CHEF, THE. This entry focuses on the emergence of the chef de cuisine with the rise of restaurants in the public sphere. Until recently, well-known chefs working in restaurants in Britain and the United States were French or French-trained (for example, Alexis Soyer at the Reform Club in London and Charle Elme Francatelli at Delmonico's in New York City). Japan and China did not have fine dining-style restaurants or the western-style kitchen organization until more recently. African Americans were usually cooks, primarily in domestic settings or as caterers.
The role of "chef" emerged initially from the homes of European nobility, beginning as early as the medieval period. In these grand estates, kitchens were large and populated with numerous workers whose jobs were to help the nobility execute the large, complex banquets important to the maintenance of social position and power during this period. These banquets were about excess, elaborately decorated fish, fowl, and game on platters, dramatic interludes, and massive goblets of wine. As Europe entered the early modern period (1500s and 1600s), the link between social power and social display began to revolve more around exhibits of refinement. Civility and elegance took precedence over excess. The table increasingly became a site for such assertions, hence the kitchen also became more important.
The position of "chef," which comes from chef de cuisine, or chief of the kitchen, signifies the highest-ranking worker in a grand hierarchy. Initially he was in charge of running the kitchen, and, like the butler, reported in turn to the head of the household. In twentieth-century parlance, the "chef" traditionally has been a department head. Chefs de cuisine were part of the guild system, which regulated artisan practices in France until the French Revolution. Guilds controlled apprentices, the only means available for acquiring training in artisanal crafts and becoming an established craftsperson. Guilds also supervised aspects of production. In France up until the nineteenth century, maître queux, or master cooks in noble houses, were treated under a separate set of guild statutes. Cuisiniers and traiteurs, who worked alongside the urban streets, were considered another corporate group. Only after the revolution did these two groups meld, eventually leading to the identification of the chef de cuisine or head of any large establishment, public or private.
Without question, the most dramatic shift in both identity and practice for the chef was the move from the private to the public sphere as the primary locale for plying the trade. Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, all those with the title chef de cuisine worked for the nobility. With increased urbanization, the decline of the monarchical state, and the rise of bourgeois city life, the tables turned on the appropriate sites for asserting social rank. Power shifted to the new domain of the restaurant as fine dining became available to a new social class. Chefs de cuisine came to oversee these kitchens. An example is Antoine Beauvilliers, who worked for numerous noble houses but eventually moved to Paris, opened an early fine dining restaurant, La Grande Taverne de Londres, and wrote a cookbook, L'Art du cuisinier (1814). The shift from the private to the public sphere took years to complete. Auguste Escoffier, who worked from the 1860s to the 1930s, was the first renowned chef de cuisine who trained or worked only in public restaurants.
No evidence exists that women were ever appointed chefs de cuisine in any kitchen setting before well into the twentieth century. From the medieval period women worked as domestic cooks throughout Europe, but their roles were clearly defined as servants. In the move from private to public sphere, women were left behind to work in smaller, nonprofessional venues.
Chefs de cuisine historically came from France or were trained under French chefs due to the importance of the French court as the seat of "civility" and "culture" for European courtly life, more generally beginning in the early modern period. French haute cuisine symbolized, along with porcelain dishes, ornate silverware, and table decorations, and other French artisanal products, the heights of refinement. Throughout Europe a courtly banquet displaying these items revealed the sophistication and social status of the noble hosts. French chefs were hired to work for the nobility throughout Europe, including the Russian tsar and the king and queen of Britain among others.
French chefs de cuisine capitalized on the powerful reputation of French haute cuisine. By the 1600s they began to simultaneously promote and codify their cuisine with the publication of cookbooks, for example Pierre François de La Varenne's Le Cuisinier français (1651), which he dedicated to his noble patron, the Marquis d'Uxelles. Antonin Carême, another chef de cuisine who worked in various noble households, created Le Cuisinier parisien, ou, l'art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle (1828), heralded by many as the first cookbook to document the modern approach to French haute cuisine, an approach that focused on refined sauces, extremely elaborate set pieces, and an integrated system of skills and methods. By the late nineteenth century, the ever growing popularity of French chefs both inside and outside of France, the increasingly literate bourgeoisie, and greater possibilities for printing books meant that many chefs, including Urbain Dubois, Georges-Auguste Escoffier, and Jules Gouffe, wrote cookbooks in which they advocated for their mastery of French haute cuisine and its importance in the culinary pantheon. Chefs de cuisine managed large kitchens, but they also advocated for a certain culinary sensibility and approach. This approach was disseminated to all the apprentices and cooks working in their kitchens.
