That is a good question Ice!!! One to which there really isn't an answer, at least, an easy answer. First off, there is nothing to stop anyone from claiming to be a professional chef. The kid just out of culinary school, the mom who turns caterer, the lawyer who decides to follow his dreams and open up a restaurant, they can all call themselves chefs. There is only one organization that certifies chefs in this country, and that is the ACF (American Culinary Federation). They are the only ones. Most chefs do not belong to this group, and even less chefs bother with their certification program. It is not a mandatory certification. So really anyone can call themselves chefs.
Most chefs would agree though that it takes years of "paying your dues" before you deserve the title "chef". I personally feel that, even if you have graduated from culinary school, you still need to put in 8-12 years cooking and learning before you are ready for a chef position.
Here's what you need to be a certified chef de cuisine for the acf ccc
From another page at the same site...
"What is the difference between "Specific" and "General" experience?
It is important to remember that a candidate must have the minimum points for both Specific and General experience in order to qualify for certification. Make sure you have enough specific points first. Each certification level is defined by a set of job related functions. A minimum amount of your work history must qualify for the level for which you are applying. For example, those applying for Certified Executive Chef must have 4 1/2 to 5 years specific "executive chef" experience. Once you have enough specific points (i.e. specific work experience) all other experience is considered "general". "
Here in Iceland you have to learn 4 years to call you a Chef. Amateur can call hims self a "cook". But unfortunately everybody can open a restaurant in Iceland.
First you will be a trainee in a restaurant for 1 year and then you go to school, 3 semester (each semester 5 month) and you will work in the restaurant all the time. And motto sentence of the students is "yes sir, no proplem" hehehehe. its wery hard to be a professional chef here in Iceland, underpay for a labour job. Instead you will get a very good chefs