Learn which position in a commercial kitchen is the most important to the kitchen’s success. Hint, it is not the chef.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
Many students enter our classes with the idea that upon completion they will immediately become a chef. I explain to all my students that I was in the industry for nearly 10 years before someone (other than my mom) called me a chef. The day is still etched in my mind when a chef and restaurant owner called me chef.
We need to teach students key commercial kitchen titles and what they mean. I suggest you start out by asking your students – before going through the descriptions—which is the most important position in a commercial kitchen? (Hint: It isn’t the chef and the answer is below.)
- Executive Chef
In the ‘good old days’ an executive chef was someone who managed more than one kitchen. For example, at a hotel the executive chef would be in charge of all of the restaurants, room service, catering, banquets, Sunday brunch, etc. A true executive chef wouldn’t usually cook - hence the word executive. In today’s world, it seems that almost anyone who is a chef calls herself or himself an executive chef.
A chef is someone who runs a commercial kitchen. Two key parts involved are: running a kitchen including managing, supervising, etc., and the kitchen has to be commercial. A commercial kitchen means that food is being prepared for consumption beyond the people who are in the kitchen. Restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, hospitals, schools, businesses, etc. are examples of these. (For more on this subject please read Fine Dining is Fine.) There is no requirement that the chef be the best cook in the kitchen. Someone could be an amazing cook and still not be a chef.
A chef’s or executive chef’s job goes way beyond cooking. Some of the responsibilities include, but are not limited to: staff scheduling; hiring and firing; ordering; assuring legal compliance of the health regulations and workers’ safety rules; dealing with customer complaints; planning specials and menu changes; inventory management and control; financial issues; and more.
The true mark of an executive chef or chef is that she or he is responsible for everything that happens in the kitchen whether or not she/he is even in the kitchen. As I ask my students, “If I am a chef in a commercial kitchen and I am on a two-week vacation laying on the beach in Tahiti and the line cooks run out of prepared chicken, whose fault is it?” The students almost always say, “It’s the fault of the line cooks as they didn’t prepare enough.” Of course, the chef is the true answer.
A good chef knows everything that is going on in his/her kitchen whether or not he/she is even there.
Note: The above are classic interpretations of the word chef. In today’s world, the terms are used much more loosely. For example, everyone refers to me as chef. Technically, I am not. I am a culinary arts instructor or culinary educator. I don’t supervise a commercial kitchen. Many people would have referred to Julia Child as chef and although she was amazingly incredible in what she did and accomplished, likewise she never supervised a commercial kitchen and was thus not a chef. Both Rachel Ray and Alton Brown when refered to as chefs politely turn down that title. Professional courtesy in calling someone with substantial kitchen and culinary experience chef is fine. What you need to communicate to your students is that chef is a term of respect that needs to be earned and is not just a term they should casually throw around for themselves and other new culinarians.
- Kitchen Manager
A kitchen manager is basically a chef whose overall management powers are limited. Kitchen managers are utilized in multi-unit businesses like chains or franchises such as the Cheesecake Factory. The person is in charge of the day-to-day running of the kitchen but limited by corporate policies and procedures. For example, a kitchen manager can’t walk into a kitchen in a place such as the Outback and say, “Today I’m going to run a special on vegetarian lasagna.” Kitchen managers can easily be switched between individual restaurants since the menus, recipes, procedures, etc. are the same. It is more difficult to switch a chef since no two chefs run their kitchens in the same exact way.
- Sous Chef
The sous chef is the number two person in a commercial kitchen. She or he is responsible for running the kitchen when the chef is not there. Generally speaking, the sous chef is responsible for the kitchen only when he or she is working, although this is changing. Thus, it is not uncommon for there to be two or more sous chefs on staff in one location. But, it would be very difficult to have more than one sous chef actually running a kitchen at any one time. Sous chefs usually can do every job in the kitchen and will fill in when there is a slot that needs to be covered.
- Line Cooks
The term line cook actually comes from the fact that in most commercial kitchens these people are actually in a line. The line cooks turn out the customer’s food. If the kitchen is well-run each line cook should be able to stand in her or his position and not move her or his feet. Everything should be set up and ready to go so that the person just stands in a line and can turn out dish after dish. (Note: The crazy running around you see in HELL’s KITCHEN and other reality shows is pure fiction.) Line cooks are only responsible for what goes on while they are working.
- Prep Cooks
Prep cooks prepare (mise en place) the food that will be turned out on the line. Preparation can range from dicing an onion to breaking down a side of a pig. The prep cooks take all ingredients that come in the back door and prepares them for when an order arrives. This allows the line cook to have all the ingredients ready to go. In smaller establishments, the same people or person will do the prepping and then go on the line. Prep cooks generally work off of a prep sheet prepared by the chef or sous chef on what needs to be set up for that day and often the next day’s production.
- Pastry Cook
A pastry cook is a special person who will be in charge of the establishment’s desserts and possibility breads as well. This is a very specialized position and usually pastry cooks will do their own prep and cooking. Frequently, the pastry cooks are the most talented of any of the cooks in the kitchen. They can usually do all of the skills of the prep cooks and line cooks plus bake. Because they work different hours, however, they are generally not called upon to fill in these other positions.
The dishwasher is beyond doubt the most important person in the kitchen. (This is the answer to question you previously asked your students.) My students are always surprised to hear this. They think the executive chef is the most important.
Here is how I explain it: If the executive chef or chef breaks his leg during service hours the sous chef fills in. If the sous chef breaks her leg then chef can do the job, or one of the line cooks does double duty. If a line cooks breaks his leg another line cook will do two jobs—line cooks often complain when this happens and then brag about how great they did. The orders might be a little slow, but the food will get out particularly if the sous chef or chef jumps in. If the dishwasher breaks her or his leg then the whole kitchen will stop in 15 to 30 minutes. Unlike home, or most high school classrooms, where there are enough dishes, utensils, pots, pans, etc. to go through a full meal, there is virtually no commercial kitchen that can go more than 30 minutes without running out of sauté pans, half pans, 1/9 stainless containers, plates, drinking glasses, etc. The dishwasher is so important that if it comes to a disagreement between the dishwasher and someone else in the kitchen, the chef will almost always side with the dishwasher.
The dishwasher is also the most important person in the kitchen because she/he can make or break the career of anyone else in the kitchen. If the dishwasher works slowly then the orders back up (because the prep cooks and line cooks don’t have what they need) and the customers get unhappy, which can bring down a chef. If a dishwasher is unhappy with a line cook or prep cook, guess which person will be the last one to have the things she/he needs cleaned to get the job done? If you are a prep cook and somehow you never have a clean cutting board or small containers, you will fall behind in your prep, and when you fall behind you are on the way out.
I teach my students that they must keep the dishwasher happy. This isn’t difficult to do. Just like your mom taught, always say “please” and “thank you.” I tell them to ask the dishwasher on your first day where she/he wants knives placed. There should be a special container for them so the dishwasher doesn’t grab one from a stack of dirty dishes. (I have seen bad things happen to fingers when knives are put in the wrong place, particularly in the bottom of the sink or under a cutting board.) When you have something hot and put it down on the station, get eye contact with the dishwasher, point to the item and say “HOT.” Don’t just throw it down, mumble “hot” and walk away. (Again, I have seen bad things happen when this is done.) Finally, since the dishwasher often works through the family meal, you should save some of the family meal, wrap it and bring it to the dishwasher.
Many other terms are bantered around from commonly used kitchen porter to pantry cook to chef de cuisine to chef de partie. But, the above are the most common eight culinary titles in today’s modern commercial kitchen.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.