Illustration: Tom Tsang


I received a press release recently from a restaurant offering me the chance to "be a master chef for a day". While I'm used to home cooks misusing the word "chef", this release came from a real chef - a well-trained professional with his own restaurant.

The word "chef" is French, and it means chief, or leader. A home cook who tells her domestic helper what to cook for dinner is a chef only in the loosest definition of the word, because she's managing just one person.

The title of chef is one that's earned through experience. A graduate fresh from culinary school is not a chef, nor is a line cook working in a restaurant. There are levels of chef-dom. The one in charge of the entire kitchen operation, which, in hotels, can mean overseeing several outlets, is usually referred to as the executive chef. Depending on the size of the operation, there can be a head chef, chef de cuisine, sous chef and chef de partie (the one in charge of cooks working at specific kitchen stations).

Before "master chef" became a television programme (where it's rendered MasterChef), it referred to only the most highly qualified professionals, who, traditionally, received the title after undergoing a rigorous exam. Candidates would need to demonstrate mastery of every station of the kitchen, know the history of their culinary culture, show that they understood the ingredients they were presented with during the exam and cook them skilfully and creatively, with as little wastage as possible. They'd also need to show leadership, logic and knowledge of food service sanitation, as well as an understanding of all types of kitchen equipment. It's a very difficult title to earn, and like "chef", is often misused, even by people who should know better.

Chef and master chef are titles that should only be used when the person in question qualifies for such an accolade. Working with a master chef for a few hours isn't going to make me a master chef, because his knowledge and skill aren't going to magically transfer over to me in such a short amount of time. That comes only through experience and hard work.


Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.