Here's What 'Sous Chef' Really Means

Sometimes, when watching a cooking show or flipping through a cookbook, it feels like there are so many culinary terms to learn — and many of them aren't even in English, but in French. There's "mise en place," which basically means chopping and prepping ingredients (such as vegetables and herbs) and getting them ready to throw into a pot or stir into a bowl (via On the Line). There's "sous vide," a method of cooking vacuum-sealed ingredients in a temperature-controlled water bath, says Bon Appétit. And then, of course, there's "sous chef," which you've probably heard tossed around dozens of times. But what does sous chef actually mean? And what does a sous chef do, anyway?

Sous chef, as you might have guessed, also comes from the French language. Literally, it means "under the chef," according to Merriam-Webster. Practically, as the term indicates, a sous chef is the kitchen's second-in-command, Food Network explains. That means these workers have extensive culinary know-how and broad responsibilities in their roles.

Sous chefs keep the kitchen running smoothly

Though the term sous chef indicates a position below the chef — the "chef de cuisine," executive chef, and top dog in the kitchen — the reality is that sous chefs take on the bulk of the work inside a professional kitchen. According to Food Network, sous chefs keep the entire restaurant kitchen on task and are typically in charge of ordering ingredients, cleaning and organizing work stations and food storage, and training cooks on menu items and new techniques. 

One doesn't just walk into a kitchen and become a sous chef; in fact, sous chefs work their way up the kitchen ladder, often starting at the bottom doing prep and line work, then eventually gaining more expertise and, finally, their hard-earned title. Many chefs say they would be lost without their sous chefs. Anthony Bourdain, the revered chef and television host who passed away in 2018, famously wrote in his bestselling kitchen memoir "Kitchen Confidential" that he wanted his sous to have both a rockin' kitchen prowess and a risk-taking streak. "Having a sous-chef with excellent cooking skills and a criminal mind is one of God's great gifts," he wrote (via Denizen).

So, the next time you volunteer to "sous" — whether it's in a friend's kitchen or a professional one — now you know what the task entails.