Final Word

It took the chief ages to become a chef


Hopefully, at your next restaurant diner, the chef in the kitchen is quicker with your meal than the one in your dictionary, which took some five centuries to attain to that particular status.

One evening last week our daughter’s boyfriend helped out with the first braai of what is supposed to be spring. It led to some joking about having a chef looking after the meat on the coals – chef happening to be his profession. It also got me curious about where the term chef, in dictionaries described as meaning, or the title if you want, for the head cook, originated.

View people will be surprised to learn that it originated as a loan word from French. If, however, you think it is because of the Frenchs’ reputation in the culinary arts, you are wrong.

The word chef was first adopted into English, in its original French meaning, to give us the word chief, meaning “boss” or “leader” in the 14th century. And then, in the midd-1800s it was borrowed a second time as an abbreviated form of chef de cuisine, meaning “kitchen head” or “kitchen chief.” 

Probably because, unlike was the case with the chief version of the word, the original French spelling was retained in terms of the meaning of chef de cuisine, chef was tagged as a ‘foreign’ word by the Merriam-Webster dictionary until 1934.

In the 1934 unabridged edition of the dictionary, besides the chef de cuisine meaning, terms like chef de cabinet, meaning ‘private secretary’ of a cabinet minister, and chef de train, meaning a ‘railway guard’ of a ‘train conductor,’ was also added. The term chef d’ école, meaning ‘leader of a school of artists,’ would follow later.

But, in line with the French’s reputation in the arts, the more abstract term chef d‘oeuvre, indicating a leading work of art rather than a person leading a trend or movement, would also follow later. Given, as one of its synonyms, is masterpiece.

Over time, the term became applied in much wider context than the original chief cook in especially hotels or restaurants as the person responsible for menu planning, managing food preparation, and the kitchen staff.

In the food business it became commonly used as an indication of speciality, like in chef de partie, who handles a specific area of the food production process.

Final word

There might be five centuries separating their arrival in the English language, but there is at least one proverb in which chef and chief joined forces in spirit – when some-one (maybe an overburdened housewife or owner of a one-man business) referrers to her- or him selves as “the chief cook and bottle washer around here.”

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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