Apprenticeship was traditionally the primary means of training cooks. Only after a minimum three-year apprenticeship could a young boy, who generally began his apprenticeship between the ages of ten and thirteen, be called a "cook." The early years were usually spent cleaning vegetables, scrubbing copper pots, and generally obeying the orders of the cooks, sauciers, poissoniers, sous chefs, and chefs de cuisine, all higher up in the hierarchy of kitchen work. After completing an apprenticeship, a young journeyman cook could stay in the establishment where he was trained or search for work elsewhere. The arduous and long journey to becoming a chef de cuisine was not over; years went by before an aspiring cook could hope to become a chef.
Even though the official guild system was abolished after the French Revolution, until the 1870s all culinary training continued to occur within the confines of work establishments. As the culture of work changed in France and in Europe more generally, cooks and chefs began to reconsider this approach. The industrialization of many artisanal production forms on one hand and the increasingly elite status of certain occupations (engineer, pharmacist, doctor) on the other began to concern those involved in the food and beverage trades. Artisanal training was beginning to shift from the workplace to schools supported by the state. The elite alimentary craftspeople, the chefs de cuisine, decided the culinary training system needed to change. From 1870 through 1900 a dedicated group of French chefs worked to create a professional culinary school to replace the traditional apprenticeship program. Unfortunately their efforts did not succeed due to much resistance by those in charge of establishments used to the free labor of apprentices and the general belief in the apprenticeship model. Thus in the food trades the link between formal schooling and professional training did not occur until well into the twentieth century. Vocational schools designed to train cooks eventually capable of achieving the status of chef de cuisine were founded in Europe and North America by the 1930s and 1940s and throughout the world by the 1960s. However, apprenticeship was the dominant mode of culinary education for entry into professional kitchens through the late twentieth century.
The lineage of the French remained powerful in the organization of work in professional kitchens in the twentieth century. Such dominance is seen in the types of food prepared, the organization of the kitchen, and the identity and training of the head chefs running the kitchen. The imprint of the French on public fine dining meant that the chef de cuisine position retained the flavor of that culture.
As the modern restaurant became more a part of the economic culture, however, chefs de cuisine were as often found outside the kitchen, promoting their restaurants, dealing with customers, and reading and responding to profit and loss statements. The traditional tasks of over-seeing menu and recipe development and supervising the production of food as it goes out of the kitchen into the restaurant remained a vital part of their job descriptions but did not encompass them totally. In larger, more corporate environments, such as hotels, chain restaurants, and college food services, the title chef de cuisine was often replaced with "executive chef." Managing a professional kitchen revolves around a corporate-style identity as much as or more than any cultural or culinary allegiance.
After the 1990s the identity and practice of the chef de cuisine began to shift even more, particularly in the United States and England. Chefs have gone from anonymous blue-collar workers sweating without much acclaim in big, hot kitchens to celebrities with their own cooking shows, product lines, and cookbooks and memoirs. Much like aspiring stars in the movie industry, aspiring cooks go into the profession because they hope to be famous one day. Why has fame come to the once lowly cook and chef? There are many possible answers, but one would have to be the decline of domestic cooking resulting from the increased number of women entering the work force since around 1970. Another answer may be found in the tremendous increase in disposable income for a certain segment of the urban population, which, combined with less cooking at home, has made going to restaurants a combination of high theater and spectator sport. Meanwhile, the expectation that the most powerful and high-ranking people working in public kitchens should be French or at least French-trained began to dissipate. The chef can come from anywhere and creates food that is indebted to but not dominated by French haute cuisine. The chef de cuisine has become a citizen of the globe and a respected professional.
See also Carême, Marie Antoine ; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste ; France ; Kitchens, Restaurant ; La Varenne, Pierre François de ; Places of Consumption ; Restaurants .
Beauvilliers, Antoine. L'Art du cuisinier. Paris: Pilet, 1814.
Carême, Marie Antonin. Le Cuisinier parisien, ou, l'art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle. Paris: Auteur, 1828.
Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
Escoffier, Auguste. Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life. Translated by Laurence Escoffier. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.
Spang, Rebecca L. The Invention of the Restaurant. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Trubek, Amy B. Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Amy B. Trubek