Is The Chef, Sous Chef, or CDC In Charge? A breakdown of whose-who & who does what in kitchens

It’s time some light be shed on true kitchen hierarchy and how it translates into the reality of the modern kitchen.  Here, I’ll try to illuminate kitchen titles and what their meanings both traditionally have been and currently are.


Chef is the French word for “Chief” — or at least that’s how I’ve come to understand it.  This is the term that is most liberally and aggressively thrown around, and understandably so: it’s the most glamorous title, the most respected person, and the word most-present across all Food Network-ish programing.  But in reality, it can get a little over-used.

These days, there are many versions of the term “Chef.” To me, the word should be used in reference to any person whose word is law in a kitchen.  I don’t care if that kitchen has three Michelin stars or if curtains are the only thing separating your pick-up window from a stage with poles on it — if you’re in charge, you’re the Chef.

My first chef didn’t see things that way.  I was a food runner at first, but it was in his kitchen that I decided I wanted to cook food for a living.  After I read some books and talked to some people about a lot of things, I drew my own conclusion that Tony was the chief of his kitchen.  One day, I (somewhat jovially) answered him with a “yes, Chef!”

He snapped around, walked up to me calmly and, with a finger raised up by my face said, “don’t ever fucking call me that.”  When I innocently asked why not, he responded in kind: “Look: There may be fewer than a hundred people in this world worthy of being called a Chef, and I’m sure as shit not one of them.”

This may have been a bit extreme, but it’s because of that little anecdote I’ve never answered the “what do you do for a living?” question with, “oh, I’m a chef.”   As much as I liked the way that sounded at the beginning of my career (as does everyone at the start), once you work for a true Chef, you understand the presumption associated with that title.  Instead, until I am in charge of my own kitchen, I’ll continue saying, “I cook food for a living.”

This is a cleverly-applied modesty to word-play, which I’ll explain below:

Executive Chef (EC)

The “executive” in Executive Chef, can be put in front of any Chef’s title to eliminate any question about who the fucking boss is.  Functionally though, the title is typically given to the Chef who presides over multiple kitchens.  For example, Wolfgang Puck was at one point (don’t think he still is, but I might be wrong) the Executive Chef of every restaurant baring his name in the country.  Each of these restaurants had a CDC (explained below), but Wolfgang’s word was law in all of them.  By the same token, corporations like Aramark, Sydexo, or Compass Group, might have an account with multiple locations.  There will be one EC presiding over the entire account, but each location within said account would have its own CDC (again, explained below).

While the EC usually has to cook a tasting (basically an audition) before they’re hired, this is usually the last stage of the hiring process, and it’s also the last bit of actual cooking the EC will do for that job.  Think of an Editor in Chief: it’s a role that is occupied by someone who has presumably spent years writing, to finally get to a point where, while it’s their job to preside over the writing of others, they themselves do little, to no writing.  It’s not the EC’s job to cook, it’s their job to coordinate, make sure quality standards are being met, and that rules are being followed.

Next, the aformentioned…

Chef de Cuisine (CDC)

Nope, not the Center for Disease Control.  In my world, CDC is short for “Chef de Cuisine.”  This person, under no uncertain terms, oversees the day-to-day goings-on in a particular kitchen. That kitchen may be (and usually, in the case of this title, is) part of a larger conglomerate of kitchens overseen by an Executive Chef.

However, I once worked for a Chef who owned his own restaurant — but just one of them.  He elected to give himself the title of CDC on the placard displayed at the street entrance of the restaurant, because he actually worked a station on the line every night, truly making him the Chef of his Cuisine.

In either case, if the term CDC is introduced into conversation, just think of that person as the shot-caller in their domain.  Unless an Exec (EC) is present, the CDC is the person in charge.

Sous Chef

“Sous Chef” is French for “under the Chef” (or so I’m told — full-disclosure: I don’t speak French).

Now, semantically, this means anyone with the title Sous Chef is operating directly under the command of the other person with the word Chef in their title.

It also means the level of trust they have with the Chef may go to the extent of, let’s say looking after the Chef’s kids and dog (while Chef goes and executes some shady back-alley deal having something to do with trading lobster tails for cultivated morel mushrooms, for example).  At the end of the day, the Sous is the consigliere of the Chef: the person he/she trusts the most, has the utmost mutual respect with, and whose advice is taken very seriously.

