Mistaking a cook for a chef is a misconception that’s easy to make from the dining room. In reality there are key differences between an aspiring and seasoned chef often invisible to the untrained eye. Both professional chefs and those cooking at home use a recipe to bring ingredients together in the hope of making the desired flavors ‘pop’ on the diner’s palette. Whether or not you can articulate the hidden formula makes all the difference between cooks and chefs essentially giving way to creation and inevitably teaching.
Throughout my career, friends and family have consistently called me “the chef” of the family. They assumed, that simply cooking in a restaurant and dedicating your life to food makes you a chef. That’s sadly not true. Though I have long aspired to become a restaurateur one day, for a time I was only an amateur cook trying to climb the totem pole toward chefdom. I knew my place, and for years would always politely correct them. It’s frowned upon to call yourself a chef when still learning the art from those above you; hence the constant correction.
Becoming a chef is like graduating from pilot to air traffic controller. More than just cooks with fancy hats, chefs are masters of their domain and genius creators. Is to say that anyone who cooks dinner well is a chef? No way! To the surprise of many, chefs do so much more than cook food. They’ve developed a deeper understanding of the complexities of flavors, the balance of textures, and every other element that makes your mouth say ‘wow, that’s really good’. Entrepreneur, accountant, entertainer, director, therapist, and cook: you name it, that’s a chef, often found tasting food far more often than actually cooking it!
If you ask me “can I become a chef?” then I’ll ask you: “do you love ingredients?” You can’t expect to master the risotto before learning how to peel and brunoise the onion or how to dominate the stock making process that will cook and flavor the rice. Every single ingredient has it’s own set of rules, principles and a range of ingredients it will and will not meld well with. Cooks begin by executing the chef’s vision and don’t earn the coveted title of chef until they themselves hone the ability to lead an entire team in a synchronized performance and create from scratch. Far before that they must first learn how to taste! Be that as it may, even before actually becoming a cook in training, one is given the position of stagier (pronounced STAZ-jeh) as way of auditioning for a position as cook which can last for as short or long a period as deemed necessary by both parties.
For the most part any English speaking restaurant patrons can, without to much difficulty, identify and use many commonplace French culinary terms that have been adapted into our everyday language. Words such as cuisine, Maître D, bisque, canapé, charcuterie, hors d’oeuvre and most commonly chef are staples in modern restaurants. This is – of course – due to the huge French historical influence over gastronomy; however, one important term that has fell off the pages long ago is that of the stagier. To be a stagier – or to complete a stage – is to take on voluntary work in another chef’s kitchen. Whether to simply discover new ways of doing things, gain experience or secure a job, the stagier experience was originally the primary way to learn how to cook professionally. Of course since the advent of Culinary Schools this term has not only lost its understanding but more importantly its significance