Tomorrow night FOX premieres a new cooking competition show in which home cooks will compete for the title of MasterChef.  The top 50 contestants will cook the signature dishes that got them on the show for judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot Bowles, who will weed out the talent and move the best cooks forward.  What makes this competition unique from such hits as Top Chef, Chopped, and Ramsay's own Hell's Kitchen is that none of the competitors are professional chefs.  In fact, most of them have completely different careers as lawyers, sales associates, and financial advisers, yet this show has invoked the power to name one of these amateur yet perhaps talented cooks a “Master Chef.”

So, the question is: what really makes a chef, and how do we distinguish between a chef and a cook? Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW's Good Food and owner of Angeli Caffe, points out that “a chef is definitely not merely a cook.  In fact, many chefs haven't really cooked in years.  That's the whole conceit for Top Chef Masters.” Kleiman elaborates: “chef means leader or chief. Someone who leads a brigade. There is a managerial component to being a chef.”

Still, Kleiman acknowledges that perception plays a part. “Personally, I've always loved being called a cook.  It's what I am in my soul. I guess it depends on what your fantasy of yourself as a culinarian is.  My fantasy was to be a grandmother who could whip up everything.  A great cook.  I never fantasized about being Escoffier or Roger Verge.”

As for MasterChef, contestants will endure weeks of challenges that test both their skills and food knowledge, and a winner will be chosen to receive a quarter of a million dollars and a cookbook deal. But will they also have earned the right to be called a chef? Should they be obligated to abandon their previous career and use the prize money to open a restaurant?

Perhaps these questions emerge because the difference between a cook and a chef is becoming murkier. “I also understand why Food TV refers to home cooks as chefs,” says Kleiman. “The lines of definition between chef and cook have blurred since cooking as entertainment has gone more mainstream. Who would want to be a Master Cook?”

So what do you think? Do you have to work in a professional kitchen to be a chef? Let us know by commenting below.

LA Weekly