What's the Key Difference Between a Chef and a Cook?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 27 January 2023

Published 12 October 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you have an interest in working in food preparation, you may consider the career of either a chef or a cook. Both careers allow you to prepare food for others and perform other kitchen duties. Learning how the unique skills required, training and the work environment differ can help determine which career path is better for you. In this article, we list the key differences between these culinary careers.

Related: How to Choose the Right Career Path

Difference between a chef and a cook

Chefs and cooks have a variety of differences regarding their responsibilities, management structure and other factors. Some distinctions between the two professions include:

Definitions

A chef is a culinary professional who creates recipes and prepares custom dishes for guests. Being a chef requires special training and education to learn techniques for preparing food. They can work in dining establishments or for organisations to feed staff and guests. This career may be appealing to creative people who love food, nutrition and working in the kitchen.

A cook is a professional who prepares food for others. They follow recipes and meal plans provided for them by management in the organisation where they work. Often, cooks work on a team to provide meals for large groups of people. For example, a cook may work in a school and prepare food for students.

Related:

  • Chief Cook Skills: Including Definition and Examples

  • How To Become a Chef (With Common Duties, Skills and FAQs)

Specialties

Cooks don't have specialised training, therefore don't specialise in the kitchen. Using a recipe, they can prepare main dishes, appetisers and desserts. Depending on where they work and their experience, a cook may have a special title in the kitchen, including:

  • Line cook: These cooks control one particular station in a kitchen, such as a griddle or a fryer. It takes approximately four years of kitchen experience to advance to this role.

  • Prep cook: These cooks clean produce, prepare ingredients, chop vegetables, cut meat and perform other pre-cooking duties to get ingredients ready for the line cook. They often have one year or less of kitchen experience.

  • Short-order cook: These cooks typically work in places like fast-food restaurants and diners where they take multiple orders at once and use more simple preparation techniques such as microwaving, frying and grilling. There isn't usually any experience requirement for this position.

In contrast, chefs may earn special distinctions based on their expertise in a certain type of food or preparation technique, coupled with education and experience. Some of these roles include:

  • Executive chef: This chef is often the main supervisor in a kitchen. They can typically make any type of food on the menu or as requested by a customer, and they also often plan meals and make decisions about establishment offerings.

  • Sous chef: These chefs serve as assistants to executive chefs. They complete duties as assigned and supervise the kitchen staff.

  • Pastry chef: These chefs focus on creating unique desserts and similar items like cookies, cakes and bread.

  • Garde manager: This type of chef works with cold dishes, such as salads and different types of dressings.

  • Chef de partie: This type of chef is like a line cook because they often control one particular section of the kitchen, such as cooking meat or making sauces.

  • Commis chef: This type of chef is typically a trainee or apprentice, and they focus on food preparation, such as chopping, slicing, peeling and other related tasks. Commis chefs are like prep cooks, but they are training or studying culinary techniques to advance through the chef hierarchy.

Kitchen hierarchy

There is an educational-based hierarchy in a kitchen. Cooks require no formal training, so this is an entry-level position. Typically, they have a supervisor to create a meal plan and provide recipes to determine the food a cook prepares.

Sometimes they may manage other food service workers such as servers. Chefs are at the top or mid-level of the hierarchy, depending on their specialty and experience. Often they have more freedom to choose the food they prepare and can provide training for apprentices.

For example, an executive chef may be the leader in the kitchen and report only to the establishment's manager or owner. They may give orders to line cooks, servers or anyone else working in the kitchen. A pastry chef may report to the executive chef but can create their own recipes for desserts and have the authority to make food preparation decisions.

Responsibilities

Cooks prepare food for others by following recipes. They perform basic kitchen functions like chopping or boiling. Cooks may execute meal plans created by a supervisor and handle other responsibilities like cleaning the kitchen and ensuring proper storage procedures. They also set up their workstations and ensure the food is clean and fresh.

Chefs have more creative input in the kitchen. They have more knowledge of food creation and preparation techniques. Chefs create meals without a recipe and may make changes, improvise or experiment with ingredients as needed. They may also set the menus for their establishments and can consult on decisions about the staff or future of the eatery. Chefs may also have management or supervisory duties in the kitchen.

Work environment

The work environments for these career paths differ in several ways. A cook works in organisations or businesses that serve another primary function, such as a school, hospital or work facility. In these environments, you may enjoy a meal but don't necessarily go to these establishments to eat. Cooks have a supervisor who often manages additional operations at the organisation and works on a team with other cooks.

Chefs may also work on a team but in establishments designed for guests to enjoy a meal. They often work in high-end restaurants or resorts. A chef can rise in ranks within their kitchen and become a supervisor to other chefs.

Customer payments

Chefs almost always work in settings where customers pay to eat their food. They're regarded as professionals in their fields, and their meals are a commodity. Cooks, in contrast, don't always work for customer payments. While they may earn an hourly wage or salary for performing their duties, the people eating their food may not pay for each meal.

For example, a cook who works in a nursing home may earn a salary for their job, but the residents typically aren't paying per meal to eat their food. Cooks may also volunteer their time and services more readily than chefs for events such as fundraisers, festivals or other community gatherings.

Related: Skills Required for Good Customer Service

Training

Being a cook doesn't require formal training. However, it's important to have knowledge of how to safely prepare food and have some experience of cooking to be successful in this role.

Chefs require related experience, completion of an apprenticeship where they learn specific techniques and gain experience in a kitchen. After earning practical experience, professionals can apply to become kitchen staff and earn promotions as a chef when they have more experience.

Related: Vocational Training: Definition and Different Types

Education

Cooks and chefs must complete at least year 10 of high school, after which they can begin working as a cook or training to be a chef. Some chefs may earn an associate's degree in culinary arts but they will most probably have gained most of their education from an apprenticeship, being supervised by a chef.

Both a chef and a cook may attend a vocational school or earn a degree, but this isn't a requirement for cooks. Chefs use knowledge about nutrition, flavours, complementary foods, food preparation safety and how to use kitchen utensils and tools. In contrast, cooks can learn on the job about food safety and the usage of kitchen tools. The other information isn't essential to their job since they use recipes.

Salary

According to Indeed salaries, cooks make an average of $55,771 per year. Depending on factors such as their experience, location and employer, a cook can earn more.

Chefs often earn more because of their specialised knowledge. The average salary for a chef is $59,947 per year. Their salary depends on their position in the kitchen. For example, an executive chef earns a higher salary because they are the head of the kitchen. The average salary of an executive chef is $98,611 per year. Here are salaries for other chef positions:

  • Chef de parties:$60,589 per year

  • Chef manager:$64,065 per year

  • Sous chef:$69,129 per year

Related: How To Develop Your Skill Set To Advance Your Career

Job outlook

According to the Australian Job Outlook, there is very strong growth in the industry for chefs and they expected the number of available jobs to grow. The healthcare industry and social assistance programs may be the highest employers of chefs in the near future.

The job outlook for cooks is stable, but the Australian Job Outlook doesn't expect the employment rates to increase in the next five years. There are a large number of cook jobs available in food service, retail and social assistance.

Explore more articles