One upon a time, a customer simply had to eat what the Chef was cooking that day in any given restaurant. That all changed with the introduction of the Brigade System by Georges Auguste Escoffier.
His experience as a French Army Chef led him to develop the Brigade system of chef hierarchy. This way he was able to maintain a kitchen production line that ensured complex orders could be served perfectly cooked, at the perfect temperature and in good time.
As Escoffier fashioned his Brigade system on the military system, there was a strict chain of command with a separation and delegation of tasks to different types of special kitchen workers. The traditional brigade system is highly specialized, but it can break down if one of the workers is not present.
In the brigade, every person has a particular job and there is a particular job for every person. Just like the military, the chain of command is never broken, and so the kitchen can run with high precision.
Members of the Brigade System
The strict, classical Escoffier hierarchy is as follows, with each position directly responsible to the position above his.
Chef de Cuisine
This chef is in charge of the entire kitchen. He prepares menus, purchases foods and directs everything that goes on in his kitchen.
Sous Chef de Cuisine
Sous means under in French. The sous chef is the chef de cuisine’s deputy chef. He takes his orders directly from the chef de cuisine and acts in his place if he is not present.
Chef de Partie
There is no single chef de partie. A chef de partie is in charge of a particular station in the kitchen. Each chef de partie might have one or more cuisiniers, commis or apprentices working directly under him.
The cuisiniers are cooks. They are responsible for preparing specific dishes at a specific station.
The commis, or junior cooks, also work a specific station, but they are generally responsible for taking care of the tools on that station. They report directly to the chef de partie.
An apprentice might not work a specific station. They usually gain work experience by helping with cleaning and prep work. At the beginning of an apprenticeship, they might even find themselves washing dishes. Read more about the road to becoming a chef.
The Brigade System Stations
There were many stations in the kitchens of Escoffier’s time. Each station was run by a chef de partie who reported to the sous chef. Some stations are not listed here because they have no relevance in todays’ commercial restaurant kitchens. These stations are still largely used in modern commercial kitchens that tend to prepare classical haute cuisine.
The saucier is the sauté cook, he flips foodin pans and also makes the sauces.
The rotisseur is the chef in charge of roasts. In Escoffier’s time, he also supervised the Grillardin and Friturier.
This is the chef in charge of the grill, making sure all grilled meats are perfectly cooked and timed for quick service
The friturier is the fry chef. From French fries to oysters, catfish and tempura the Friturier has to know a lot about how to work with hot oil.
As the fish cook, the poissonier is in charge of all fish and seafood prep from sautéing to poaching and more.
This chef de partie is in charge of entrees, the “entrance” to the meal. These days we consider entrees to be the “main course,” but in Escoffier’s day, the entrée was a lighter, starter course. In the traditional brigade system, the entremetier supervised the Potager and the Legumier..
The soup chef. The potager is in charge of making soups. It was part of their job to use up any leftovers that might otherwise go to waste. A good potager could save a kitchen a lot of money.
The legumier is the vegetable chef and in charge of gratins, pilafs, braises and other hot vegetable side dishes
The garde manger chef was in charge of all cold preparations, from gazpacho to charcuterie, and salads to pates. Along with the potager, it was the garde manger’s job to eliminate food waste by finding uses for scraps and presenting them in ways that were pleasing to the palate and to the eye.
The pastry chef. It is the pastry chef’s job to create and present all dessert items. In the Escoffier kitchen, the patissier also supervised an ice-cream chef (glacier), and candy cook (confiseur) and also supervised the cook in charge of making large show pieces (decorateur) as well as the boulangier.
The baker. It was the bakers job to prepare breads and breakfast pastries.
The Modern Chef Heirarchy
Of course, not all restaurants follow the strict traditional Brigade regime set out by Escoffier. The hierarchy has often been tweaked and the actors are given different names. Here is the hierarchy that you are most likely to find in a modern American kitchen.
Chef de Cuisine
This is the apex, the chef whose initials are etched into the silver flatware, and embroidered onto the washroom towels. This chef has the vision, conceives the dishes, imbues the whole restaurant with his/her personality. This would be the person who appears on television. Sometimes, if need be, chefs de cuisine even cook.
This is a nebulous title, as only the biggest, most famous chefs de cuisine follow themselves with executive chefs. Executive chefs run the whole kitchen when the big boss isn’t around and are often employed when a chef has more than one restaurant. They hire and fire the staff, determine costs, revamp the menu, take care of all administrative tasks, interact with the dining room managers, and generally oversee the well-being of the restaurant. In smaller, less flamboyant restaurants, the Chef de Cuisine sees to all this, and an executive chef would be redundant.
Next under the Chef de Cuisine or Executive Chef, depending on the restaurant, this chef is always in the kitchen. He/she comes up with the daily specials, takes inventory, watches over the staff, expedites (see Expediter, below), and basically does all the hands-on work. There are sous-chefs of two ilks: those who will soon move on to open their own restaurants, becoming Chefs de Cuisine, and those who will remain as they are, preferring the rhythmic rigors of the kitchen to the bright lights of chef stardom.
Generally the sous-chef, the expediter serves as the liaison between the customers in the dining room and the line cooks. He/she makes sure that the food gets to the wait staff in a timely fashion, so that everyone sitting at a particular table is served simultaneously. This job is all about coordination and timing.
The pastry chef is like the sous-chef, but reigns over the pastry section, which is usually tucked far away from the heat and bustle of the main kitchen (to protect delicate soufflés, fragile spun sugar, and temperamental chocolates). The pastry section has always been assigned less status than the main kitchen — possibly because pastry was a traditionally female province (if there were any women in the kitchen at all, you might find them in the pastry section). Fortunately, this is changing.
The line cooks are the people who actually cook your food. They are divided up, either by cooking technique (saute, grill, etc.), or by type of food (fish, meat, etc.). When the expeditor shouts out an order (they always shout), the line cooks jump to prepare it. Most cooks work up through the line (working every position), before being promoted to sous-chef.
Chef de garde-manger
The person in the garde manger section — also known as the cold station — plates all the dishes that do not require heat, such as salads, terrines, and sometimes desserts, if there is no assigned pastry person on the line.
Staging and Apprenticing
Staging means to work as a stagiaire, which, basically is the French term for a chef’s apprentice. Stagiaires assist in the kitchen, mostly at the various stations such as fish, meat, garde manger, and vegetables.
Stagiaires in Michelin-starred French kitchens could be assigned such glamorous tasks as finding the four perfect leaves on a head of lettuce or washing kilo upon kilo of mushrooms. A stagiaire almost never cooks, spending 12 hours a day at the preparatory tasks of a kitchen.
Because European chefs begin apprenticing in their early teens, an adult American stagiaire could work alongside a 15 year-old French colleague.
At first, I never saw the stove. I really learned about the products. We had all these wild animals coming in, like hare and pheasant. I was plucking pheasants, cutting chickens, and cleaning meats and fish. The first year I learned what a good carrot is like and what a bad carrot is like, and all the seasonal foods. I was trained like that…..Some days you’d spend 17 or 18 hours in the kitchen. Two or three days in a row of that, before Christmas, with so much preparing and things, you’d say ‘Why am I doing this? My friends are running around chasing girls, and I’m at the stove.’ It was tough.
For more on apprenticing, see Becoming A Chef, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995. See especially chapt. 4.