Quick story: One night, after service, I found myself having a cigar with the VP of the restaurant group on the rooftop of the fine dining restaurant where I was working.  This VP was, in my opinion, exactly the type of person who should be in charge of a multinational, high-end restaurant group because he’d done it all; he actually had worked every job there is to do at a restaurant. He was proud but also humble in talking about everything he’d done and I remember he said very matter-of-factually, “nobody in a restaurant works as hard as a Sous Chef.”

It’s true, the Sous is the Chef’s right hand (wo)man. Few are the kitchens I’ve worked or sta’aged in where the Sous Chef wasn’t doing all the work that the general public thinks the Chef is doing.  And don’t get me wrong, such is the natural progression of things and not without good reason.  But more often than not, while the Chef is the General, with his/her name on the line, the Sous Chef is the lieutenant, seeing to it that the work gets done in the trenches.

Chef du Partis (CDP)

This is a role that is rarely regarded anymore, but it still exists (and is very important) in larger kitchens.  The CDP is like a team lead, responsible for coordinating a particular station.

In most kitchens, one cook is going to handle a given station (which I’ll explain below).  But then there are kitchens with particularly large kitchen crews.  Maybe it’s a big restaurant that seats over 200 guests, or maybe it’s a fine-dining restaurant where a given dish might require 4-6 cooks pouring over every detail of each of the twelve elements on the plate.  In such cases, each station will have a CDP in charge of coordinating its goings-on.  This will include curating a prep list each day, and delegating its tasks to each of the cooks they are in charge of; as well as coordinating the station’s actions during a service, and generally ensuring that everything about their station is running smoothly.

Some stations by nature will never have more than one or two cooks working it at a time (grill comes to mind).  But others are usually going to require double or triple the staff that those other stations might (garde manger is almost always in this category).  In kitchens where the structure calls for the position of CDP, the cook who occupies that role is most likely going to be first in line to be promoted to sous chef in the event that such a position opens up.

Line Cook (traditionally known as a comis)

If sous chefs are the lieutenants of the kitchen, then line cooks are the soldiers: they are the ones doing the fighting, doing all the hard stuff, and the ones who will determine the success of a battle.. er… I mean, service.  Roughly two thirds of all kitchen workers are line cooks, and they are the ones actually cooking your food — unless someone called in sick, or was kicked off the line (in both cases, the sous chef usually then takes over that station).  All kitchen workers can (and arguably should) be regarded as “cooks”, but not all cooks are “line cooks”.

While it may be the least romantic or glamorous to the outside world, among professionals, how well you cook on a line is the yardstick by which we measure each other and ourselves.  You may be the sous or CDC at a highly acclaimed restaurant, but if you step onto a line station for a shift and don’t pull your weight, you will immediately lose the respect of your subordinates.  Conversely, my favorite sous chefs I’ve had in my career have been (not so coincidentally) some of the best line cooks I’ve ever worked with.  Not to mention, when I’ve been a sous, I believe it was my performance on the line that earned me the respect of the people working under me.

Now let’s get into some specific line stations:


Pretty self-explanatory.  Whomever works grill is in charge of seasoning and cooking whatever is cooked on a grill on that menu.  Usually this includes steaks, burgers, chops, chicken breast, and sometimes fish and vegetables.  Grill makes one think of that old cliche: a moment to learn — lifetime to master.  Once you can dominate a grill — be it at a fine-dining restaurant or at a neighborhood steak or burger joint — nothing will ever phase you again.  And bonus! you’ll also intimidate the shit out of other younger, greener cooks.


This is the area that takes the most cooking skill and the most physical/mental coordination.  Anything that gets cooked in a pan is the responsibility of the saute cook.  As you can imagine, depending on the menu, this always holds the possibility of getting out of hand in a hurry.  For example, I worked a station once where I had chicken saltimbocca,  linguini a frutti di mare, green beans, spinach, rigatoni bolognese, and a roasted half-chicken on my range all at once (this is when I take the time to mention that rarely will a cook be asked to run only one of these stations.  While I had that six-burner madness going, I was also in charge of the roasting oven and the broiler).  Being able to know your cook-times (and also the frequency of needed action/attention) for each dish is imperative to your survival here.

