What is a chef? A cook? Is there a difference?
When I catered parties, worked as a line cook, and made wedding cakes to supplement my income during college, I never called myself "chef." I reserved that title for the people cooking in places with white tablecloths.
When I went to culinary school at the CIA I thought: Hard Study + Diploma = Chef.
In hindsight, my first truly mature thought about the question came at my CIA graduation. I received an Academic Achievement Award, which earned me a nifty statue, and, more excitingly, a few moments with the graduation speaker Eric Ripert.
Eric Ripert is the soft spoken, hugely talented force behind award winning restaurants such as Le Bernardin. A cookbook author, a philanthropist for causes including City Harvest, and a recent guest judge on Top Chef, he is deservedly admired both in and outside of professional food circles. He is also my age and already SO accomplished. So when I asked him for career advice, I was not being polite; my ears were wiiiiide open.
He was kind, unhurried, and specific. (Imagine this in a heavy French accent):
"Learn how to be the best cook you can be. To be a great chef you must first be a great cook. Have the ego to try new things, and to fail, and to try again -- and have a small enough ego to always be learning. If you can no longer learn, you are finished."
Eric Ripert is a really, really smart guy.
I thought long and hard about his advice, and I took it to heart. I understood that learning basic skills and practicing them over and over and over is the absolute breath of good food. No breath, no life. No basics, no tasty food.
I grasped that the world is full of great lessons in food and cooking -- they can come from schools, but also grandmas, books, push-cart operators, lunch programs, magazines, soup kitchens, etc. A street vendor's carnitas or the blue-plate special downtown hold the same potential for excitement and pleasure as the latest haute cuisine.
I don't think learning necessarily means liking. For me, tasting foods that I do not like is just as important and informative as munching on favorites. Personal taste -- and the cooking you do as an expression of it -- is a constantly evolving thing. I try to keep my mind, heart, and palate open to the world. Because that's where good food comes from.
I now call myself a chef because I parlay my food and cooking experience into making a living. It is a professional label. I call myself a great cook because I work on my skills with diligence, I craft food with pride and pleasure, and I try to learn every day.
If you say I am a good chef, I will appreciate it. If you say you love my cooking, then you will have complimented me to my core.