Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Home cook vs. Chef: what should you learn from the pros?

You’re a foodie, and you’re an amateur, in the strict sense of the word: you do it for love.  You love food, you love cooking, you love experimenting, you love finding new ingredients and flavours.  Your friends and family think your cooking is wonderful; hell, you think your cooking is wonderful.  People beg you for your recipes.  Admit it: you’ve always had a bit of a hankering to be a real chef.

I really hope that you don’t dream of opening your own restaurant one day, not unless you’ve actually done some serious time in a pro kitchen.  You may be a great cook, and people still talk about dinner parties that you held years ago.  You win the local bake-off competition with ease, with becoming modesty, and your kids’ lunch-boxes are drooled over by their classmates.  You follow the latest trends, you’re familiar with even the most obscure ingredients and cuisines.  You are amazed at the antics of TV chefs, saying to yourself (and all who will listen, and agree) that you can do better than that.  You go to a well-reviewed restaurant, are disappointed, and say that things would be different if you were running the place.

Don’t.  Don’t even think about it.  Do some pro-time before you spend your life savings, your pension, and remortgage your home.  Get a reality check.

It is possible to get some time in a pro-kitchen without giving up your day job: it is sometimes called being a “hobby chef”.  Find a local restaurant you like, offer your services for one shift a week, maybe at the weekend, or whenever you are consistently available.  You may even get paid.  Expect to start washing pots, or peeling veg.  The chef/proprietor at my first pro cooking gig had started in a hotel kitchen in Ireland at the age of 14.  He spent 18 months in a dank basement, operating a potato rumbler,  before he was allowed to do something more interesting.  Stick with it, hopefully for not quite so long, and you’ll get some other tasks.  Eventually, you may even be doing some real cooking that is going out to real diners who are paying real bills, and what a thrill you’ll get when you see the plates coming back empty.

You will learn a lot, and probably one of the things you will learn very early is that, actually, you don’t want to own your own restaurant at all.

For a start, you’ll probably completely readjust your image of just what a chef does.  They do not spend all day artistically dreaming up concoctions from random ingredients, nor do they start peeling potatoes, whipping eggs, or breaking down a raw chicken when the waiters bring in the first tickets.  They work very fast, turning out the same things in the same way every hour of every day, and they will have done an enormous amount of the work before service starts.

Now I’ve rudely shattered your dream, let’s take a look at what you should, and what you should not, take home from the professional kitchen, whether you get to work in one or not.  So that this doesn’t turn into an epic, I’m just going to concentrate on seven areas:

  • Mis en Place
  • Pre-Cooking
  • A Good Knife, and Knife Skills
  • Consistency
  • Working Clean
  • Know Your Suppliers
  • Leftovers

Mis en Place:  Literally, “putting in place.”  Having everything you may need for service ready before you start, be it your veggies peeled, cut and precooked, your garnishes standing by in their little refrigerated pots, the meats portioned, and maybe also pre or part cooked, your sauces ready.  There are little open pots of salt, cracked peppercorns and other seasonings ready for you to grab a pinch at will.  All your machinery, your ovens, your grills, your fryers are on, all the time, and ready to rock.  Your knives and steel are right there and in reach, as are your cutting boards and as many clean and dry cloths as you can find.  Everything, in short, ready to go.

This basic concept is very attractive to the home cook who first comes across it: do it, and you feel like a pro.  Thing is, is it really necessary at home?  If you’re just about to stir fry a meal in a wok, make an omelette, or bake a cake, then, yes, it is.  If you’re making a casserole, no, it probably isn’t.  The meat can be browning while you’re peeling and chopping the other ingredients.

At home, you’re generally not trying to send out several different meals at once (and if you are, maybe you should have a serious talk with your family).  You have time, a luxury in short supply in a restaurant.

The pro may have, for example, several pounds of finely sliced onions or shallots standing by.  Will you really use that much at home in the next couple of days?  If so, then go for it, and get a batch done at one hit.  Most likely, though, you’ll be slinging some sad and soggy alliums away before long, and your fridge will stink for days.  So, by all means take the Mis en Place idea on board, but use it sensibly.

A Good Knife, and Knife Skills.  Essential.  You do not need a full set of every conceivable blade and shape, but you do need a minimum of one good chef knife with at least an 8inch/20cm blade.  Go to a professional cook shop, preferably in the real world if there’s one within reach of you, as it’s best to handle the thing first.  Of course, you can buy online if you know what you want, and you’ll probably save some money.  Expect to pay a minimum of 50 – 60 pounds/dollars/euros or equivalent.  Keep it out of the dishwasher, and keep it clean, dry and sharp and it will last you a lifetime, so it’s not a huge investment when seen in those terms.  There are a many well-respected manufacturers: I mainly use Global knives and Furi knives, but the choice is yours.  Get a steel so that you can keep your knife razor-sharp: I use a diamond steel.  If you're not sure how to use one efficiently, take a look at this  YouTube, clip (to avoid any possible confusion, that is not me in that clip, by the way, but top chef Gordon Ramsay) or ask your friendly local butcher, or chef.