Broiler (aka: salamander): 

Very straight-forward here.  Not a complicated thing to do — just put something under a flame to get a nice crust or caramelization on it.  It’s also a nice way to toast bread without a toaster, or to get chicken or fish skin nice and crispy without overcooking the meat as a whole.  The drawback/finesse part? You can burn (and thus, ruin) things in a hurry.  A whole service can quickly go south because someone left something under a broiler for an extra ten seconds.


Another straight-forward one. Deep-fried items will depend on the menu.  This will almost always involve cooking french fries, but then again, being able to drop a mass of battered mushrooms or calamari into a fryer basket, and knowing how to delicately separate them with either a pair of tongs, prongs or chopsticks, all the while without splashing yourself or someone else with fryer oil… well, that does take a little bit of finesse.

That being said, it’s also a good place to cheat: If you’re having trouble getting an even crust on a thick steak, the deep fryer is a great tool to have… it’s also good for things you drop on the floor (“wash it off in the fryer!”), and also if you’re the asshole customer who’s being obnoxious about your well-done steak not being cooked enough, guess where we’re gonna forget about it for five minutes.

The deep-fryer is almost never something someone spends all their attention on, although it is usually a good place to put someone who’s just starting out on the hot line, as it’s an introductory level of heat.


Things that are prepared in the oven are generally allocated to a roast station.  This is particularly prevalent in restaurants that have a wood-burning oven, as those take particular skill and experience to upkeep over the course of a service, and also to operate.  Like the fryer though, outside of training a cook who’s new to the hot line, rare is the case that someone will be tasked with roast and only roast as their responsibility.

Garde Manger (aka: cold side, aka: garmo):

This is simply, where all of the not-hot food comes from.  That isn’t to say it doesn’t involve cooking, it just normally will do so during prep, as opposed to service.  Salads, charcuterie, amuse bouche and other miscellaneous little things will typically come from garde manger.  This is usually the first station a new cook is assigned for a couple reasons: 1) there’s generally not a whole lot of expensive product being handled on cold-side, so if someone fucks something up, you’re only throwing away some arugula, a little vinaigrette  and maybe a piece of a beet. 2) Garmo is about three things: knife-work, organization, and plating/plate composition/presentation.  These are skills required for every station, and if you can’t do ’em right on garmo, how can you be trusted to do them in addition to actually cooking on another station?  All that being said, garmo usually has the most amount of components on their station, many of which require planning days ahead (think fermenting, drying, curing, and other techniques that take more than a day to complete), so it does require heightened organizational skills, that are also required on every other such station, so yeah.  I guess Garmo is sorta the bottom rung.


Typically when one goes out for dinner, they seldom leave the house eagerly anticipating dessert.  At no one’s fault, pastry tends to be an afterthought of the diner.  That being said, a well-placed and properly executed pastry dish can really drive home a great dining experience.  Pastry cooks (can sometimes be used synonymously with bakers) tend to be the outliers in kitchens.  Working pastry requires patience, attention to detail, and following recipes to the letter.  This is why most cooks tend to cringe at the idea of baking (it takes two different personality types to cook, and to bake), but those who can do both are as impressive as they are rare.

Expediter (aka: Expo or Point)

This position is frequently — but not always — occupied by the Chef.  The expediter handles tickets when they come in and calls them out appropriately to the kitchen (frequently replied with either an echo of the order, or a “Yes Chef!“.  This is what’s known as a call-back).  They also are in charge of keeping track of orders and coordinating their pick-ups (the time when all the dishes for a given ticket should be/are ready to be served).

It’s the second part that requires skill at the expo station, as it’s not easy to coordinate a number of dishes being cooked so that they are all ready at the same time.  The expediter is also responsible for smoothing out any wrinkles that inevitably pop up during service.  Let’s say a ticket for a 4-top (slang for a table of four guests) is about to be put up, but at that point, the Chef notices one of the dishes is wrong — maybe it’s overcooked, over-sauced or something else that can’t be quickly fixed — and needs to be re-fired.  It’s the expediter’s job to try and use the other three plates that were ready for that table.  Can they be saved, re-heated and re-plated when that re-fire is ready?  Or can any of them be used for a table that might have that menu item on order, and can be picked up on short notice?  Expo is like a constantly mutating multivariable calculus problem, which is why it’s not uncommon for this to be one person’s sole job.  All that being said, sometimes expo can be a duty folded into a line cook’s duties, and done entirely on the hot side of the line.

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