Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

Meaning of Idiom ‘Chief Cook and Bottle Washer’

A person who is the chief cook and bottle washer is in charge but also performs many duties, some of them trivial; someone in charge of almost every job, often the owner or the sole employee of a small business, or someone with numerous responsibilities in a large business. 1Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,2 Palmatier, Robert Allen. Food a Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms. Greenwood Press, 2000.,3Dolgopolov, Yuri. A Dictionary of Confusable Phrases: More than 10,000 Idioms and Collocations. McFarland, 2010.


“My father always tells new customers he is the chief cook and bottle washer. He owns a book store.”

“At my old job I was basically the chief cook and bottle washer. There was not much I didn’t do.”

“My dad works at home and calls himself the chief cook and bottle washer. My mother does all the cooking!”


Chief cook and bottle washer probably alludes not being the only worker not in a restaurant kitchen but to someone who performed many duties on a sailing ship, doing everything from the cooking to washing bottles.

For example, from Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, 4Whiting, Bartlett Jere. Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases. The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1977. an example from a play by A.B. Lindsley, Love and Friendship, or Yankee Notions (1809):

“Why sometimes I acts cook, steward, cabin boy, sailor, mate, and bottle washer..”

It may be that the original expression was “chief, cook, and bottle washer” rather than “chief cook” and “bottle washer,” thus referring to someone who was in charge but also performed many trivial tasks.

It has been used as an idiom since at least the 1830’s.

More Idioms Starting with C

More Bottle Idioms

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More Wash Idioms

More Sailing/Nautical Related Idioms

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