The Joy of Mastering the Basics
Chef Stephanie Michalak/Turner Farm Culinary Manager
The first time you step through the back entrance of a new restaurant to work, you’re always inundated. You try to take in the smells and figure out what dishes they belong to while listening to the rhythm of others prepping, cleaning, communicating, and just…going. You take in the layout of the kitchen and begin to figure out the pace, style, and composure of your new coworkers, allies, and family. You take a deep breath in, hopefully not standing in one place for too long before you get called out or knocked over, and you take your first step into this kitchen.
I think a lot of people who don’t work in the hospitality industry are not always aware of why we chose a career path with long hours, hazardous (flame/abrasion/slipping) conditions, typically little pay, and minimal gratification. We all have varying answers and reasons, however, many entail copious amounts of passion, creativity, a love of nourishing others, and a connection to the products we spend too much time fixated on. I’m certainly not advocating that everyone on the Earth becomes a professional chef just to experience this, but there are skills and traits that would significantly benefit every person who wants to feed themselves or others.
Currently, we live in a culture that at times loves watching others fail miserably at cooking either through television shows, YouTube video clips, or memes. Yes, sometimes it is immensely hilarious to see photos of someone who tried to cook pasta without water and cause a fire or videos of multiple individuals trying to separate the yolks from the whites of an egg in way I could have never imagined. Yet, I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be that person who proudly and publicly claims that they cannot cook. This is completely understandable since being a decent cook can symbolize much more than the act of feeding oneself.
What tends to separate professionals from hobby cooks are certain traits and skills in our modern society. Professionals tend to focus on culinary techniques such as sauteeing or braising rather than a specific recipe. They are organized to a fault—making shopping lists, prep lists, and even plating schematics for dishes they want to test either today or next month when an ingredient is perfect for their plans. They also have mentally prepared themselves for 5-10 steps ahead of where they are in either their cooking, or just their day. A lot of professionals also have a very “go, go, go” mentality—always pushing ahead even when our knees and sanities have fled. Perhaps it’s the coffee, but it’s also from years knowing that if you don’t push, things may not get done in a timely fashion and we already work long enough without dillydallying. I’ve written about some of these habits before in my blog on how chefs read recipes, but these traits are so pertinent that I need to mention them repeatedly.
There are plenty of home cooks out there that do practice similar habits and could probably put some professionals to shame with their skills. However, there are also many out there that either do not feel confident or competent enough to ‘just whip something up’ for themselves or others. There’s not enough time or there’s just too much stress involved with cooking. I am not writing this to tell you that you need to learn to be neurotic or anal-retentive, but if you are someone who doesn’t feel comfortable even standing in a kitchen or picking up a knife, learning core fundamentals like knife skills or culinary organization can significantly change your experience and outlook on cooking. Even if you can hold your own in a kitchen but just never feel like you have time on your own to get creative or improvise, revisiting fundamentals can help. In the end, what I hope for others is that they’re able to walk into their own kitchen and enjoy the experience and process from start to finish—allowing themselves to relish the sounds, smells, flow, and taste food that feels as good as they do while cooking.
To increase your kitchen skills, join Chef Stephanie for her five-part Culinary Competency series kicking off April 11. Tickets and details for the afternoon series can be found here, while evening series details and tickets are here.