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Chef or cook?

“ARE you a chef?” the pretty French girl, a sous chef, asks her new friend, Hassan, whose father has just opened an Indian restaurant in a snooty French village.

“I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,” Hassan replies.

There is a difference, even if the preceding lines are lifted from a movie based on “The 100-Ft Journey”, a novel about a fictional “war” between the haute cuisine of France and the traditional cooking of India as exemplified by Hassan. That movie was my favorite in 2015.

These days when every other reality show on TV is about food and cooking, menus and culinary skills, every other person who wears an apron is addressed as chef. What, nobody cooks anymore? I asked Nina Daza Puyat, who should know something about cooking (being a daughter of Nora Daza and editor of Appetite, a food magazine), to explain the difference between “chef” and “cook.” She was shocked that I asked because, isn’t it obvious? A chef, she said, has to earn the title, which means being trained (schooled?) and experienced, which means possessing a background of professional expertise and recognition by one’s peers. Culinary schools abound, but are certificates and diplomas enough to authenticate one’s arrival at chefdom?

Tuition is not cheap in those schools, although they provide a good starting point for people who think they have what the sous chef in the story calls “the gift” that Hassan wants to cook to perfection. When he talks about his work, he uses the language of poets, recalling how his mother detected “ghosts” in the spirits of spices, while he abhors the vegetables he found in London as being “without soul, without life.” He is passionately driven to learn the ropes of classic French cuisine from Madam Mallory (played by the inimitable Helen Mirren) at her one-Michelin star restaurant across the street, 100 ft from the Indian restaurant of Hassan’s family. Problem is, Hassan’s father and Mrs. Mallory are locked in a smoky, fiery competition for excellence, service, and the loyalty of patrons, the two being as stubborn as an overcooked steak.

If you watched the movie and watched to the very end, you’d have grasped the definition of chef; your stomach would’ve told you. (JULLIE Y. DAZA)

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