Lean to use your knife efficiently and safely. Whether you are left or right handed, use the back of the fingers of the other hand, curled back and out of the way, to guide the blade.  Often, you are using the point of the knife as a pivot, in a guillotine action.  Watching the telly chefs will give you the idea – you certainly don’t have to be as fast as they are.  They’ve been doing it for years, and they are also showing off.

Of course, you will also need  a decent cutting board: please don’t ruin your lovely new knife by using it on a metal, marble or glass surface.

I'll return to the theme of essential kit and equipment for the home cook at another time.  Yeah, we all love the gadgets, but you don’t really need as much as you may think.

Pre-Cooking: I mention pre-cooking, refreshing and reheating your veg in my “Stress-Free Christmas Dinner” blog as a pro tip well worth using at home when you are under pressure – not just at Christmas, but at dinner parties and whenever there is a lot of cooker-top action and you need the space, and when you are worried about getting the timings right.

It’s essential in most pro kitchens, but it’s probably not something you’ll need to do every day at home.  Pre and part cooking, not just of veg, but of your meats and other parts of the meal is a big subject, and I’ll return to it at a later date.  Let’s just leave it here by saying that there are a whole lot of things that you can do way ahead of time if you need to.

Consistency:  One of the most important skills of the kitchen professional is consistency.  You go to a restaurant, have a great dish, be it the perfect steak or something more exotic.  You tell your friends, you go back.  You expect it to be the same.  There is little place for improvisation here.

How does a chef get this consistency?  He or she does it time after time, every day, that’s how.  They use the same ingredients from the same suppliers, cut and prepped the same, they use the same grill, the same oven temperatures, probably the same type of pan, every time.

You may grill a steak once every couple of months, they’ve done it a dozen times a day, for years.  That’s how their medium-rare steak is always the same, and yours is more hit-and-miss.

(All the same, here’s a pro-tip for getting your steak close to your desires, the way it’s usually taught to trainee grill-chefs.  Press your first finger down onto the mound at the base of your thumb.  That’s pretty much the way a rare steak feels.  Second finger, medium.  Third finger, well done.  Yes, you’ll need to finger the steak.  Pro chefs do it all the time, poking and prodding.  Hopefully, they are stringent about their hygiene.  They will also have developed asbestos fingertips.)

But is consistency that necessary about most things you cook at home?  Yes and no.  Some recipes demand little deviation; cakes and baking rely on fairly specific chemical reactions, and you don’t want to mess too much with quantities, temperatures and timings.  And you will have favourite recipes which you stick to religiously.  But, at home, you are mainly looking to create tasty meals: it won’t really matter if you add a bit of this and a bit of that, or substitute a for b.  Do take notes, though, in that sticky, grubby, slightly unhygienic notebook that you keep by the knife block: when your improvisations and experiments produce something wonderful, you’ll want to know how to repeat it.

Work Clean: I’m not talking here about washing your hands in between tasks and doing the dishes; surely, that’s obvious, or you probably wouldn’t be feeling well enough to be reading any kind of foodie blog.  Working clean means to not get snowed under: to clear as well as clean between tasks.  It’s obviously essential that you thoroughly scrub hands, knives, boards and surfaces after prepping raw meat, fish etc: cross-contamination is a serious issue.  But it also means not letting things pile up when you’re under pressure: little mounds of peelings and trimmings building up on the work surface, things now finished with not put back where they belong, foods not going back into refrigeration.

When a chef gets into this state, it is colloquially known as “being in the sh*t”, and/or they may be told by an irate superior that they are “working in sh*t”.  Don’t let it happen to you: clean down, take a breath, collect your thoughts, get on with the next task.

Know Your Suppliers:  The pros will take very careful consideration of where they buy their ingredients and produce.  Of course, they will be very cost-conscious if they are to stay in business, but the kind of places we have been talking about will be very hot on quality, too.  A box of soggy tomatoes, or a crate of tired fish will not be tolerated.

I am very fortunate in that I have great suppliers literally within walking distance: an award-winning butcher, two superb fishmongers, excellent fresh local fruit and veg, bakers, a specialist cheese shop.  I wasn’t always so blessed, and am well aware that many of you may not be, either.  Depending on where you live, you may have nothing in reach but a supermarket.

All the same, buy the best quality you can, which doesn’t have to be the most expensive.  There is many a good meal in the cheapest of cuts.  My first blog, The Cheese Sandwich Concept, sums this philosophy up, so I won’t repeat it all again here.  But do buy quality.

It is a truism that good cooking begins with good shopping.  If you are restricted to supermarkets, so be it: buy carefully.  If you are blessed with good, local, specialist shops, then use them, or you’ll lose them.

Leftovers:  if they are serving beef or lamb goulash, curry, pie, or stew, for example, on a Monday or Tuesday at your local restaurant, chances are it’s made from the remains of Sunday’s roasts.  Does that surprise, or horrify you?  It shouldn’t.  Canny cooks throw nothing edible away, and nor do restaurants.  Obviously, this is a huge subject that I will return to time and again, but for now, look very carefully at your leftovers: if there’s a meal, or even a part of a meal, in it, don’t throw it away.  If you can’t see a use for it in the next few days, freeze it.

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