechef. The highest-ranking chef in a kitchen, this person is in charge of top-level tasks such as developing a menu, creating recipes, tracking kitchen operations, managing the food-purchasing process, maintaining inventory and creating and sticking to a budget. Interestingly, executive chefs don’t typically spend much time cooking on a daily basis; their duties are primarily managerial.
  • headchef. This role, also called the chef de cuisine, has a more hands-on supervisory role in the kitchen. They manage meal service, track food quality, and make sure kitchen staff members are working efficiently throughout each shift. Many head chefs spend time cooking. In smaller restaurants, the head chef may also take on the responsibility of the executive chef.
  • Souschef. “Sous” means “below” in French; in a restaurant hierarchy, the sous chef is directly below the head chef and/or executive chef. They cook and help manage other kitchen staff, particularly when the head chef is unavailable. This position is common in restaurants with large kitchen teams.
  • Chefs de partie. These chefs are responsible for individual stations in a kitchen. They might specialize in tasks such as making sauces, pastries, or vegetables. In some restaurants, they handle tasks including frying, grilling or roasting.
  • Commischef. The lowest-ranked chefs, these workers support chefs de partie. They might prepare ingredients, help with cooking, or take on any task that occurs during a shift.

Types of cooks include:

  • Head cook. This person is in charge of the kitchen; in a small business, the owner may even take on the role. They manage workers, train other cooks, and ensure dishes are prepared correctly and consistently. Head chefs are usually highly experienced; many have formal culinary education.
  • Linecook. Line cooks have jobs that are similar to a chef de partie — the person responsible for a specific part of the “line,” or the kitchen operations.
  • Prep cook. The lowest-ranking cooks in a kitchen, these employees get ingredients ready for a meal service. They might chop food, prepare cuts of meat, make salads or help chefs with simple cooking tasks. Prep cooks may also ensure that their areas are clean and sanitized.

The number of kitchen roles your restaurant needs depends on a number of factors. Restaurants with high-end or highly specialized menus often need more chefs, each with targeted experience or a unique set of skills. Bigger restaurants often require a larger staff to maintain consistent food quality and manage the sheer volume of customer orders.

Pros and cons of being a chef

For people who are considering a chef vs. cook career, the right path isn’t always clear. After all, a professional chef title commands respect, but it also takes time and money to earn high-ranking positions. The process can be so demanding, in fact, that many people choose to skip culinary school and work their way into a head cook position. Naturally, there are pros and cons to both approaches.

Pros of being a chef

  • High earning potential
  • Flexible career paths
  • Skill-building opportunities

Cons of being a chef

  • Requires a culinary degree
  • Long hours
  • Requires physical work

Hire a chef or cook for your restaurant

If you’re deciding whether to hire a chef or a cook for your restaurant, consider your priorities. A seasoned cook can offer practical knowledge and exceptional cooking skills, and they may accept a lower salary than a formally trained chef.

It doesn’t matter who you hire to lead your kitchen, it’s always important to create a good relationship with your staff to curb turnover. Implementing employee recognition ideas can make everyone who works at your restaurant feel valued — from the executive chef down to commission chefs and hosts.

Professional chefs require higher salaries, but they bring the benefits of a professional culinary education — specialized training, industry insights and connections that can benefit your business. Chefs can be a valuable resource in helping you grow the restaurant while controlling costs and maintaining food quality. No matter where your restaurant falls on the chef vs. cook spectrum, a skilled professional can help you build a stable, lasting business. As you look for ways to expand operations or increase revenue, a strong delivery presence is a must. Partner with Grubhub to reach a variety of local customers and introduce more diners to your food.