A chef and a cook both perform the same function – preparing food for others to consume – but each term connotes a slightly different role in the culinary world. When it comes down to it, the term “chef” is more exclusive and refers to a more select group of people, while the term “cook” is more all encompassing and may refer to people of a wide variety of statuses. The subtle difference will be explained in further detail below.
When you refer to someone as a chef, it is assumed that he or she has a professional degree and prepares food for a living, not just as a hobby. Chefs work in professional settings such as restaurants, hotels and bakeries. A chef de cuisine, head chef or master chef is the highest level one can achieve, and implies that the chef is in charge of a large staff in a professional kitchen. The sous chef works directly under the head chef and is expected to do the cooking and staff supervision. The chef de partie works under both of them and does the major food preparation, and various other professionals may work under all of the above chefs, doing specific tasks such as sautéing dishes, cutting and preparing vegetables and/or roasting, broiling, grilling and baking meats and fish. There is also such a thing as a personal chef, in which case the chef would be expected to prepare meals for a client in his or her home. Importantly, a personal chef would never be expected to perform other household duties, like lower-level cooks on a household staff might.
A cook, on the other hand, may or may not have been professionally trained and may or may not prepare food for a living. The term “cook” may refer to someone who cooks for people in their homes or cooks in a very casual setting. A cook might be the member of a household staff, for example, who cooks and performs other functions, such as cleaning and running errands. Someone who works in a cafeteria or bed and breakfast may also be referred to as a cook, as well as someone who works in a kitchen such as those you would find aboard large ships and in other organizational settings. A line cook may also work underneath a chef in a restaurant, although these lower-level kitchen employees may also be referred to as chefs de partie or sous chefs, which connotes that they are training to be chefs.