In the French language, the word chef means "head" or "chief," and it's specific to men only. The closest female equivalent is "cuisinière," which refers to a woman who prepares and cooks food. While she may hold many of the same responsibilities as a chef, a cuisiniere does not garner the respect and prestige that the male term connotes.
Both the American Culinary Federation (ACF) and The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) offer definitions for the term "chef." The ACF in their certification manual, define a chef: "Someone fully responsible for preparing, seasoning and cooking according to recipe…supervises, coordinates and participates in activities of cooks…. estimates requirements, requisitions or purchases supplies. In The New Professional Chef, the CIA's primary textbook, a "chef" is described as: "a lifelong student, a teacher, a craftsman, a leader and a manager. An open and inquiring mind, an appreciation of the dedication to quality and excellence and a sense of responsibility to self and the community are among the chef's cardinal virtues. The title is one that can only be earned through diligent practice and dedication."
Pat Bartholomew, chair of the Department of Hospitality and Management at the New York City Technical College, wrote in her dissertation, a genderless definition of chef: "The most highly skilled, trained and experienced kitchen worker [who is] responsible for all kitchen operations, including menu planning, purchasing, costing, and scheduling. The chef also trains the other kitchen workers … [is] a first class cook, teacher, administrator [and] an expert in sanitation. [A chef has] a keen sense of taste and smell, an incredible palate with the ability by taste and smell, to know when something is coming out right or wrong. A chef must be a lover of good food, an artist or artisan who is always inventing and improving dishes."
Based on my own experience, the ascension to the position of chef was long and hard; but it was a journey during which knowledge was continuously acquired. I started my culinary career at 17 and accepted my first chef position at 26. During those intervening years, I went from prep cook to baker and from line cook to chef and manager. I apprenticed in a hotel, working all the stations in the kitchen, spent two years cooking in the kitchens of cruise ships, and somewhere in between, graduated from the CIA. My first position as executive chef was at a 200 seat restaurant, where I had responsibility for all the food and staff. I really thought I was a chef at 26 years old, I really thought I knew it all, almost twenty-five years later, I think I am evolving as a chef. While this was the process through which I progressed, every chef has a different story. I asked a number of chefs to tell me how they would describe the role of a chef, the following were some of their responses.
In 1992, while presiding over the kitchen at Drew Nieporent's Montrachet, Debra Ponzek became the first female executive chef in New York City to receive three stars from the New York Times. Debra explains her perception of a chef's role in the kitchen: "You have to be into a lot of the management, seeing the big picture of the kitchen, how people work together, when they work together, scheduling, being able to solve conflicts, being able to make changes, to either eliminate conflicts, or to lessen them. [You have to be ready] to come up with more alternative solutions to problems."
Edna Lewis' notion of "chef" came to her more as a revelation than as a conscious act. In 1948 at age 31, Edna was running a kitchen in a New York City restaurant -- unusual for a woman, but doubly uncommon because she is African American. Edna remembers the first time she was called "chef": "… I tell you! I was on Lexington Avenue…when I was at Café Nicholson. I was walking down the street, and someone said, you're the chef from Café Nicholson! That was the first time I heard the chef bit! I never even thought of [it]. I just did the cooking." The 1996 Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, concludes that 16% of cooks and chefs and 10% of the kitchen supervisors are African American. It would be difficult to accurately assess how many black women chefs there were in 1948, but my guess is very few. Ms. Lewis paved the way for women into the professional kitchen, not only as one of the first women, but as a black woman as well.
Regardless of how we define chef -- whether it's "chief," "cook," or "manager," it's clear that chefs must be talented culinarians, craftspersons and artists; they need to have vision and creativity; they need to be leaders and motivators, friends and bosses, number-crunchers and foragers; some even have to be TV personalities. Many chefs with whom I met considered the art and/or the craft the most important aspect of their work.