At San Francisco Cooking School we say often that we train cooks, not chefs. But, what’s the difference? In this How a Cook Becomes a Chef series, we ask some of our favorite chefs their thoughts on the matter.

Today we chat with Cortney Burns, co-chef at Bar Tartine. In between running a complex kitchen in which virtually everything is made in-house — from cheeses to spices, to koji, and of course bread — and launching an IACP-nominated cookbook, Cortney often finds time to teach at our school.

Bar Tartine is known for its bold and unique use of fermentation, curing, and pickling in its ever-changing menu of inspired dishes, so it’s always a treat when Cortney brings her vast knowledge of these preservation techniques into our kitchen. When we know she’s coming in, we get a whole mess of produce in that day and let the students go to town transforming them into various jars of fermented goodness full of flavor and funk. Cortney is an inspiring leader and teacher. Here’s what she has to say on how that translates in the world of cooks and chefs.

What differentiates a cook and a chef?

“The main difference between a cook and a chef is that a chef is responsible for the voice of the food. The cooks make this voice audible, but the chefs create it.”

Looking at the progress of your own career, at what point did you consider yourself a chef?

“I will first and foremost always consider myself a cook. It’s what I do. But my daily responsibilities to our staff and our guests make me in charge of way more than a station or just a dish. I guess you can say at this point I’m a chef, but only because I have to lead and I have people depending on my decisions to guide them.

Being a chef is much like being a parent figure — you must lead by example. It’s a hard job, everyone is watching your every move and judging your decisions. The people who I work with though are the real warriors — they believe in the mission, the goal and the food and without them I would be nothing.”

What can a young cook do to become a great chef?

“I’d say see as much as you can, experience many kitchens, many styles, and many ways of doing one thing. Most importantly though, be sure with all of your heart and soul that you want to cook. It’s a path that you must be 100% into or it will exhaust you.

Keep your head down and learn, read, understand, and be curious. Don’t be afraid to fail and never forget the power of saying “I don’t know,” and asking for help.”

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