Chef. Cook. Commis. What's in a name?
A lot, apparently. Chef April Bloomfield of New York City's The Spotted Pig and The Breslin explains the difference between a sous chef and a stage, and why she sometimes refers to herself as a cook. She is the author of A Girl and Her Pig.
Melissa Clark: There are so many ways that people can become a chef these days. I know that you've had very classical training. What does that mean?
April Bloomfield: Classical training means that you have had some time in a professional kitchen. Depending on what style of kitchen they are, they range in different hierarchies within that kitchen.
MC: Did you go to cooking school?
AB: I went to cooking school in Birmingham, England, at the Birmingham College of Food. I did 2 years there, my basic training from 16 to 18. After I left that cooking school, I went on to a professional kitchen and I did that. I'm still in a professional kitchen 24 years later.
MC: But, now you're in charge.
MC: You did go to cooking school, but when you talked about what a classical education is, you didn't mention it. Do you need to go to cooking school to be a chef?
AB: In this day and age? No. I think you just need a restaurant group or a restaurant that's willing to teach and help you grow as a professional cook. I don't think you need to go to school and pay all that money, but obviously you need to pick the right restaurant.
MC: So someone can just knock on your kitchen door and say, "I want to work for you," and that's OK? What's the first thing they do?
AB: I have a classic example. Many years ago, I opened The Spotted Pig. About a year into that, somebody knocked on my door, a nice guy named Peter Cho. He came in very nervously and asked if he could have a job. I said, "Why don't you just make me something? Then we'll take it from there."
He went home and the next day he brought in these ingredients -- it was striped bass, some fennel and some salad. He went and made that, and it was the most delicious thing. I'm like, "OK, you can have a job. But you have to start from the bottom and then work your way up."
MC: When you knock on that door, what should you have with you so you can look the part?
AB: If we were to advise people who would like to just go and knock on somebody's restaurant door, then yes, you should come with a knife kit. You also should wear some reasonable kitchen shoes; usually clogs that are oil- and fat-resistant so you don't slip. They should maybe be a bit more sturdy, so if you drop a pan on your foot, you're not going to hurt your toes.
MC: Maybe something with a steel toe?
AB: A steel toe-capped shoe is very important. Wear some good, sturdy pants that are oil-proof, a hat, and hopefully they'll supply you with an apron and a jacket.
MC: What do you need in that chef kit?
AB: You'll need a paring knife, a chef's knife, maybe a 10-inch chef's knife, maybe a peeler. That's basically all you need. When you get more experienced, you can get into the filleting knives and the boning knives, but right now you're just doing the basics.
AB: Staging is something where you can just go for a certain amount of time -- it's maybe 1 week, 2 weeks, maybe a month -- just to feel out whether you like that job or they like you. Usually you don't get paid.
MC: When you start from the bottom, what is that called?
AB: It's basically an apprentice.
MC: Chances are you're also going to be doing a lot of prep cook work, right? You might become a prep cook?
AB: A prep cook is, basically, somebody who does all the peeling or the picking, the chopping, and usually hands it over to a line cook. Or, you can just forget about the prep cook in some restaurants -- you have a line cook and they do their own prep.
MC: It depends on how big the restaurant is?
MC: At The Spotted Pig, in a small kitchen like that, it's fewer people, but then in The Breslin you'd have more?
AB: Yes. We find a balance between having prep cooks who prep the larger bulk of the product, and then the chefs who do the refined, more delicate things.
Commis and chef de partie
AB: A commis is like a line cook basically. You're probably most likely to start on colds, which is the lower end of the kitchen, it's the most simple. Well, actually, it can be the most complicated too. Our cold station at The Spotted Pig is quite involved and quite intense because we have a lot of salads. Depending on the restaurant, that's where you start.
AB: The commis is usually the one under a chef de partie. The chef de partie is in control and oversees that station.
MC: The chef de partie is watching the line cook, the commis, cook the fish?
AB: The commis doesn't normally get to cook the fish -- the chef de partie will do that -- but maybe the commis will season the fish, get the fish out of the fridge. It's a very minimal job depending on how much responsibility they have, it varies.
(Photo: mattfour / Flickr)
MC: That same plate of fish goes over to the sous chef?
AB: Yes. The sous chef will wipe the plate and maybe garnish it with something.
Head chef and expediter
AB: Then the head chef will be behind the sous chef, usually, making sure that everything is running smoothly and maybe expediting. There might be another expediter. The head chef will just be overseeing the whole thing. It's basically like an orchestra; the head chef is, basically, like a conductor, and they're making sure everything's coming together.
MC: That's what expediting is?
AB: An expediter does the same thing. They're basically a conductor, and they tell people what to do.
MC: They say, "You, fish now, because it needs to come out at the same time as -- you, over there, chicken."
AB: Yes, exactly. It's the most wonderful feeling when you have an amazing expediter and you have an amazing head chef. It really is just a buzz. It's like a dance.
(Photo: patrick_h / Flickr)
AB: The executive chef usually oversees the head chef. Obviously, eventually, the head chef is going to want to become an executive chef, so the executive chef normally helps the head chef learn about food costs, payroll, all those intricate things about running a business.
MC: These days, I feel like everyone calls themselves a chef. Even home cooks call themselves chefs. What is a true chef?
AB: That's a good question. Sometimes, even I just refer to myself as a cook. I don't know. I think a chef probably knows the business side as well as the creative side, and I think they probably should have to have done that for a certain amount of time. I suppose it depends too.
I'm quite a humble person, so sometimes when people ask what I do, I'm like, "Oh, I cook." Because I do, that's what I do.
MC: Chef really refers to the whole, entire profession of being the head of a restaurant kitchen, and for you, the best part of that -- cooking?
AB: Yes, exactly.
Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.