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Work in the EU, 2000-2011

Being a "chef" in Ireland

Late Spring, 2003 —

"Chef" is what they call the position in Ireland.

In America, we would differentiate between the terms "chef" and "cook." But in Ireland, you're a chef the moment you step into the kitchen, dressed like that. (And you have to be dressed like that. "Chef's whites" — a white [or black] jacket and checked black-and-white pants, or a variation.)

The difference in terminology is more than incidental. Without a distinction between "cook" and "chef," the job applicant faces a lot of expectation about his or her qualifications and — God help us — certification. As a chef, of course, you are expected to know things. What I know about food is not enough to fill a brief pamphlet; but that does not make me a bad cook. I can replicate a menu efficiently if I can tolerate the environment, and with good instruction. That doesn't make me a chef. That makes me a cook, in the right circumstances.

A chef, to me, is something different. I know chefs, and I defer to their knowledge and skill.

The "catering" or food-service industry in Ireland is strange. It is young — nobody used to go out, because nobody had money. A generation ago, there were no chefs, no kitchens — no restaurants. Now, there is an industry. And that industry is fairly well codified — certain standards assumed universal. There are typical menu items, for example, that any chef tends to know about, and tends to associate a similar familiarity with one's level of skill.

If you didn't know about various curries — for example, among other "essential" items — that would seem very strange to an Irish chef; he or she would likely assume that you were unable to prepare food. There is a "canon" of Irish finer-restaurant cuisine, a jargon, a lingo. The typical Irish [head-]chef will assume its knowledge.

This tendency to expect a particular set of knowledge is not limited to informal assumption. It is traditional and still quite normal for the restaurant management to seek and require a "certified chef." A certified chef has attended schooling for a full four years and has passed exams on standards of knowledge and ability.

Naturally, four years of schooling, whatever its value, does not fully prepare a poor bastard for the actual environment of a working kitchen, where food is often slammed out in a flurry of activity that can twist even the steadiest mind.

Nor is most of an evening's work the sort that you'd need a lot of knowledge for — a lot of the job is replication, production skills, organization... and a cool head under pressure.

But no matter; the Irish kitchen management seem to like their certification; and the chefs appear to be stuck thinking that you're either a real chef, and useful, or not a chef and useless.

  — Spring 2003, Kilkenny