Kitchen Manager versus Chef – What’s the Difference?

Have you ever been to a restaurant and wondered what goes on behind the scenes? If you’ve never worked in a kitchen, you probably aren’t aware of the different hierarchies in place. Every professional kitchen from the roadside diner to the massive resort and cruise ship operation has an obvious food chain of responsibility.

For purposes of this discussion, we will assume that we are asking about the difference between a kitchen manager and an executive chef. In a restaurant that has operations to sustain both functions, the executive chef is typically responsible for menu management, specials creation, ingredient sourcing, and cuisine development. The kitchen manager is responsible for the day-to-day administrative functions, including the overall operation of the kitchen functions, management of the staff, budgeting, and inventory management.

Both the kitchen manager and the chef must have a level of understanding of the culinary arts and should have experience in a professional kitchen, if not formal training.

Yes, Chef. Inside the Kitchen Hierarchy.

You may assume that the only way to get the title of Chef is to have a formal culinary arts degree. While, in most cases that is true, there are also some exceptions. If someone has come up through the ranks and has successfully served under another chef, that apprenticeship, in time, will earn her the right to be a chef overseeing her own kitchen.

To understand the chef’s role, we first need to understand the kitchen management hierarchy.

French Brigade System

Comparable Kitchen Position(s)

Responsibilities

Likely to Be Found In

Executive Chef

  • Develops the menu 
  • Creates specials
  • Oversees ingredient curation

Multi-restaurant chain development kitchens, resorts, locations with multiple kitchens/specialties

Head Chef

Kitchen Manager

  • May oversee multiple chefs
  • Manages the kitchen staff
  • Hiring and firing
  • Manages acquisition of ingredients and overall kitchen/pantry stock
  • Manages budget
  • In the absence of an executive chef, creates the menu and specials.

Most restaurants (in some cases, the restaurant owner is the kitchen manager or head chef)

Sous Chef

Assistant Manager

  • Assists the Head Chef in all capacities
  • In smaller kitchens, this role also includes the duties of the chef de partie and the commis chef

Most restaurants

Chef de Partie

Department Manager/Line Cook

  • Head of a specific area – pastry, fish, butcher, grill, salads, soup, etc.

Large restaurants with multiple functions

Commis Chef

Department Food Preparer

  • Responsible for a specific dish in a department. For example, cupcakes in the Pastry Department

Formal kitchens

Kitchen Porter

Potato Peeler, Raw Food Washer/Chopper, Kitchen Area Cleaner

  • Responsible for washing and chopping the vegetables and making sure all kitchen surfaces and large tools are clean

All restaurants

Escuelerie

Dish Washer, Table Busser (It sounds so much fancier in French, doesn’t it?

  • Clears tables and washes dishes

All restaurants

So. All with the title of Chef are not created equal. Similarly, depending on the size of the kitchen, not all jobs or functions are limited to certain titles.

Education of a Chef - Culinary Training Required

It is possible to rise through the ranks of a large kitchen over time and to eventually become a Head Chef, but it is a very hard, extremely long road. And definitely isn’t guaranteed. It really depends on the restaurant, it’s kitchen culture, and how it’s managed.

Similarly, Kitchen Managers also typically have formal training, so they understand the overall functionality of an effective kitchen. Interestingly, the two functions don’t necessarily have the same type of training.

  • A Kitchen Manager has likely graduated from a Culinary Management or Hospitality Management program. 
  • An Executive or Head Chef, however, has usually completed a rigorous Culinary School program to learn the science behind the food and its preparation.

Examples of Reputable Programs in the U.S.

If you’re interested in upping your game and pursuing a formal program, here are a few examples that may interest you:

Culinary Management:

Culinary School (Many of these also offer Culinary Management Options):

Qualification Requirements

Regardless of whether your goal is to be a Kitchen Manager or a Head or Executive Chef, there are specific qualifications you will want to acquire. Although there is some overlap in the skills that you need to possess to be successful in one of these roles, each takes its own path and variation of skillsets.

Kitchen Manager

To rise to the role of the Kitchen Manager, you are going to want to make sure you have experience working in a functional kitchen. You need to thoroughly understand:

  • Effective communication
  • Effective organization
  • Each role
  • The tools of the trade and what they’re used for
  • Staff Management including recruitment, hiring, training, and scheduling
  • Budget management and development
  • Basic Culinary Arts knowledge
  • Menu management
  • Must also possess a Certification for Safe Food Handling

Executive Chef or Head Chef

If you want to be the creative genius behind the meals that flow from the kitchen, you are going to have to have the following skillsets:

  • You will have to have at least eight years’, and in some cases more than 15 years’ experience working in a reputable kitchen environment
  • Most restaurants will prefer that you have a certification from a certified culinary institute of instruction. This will give them the level of confidence they desire that you understand all of the ins-and-outs of food preparation, combinations, preparation, and how to ensure sanitary standards are followed.
  • You will need to be able to be effective in a fast-paced, high-stress environment
  • You must have excellent organizational and time management skills
  • You must have a firm grasp on the balance between portion control, ingredient procurement, safe food storage, and typical business cycles.
  • You will need to be able to balance food types, textures, flavors, and colors to create dishes that are appealing both to the palate and the eye.
  • You will need to be able to create interesting menus that fit in with the restaurant and local culture.

There isn’t a short cut to either role. And the fact is, you really don’t want there to be one. It takes a significant amount of time to garner the entire skillset you would need to be successful in restaurant kitchen management. 

Most people wouldn’t graduate from college and expect to immediately be offered the Chief Financial Officer or Chief Operations Officer role of a company. The Kitchen Manager, Head Chef, and Executive Chef jobs are just as important and prestigious in the restaurant world. Getting to that point only comes with time and successful experience.

Plate’s Up!

Whether you’re interested in the role of the Kitchen Manager, Executive Chef, or Head Chef,  you can count on it being demanding. Yet, with the right person in the role, it will also be extremely fulfilling.

If this is the path you chose to pursue, one thing is for certain… one day you will be able to be the one responsible for the satisfied smiles, ooohs, and ahhhhs that come from the dining area of the restaurant kitchen you lead.

For now, get back to dreaming about all of your culinary exploits and the dishes you are going to be creating or the kitchen you are going to be managing!

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