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Chef vs. Cook: What Are the Differences?

chef vs cook

People outside the culinary industry often struggle differentiating between a Chef and a Cook. Yes, they both work in the kitchen and prepare food, but they’re two different positions with different sets of responsibilities.

If you plan to work in the kitchen, making the Chef vs. Cook distinction is extremely important. This is especially true if you want to eventually work as a Head Chef and lead a team of your own at some point in your career.

With that said, let’s define both roles and take a closer look at the main differences between them.

What is a Chef?

A professional Chef is a culinarian who has received training in food preparation and has several years of experience working in a kitchen setting. The role involves a lot of managerial duties and tasks. A Chef can operate on his own as a single-person department, or they can be managing a team of Cooks.

A Chef is a culinary expert, often viewed as a visionary who focuses more on the creative side of food preparation. They create new recipes and invent new ways to serve dishes.

The role also involves a higher degree of responsibility. That’s why when hiring, owners and Restaurant Managers prefer to bring in individuals with good organization and problem-solving skills.

The dishes and menus Chefs create influence the reputation of the restaurant. Therefore, although they have more responsibilities than Cooks, they also receive more credit when the kitchen performs well.

What is a Cook?

A professional Cook is a skilled technician who follows established recipes and prepares food. Most of their work is hands-on and includes turning raw ingredients into finished dishes.

They prepare food in large quantities and take on tasks such as chopping vegetables, cutting meat, cooking and completing dishes that are ready to be served.

Besides preparing food, Cooks also clean the kitchen area and order supplies as instructed by the Chef.

They are usually employed in restaurants and bars, but can also be found in establishments outside hospitality. These can be schools, hospitals and homeless shelters.

Chef vs. Cook

As you’ve seen in their definitions, the roles of Chef and Cook have plenty of differences. They don’t have the same responsibilities and one is significantly higher in the management structure. You can see some of the key distinctions between them in the table below:

Formal education requiredUsually yesNo
Experience requiredYesSometimes
Leadership responsibilitiesYesNo
Menu creationYesNo
Specialty designationsYesYes

Now, let’s take a closer look at what’s needed for each of these two positions and how they rank in the kitchen hierarchy.

Kitchen hierarchy

Chefs are at the top of the kitchen hierarchy and report only to the Restaurant Manager or the Assistant Restaurant Manager. They give orders to everyone in the kitchen, including Cooks. If different types of Chefs work in the same kitchen, they report to the Executive Chef or the Head Chef, but have authority over other kitchen staff.

Cooks are somewhere in the middle of the kitchen hierarchy. They take orders from their supervisors and typically have authority over roles such as Waiters/Waitresses and Bussers.


To become a Chef, you need to have some type of formal training in most cases. The most common training pathways for the role include earning a culinary degree or completing an apprenticeship.

If you’re aiming for a culinary degree, this can take you up to four years to complete. Apprenticeship programs vary in duration, but all of them include practical training of working in a kitchen environment.

To become a Cook, you might not need formal education, depending on the establishment. While some of them prefer to hire individuals with a culinary degree, this isn’t always a strict requirement.

Some Cook positions are considered entry-level, and for them, you’ll receive practical training upon getting hired.


Restaurants typically view experience as an important factor for the role of a Chef. They prefer to hire individuals who’ve spent several years working in a kitchen setting.

If you’re considering a career as a Chef, you may have to start at lower positions and prove yourself enough to advance.

For the role of a Cook, experience isn’t always that important. Some restaurants hire Cooks as entry-level positions and train them on the job. Others require some previous experience working in a kitchen.

For example, you can become a Short-Order Cook in a fast food restaurant even if you’ve never worked in one before. The role involves performing only basic kitchen duties and most of the abilities can be picked up on the go.

However, it may take some experience working in a kitchen setting to get hired as a Prep Cook or Line Cook.

Specialty designations

Chefs and Cooks have specialty designations based on their roles within the kitchen. Chefs often have different titles that highlight their area of expertise and specialized skills. Some of these roles are:

  • Executive Chef: A Chef that overlooks multiple kitchens or outlets and deals with managerial tasks such as budgets and menu development. Focuses on big-picture stuff.
  • Head Chef: The main supervisor in the kitchen who’s directly responsible for all food preparation and has authority over the rest of the kitchen staff
  • Sous Chef: The second-in-command who assists the Head Chef and supervises other team members
  • Pastry Chef: Focuses on creating pastries, desserts, breads and other baked goods
  • Pantry Chef: Focuses on creating cold dishes such as salads, dressings and cold appetizers
  • Commis Chef: Usually a trainee or apprentice who focuses on smaller tasks such as chopping, slicing and peeling

Cooks can also have different titles that relate to their responsibilities. Some of these roles include:

  • Line Cook: The role of a Line Cook involves running a particular station in a kitchen such as a griddle or a fryer
  • Prep Cook: The role of a Prep Cook involves cleaning and preparing ingredients, chopping vegetables, cutting meat and other pre-cooking tasks
  • Short-Order Cook: Typically employed in fast food restaurants and diners. Their duties include frying, grilling and microwaving

Cook vs. Chef: Salaries

Chefs have significantly more responsibilities and the role is seen as more advanced than the one of a Cook. Naturally, they also earn higher salaries because of that. On average, Chefs in the U.S. earn $5,220 per month or $62,640 per year. Cooks, on the other hand, earn $3,005 per month or $36,060 per year on average.

Keep in mind that there are disparities in earning potential among both positions depending on the state you live and work in.

Whether Chefs and Cooks receive tips largely depends on the establishment they work in. If a pooled tip system is in place, they receive a portion of the total amount. However, they usually don’t receive tips directly from customers.

What Skills Do Professional Chefs Need?

Being the “bosses” of the kitchen, Chefs need a skillset that combines both culinary techniques and management abilities. The role is more dynamic than the one of a Cook and also involves more creative responsibilities such as menu creation. Some of the key skills Chefs need are:

  • Culinary expertise: Has to be knowledgeable of various food preparation methods and different cuisines
  • Menu development: Must create design menus that are appealing, trendy and stand out
  • Creativity: Has to be creative enough to experiment with different ingredients and come up with new ways of serving dishes
  • Leadership: Needs to be good at managing kitchen staff and giving instructions
  • Organization: Must maintain and run an efficient kitchen

chef preparing a dish

What Skills Do Professional Cooks Need?

Cooks are an important part of the kitchen staff but have fewer responsibilities than Chefs. While some of the skills they need overlap with those of Chefs, Cooks are typically more hands-on. Some of the key skills they need are:

  • Cooking skills: Must be good in basic cooking methods such as grilling, frying and baking
  • Knife skills: Has to be precise when cutting and chopping up ingredients
  • Attention to detail: Ability to follow recipes and guidelines provided by the Chef
  • Multitasking: Must be able to juggle several orders at once
  • Time management: Ability to handle high volumes of orders, especially during peak hours

cook chopping ingredients

Differences Between a Chef vs. Cook: Final Thoughts

Both Chefs and Cooks play a major role in making the kitchen run like clockwork. While Chefs possess more skill and experience, making them adequate to perform managerial tasks, Cooks focus more on food preparation and cooking.

Ultimately, they’re two sides of the same coin and one can’t exist without the other. Finding a job as a Cook is a great way to move up to the rank of Chef one day.

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