Have You Called Someone Chef Today?
The word "chef" means so much it means nothing
“Good to meet you, chef.”
Is anyone else getting tired of the use, and overuse, of the title “chef” when people address any chump who works in a kitchen? The rise in foodie culture has seen a commensurate glorification of the head of the kitchen, which is all fine and good, but the label chef is in danger of losing its meaning. And what really annoys me most is how people talk to chefs without using their names, just by calling them, “chef.” The title seemingly bestows honor on both addressor and addressee in a way that is smug and cloying. What did that Smith Barney guy used to say? You have to earn it.
The worst culprits have been the producers of Top Chef. No doubt, the title of the show gives them a self-interest in the popularity of the term, but I think they’ve effectively watered down its meaning. As adorable as Padma Lakshi and Tom Collichio are when they say it, they’re abusing their cuteness. The only time I’ve liked hearing someone being exclusively called chef is on South Park; and the cafeteria worker known as Chef, voiced by Isaac Hayes, was clearly satirical.
It’s like how “genius” is now used: “That was so genius!” “Oh, he’s a genius at picking out wallpaper.” Einstein was a genius. So was Edison — even if he was a dick — and Sir Isaac Newton. And Stephen Hawking. Maybe I’d even grant you Mariano Rivera. But the guy on HGTV’s Design Star? No.
The closest title to chef, I'd say, is “coach.” With both professions, you don’t need to use an article before saying it, or even the person’s actual name after saying it. And the person — I’m sure we’ve all known a few in High School — can really morph into the title so that it become his or her nickname. And it comes loaded with implications: Coach is a leader, an expert, a respected member of the community and an all-around cool (or tyrannical) guy (or gal).
Chef has come to mean many of the very same things. Unfortunately, you can now put any schmuck in a white shirt and tall hat, and they’re getting called chef. So, let’s remind ourselves what a chef is.
I refer to Wikipedia for the following definition: “The word 'chef' is borrowed (and shortened) from the French term chef de cuisine, the director or head of a kitchen. (The French word comes from Latin caput and is cognate with English'chief.') In English, the title 'chef' in the culinary profession originated in the haute cuisine of the 19th century. Today it is sometimes erroneously (in the view of those in the profession) used to refer to any professional cook, regardless of rank.”
Oops, that still doesn’t tell us who amongst us is a chef. Where is the line between cook and chef drawn? I’ve heard Anthony Bourdain say he’s a cook, not a chef. I know I’ve heard Rachael Ray say it, and that’s probably the only time the two have agreed on something.
What makes someone a chef? Is it a cook who has a staff of more than three people? Do you have to go to culinary school? Do you have to be the head of kitchen at a restaurant that is of a certain standard? And then, if you figure in that there are pastry chefs, sous chefs, chefs de cuisine and that truly meaningless title, "personal” chefs, then you really get lost.
Without a hard and fast definition, the term chef has become meaningless. Which is why when people use it, and use it with a pride that suggests distinction, things really get stupid. No wonder you now hear people saying, “Oh, my boyfriend is a really good chef.” Ridiculous, right?
I’d venture to say that chefs are like pornographers. I know one when I see one. The problem is, the chef is in the eye of the beholder. So, let’s all agree to stop calling every Tom, Dick and Tony in a double-breasted jacket and funny hat Chef and move on.