Professional Chefs

Positions Up and Down the Kitchen Ranks

Culinary Arts

It’s easy to say that professional chefs cook in a commercial kitchen—but what do different types of chefs actually do?

Today’s professional kitchen organization owes credit to 19th century French military man and Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier, who streamlined staff roles and responsibilities using a brigade system. The positions that actually appear in various restaurant kitchens largely depend on the size and the needs of each establishment. Over time, similar positions and roles have acquired different titles. If you’re confused, have no fear: we’re here to show you the brigade system basics.

Directing the Show: Executive Chef, Head Chef, Chef de Cuisine

These are the head honchos of the kitchen: responsible for the whole kitchen, executive chefs manage staff, oversee budgets, and plan menu direction. While some are solely responsible for a restaurant’s culinary offerings, others may also own the restaurant or even multiple restaurants. Altogether, these chefs share a drive for culinary excellence, a habit for working hard, and a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit.

Second-In-Command: Sous Chef

The French “sous” means “under,” making a sous chef the second-in-command to the executive chef. Because of this, sous chefs carry a number of responsibilities: in a day’s work, they must oversee that safety and sanitation requirements are being met, that the kitchen’s inventory is maintained, and that the food is cooked efficiently and presented aesthetically. On top of that, they may be responsible for training kitchen staff and line cooks. Highly successful sous chefs are prime candidates for assuming executive chef positions.

Get Specialized: Chef de Partie, Demi-Chefs, Station Chefs, Line Cooks

In a busy kitchen, these chefs take charge of specific steps or items in the food-making process. While one station chef, chef de partie, or line cook may be responsible for the soup for that one night, another may be in charge of grilling. This is Georges-Auguste Escoffier’s system at work: by focusing on one item, chefs produce meals more efficiently and with better results. Depending on the kitchen, these chefs may take on additional French-derived names that distinguish their role even further:

  • Saucier: in charge of sauces and/or soups
  • Poissonier: responsible for fish and other seafood
  • Grillardin: does the grilled items
  • Fritteurier: finishes off the fried items
  • Rotissier: mans the roasting station
  • Garde manger (“pantry chef”): prepares cold foods, such as salads and cheese plates

Line chefs are lower on the kitchen ladder than sous chefs and head chefs but may have other kitchen staff to supervise and train. In big kitchens, demi-chefs de partie act as assistants to station chefs. Mastering the stations is crucial for moving up the kitchen ranks.

Prepping: Commis Chef, Prep Cook

Occupying the lowest role on the chef totem pole, commis chefs measure and prep ingredients for more senior chefs. Workers in this entry-level position are often treated as paid apprentices and may do a lot of repetitive tasks and heavy lifting. Many newcomers take on this role in order to gain basic, yet important skills. For many aspiring chefs, this is an effective way to get a foot in the door, demonstrate dedication, and build a foundation for a culinary career.

Executive chefs, regardless of their celebrity status or recognition in the culinary world, still need to know how to dice a carrot neatly. Veterans say that new chefs need to love food to the point that making the same dish on a regular basis is fun, meditative, or exciting—in essence, they need to find it enjoyable. It also takes a lot of work to rise from one position to the next. Practice makes perfect and opportunities, when they arise, need to be seized. Even the biggest chefs, after all, got their start chopping, peeling, and slicing.

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