Friday, April 24, 2009

General Notes for the Workshop

This post will go over some things that are always good to keep in mind while in your workshop. The discussion might get somewhat philosophical at times but only as necessary. This post is also the answer to Mr. Ward's request for information "What are the fundamental principles that a good chef always follows and practices?" Brace yourself, because this baby is looooonnngg.

The first thing to remember is that cooking is, above all else, a craft. That is to say, it is a skill that can be learned. Of course some people are going to be better at performing this craft just like any other but always remember that anyone can be a great cook. With that in mind, think of cooking as being a series of tasks that when completed, yields delicious food. The rest of these fundamentals are all based upon that notion, that cooking is a craft that can be learned.

Fundamentals to live by in the kitchen:
"You ain't done cookin' 'til you done cleanin'," - Unknown Chef
How in the world are you going to create a delightful little something if your kitchen looks like it should be on Clean House. The easiest way to keep your kitchen clean is to work cleanly and efficiently and clean as you go.
So what are some tips to doing that?
  • Start with a clean kitchen.
  • Organize yourself before you start cutting things and actually cooking things. If you have a lot to prepare or you have trouble knowing what should be done next, create a prep list or have the recipe that you are working from easily available.
  • Collect all the equipment that you will need for your dish and have it waiting on you. Put the pans on the stove and start them heating at low heat. Have your cutting board out and knives sharpened and ready to go. Have someplace for your prepped items to go while waiting for the next step.
  • Assemble all your ingredients that can hang out at room temperature for 30 minutes, i.e. meats, veggies, canned items, broths etc.
  • Work in stages, do all your washing, then all your cutting, then all your cooking, then all your plating, etc.
  • Find a warm place in your kitchen that finished items can hang out until the whole thing is done. Maybe it is a warming drawer, a low oven, the back of the stove, hot window sill in the desert.
  • Keep an old plastic grocery bag in your prep area for waste and scrapes. Most everyone has about ten thousand plastic bags lying around with nowhere to go, put them to work for you. That way you can keep your prep area free of clutter and reuse those plastic bags. Another great thing is that when have finished you can just tie up the bag and throw it in your trash, making the stinks take a little longer to get out. Oh and if anyone uses Rachel Ray's garbage bowl, you will hear a knock on your door and it will be common sense coming to your house to punch you in the face. Why would you buy a bowl to put trash in before you put it in the trash can that you then have to wash. Plus the bowl is super ugly.
  • Fill up one side of your sink with hot soapy water to put your pans in right after your are finished using them. This helps to loosen the cooked on bits and speeds up your cleaning time.
  • Do the dishes right after you finish your meal. If you wait you will not do them and then next time your are ready to cook you will have to wash them before you can even start.
  • The more organized and cleanly that you work, the more time and attention you can spend making the food taste good. If you are running around like crazy in a dirty kitchen you will get nothing done, take longer to do it and make food that tastes marginal at best. The best cooks always look cool ,calm and collected while cooking and their food reflects that. Working clean and being organized is something that chefs are judged on in professional cooking competitions as well as what culinary students are graded on while taking their exams.
Classics are Classics for a reason:
  • Cooking has been around for ever. You will never create a truly unique dish. Someone, somewhere, did it 500 years ago in a village somewhere. It might not have been identical but it was close enough. Depressing? Not really. Take advantage of that long history. Those villagers have taken care of the research for you. They tasted the things that did not go together. They caught the diarrhea so that you could learn from their story. So look at the dishes that cultures become famous for and notice the flavor combinations that they use. Notice how they choose to prepare those ingredients. Learn from them.
  • When you cannot think of something to make or what a dish needs to make it taste right, look back to the classics for the answers.
  • Learn the classic from as many different cultures as you can. This will give your cooking, your diet, and your mind a wide diversity. Plus, you might find that you like the flavor profiles of a particular country better and you might start using those to build your dishes instead. Epicurious has a list of classic recipes from around the world so you can try just that.
Use the best that your budgets allow:
  • Sometimes quality costs more. There will be times when you are going to have to decide whether to splurge or sacrifice. This is true for your pocket book as well as your wrist watch. You will have to decide where you should spend your time and money on your dish. Will it be the protein, the side dish, the dessert, the beverage accompaniment? Is it a special occasion that calls for privacy and indulgence or is the 4th of July and the neighborhood is coming over to your house?
  • Try to find someplace in your city that sells consistently good produce. More so than anything else, this will make the biggest difference in the quality of your average dishes.
  • If you are going to make fish at home, pay the money and get some good stuff. If you are going to risk making your house sell fishy you better be cooking some quality fish and you better take care to not overcook it.
Proper Preparation trumps everything:
  • If you can learn to prepare things to the correct level of doneness, you are 75% of the way to the great cook promised land.
  • Performing the basic things correctly will make a huge difference in your final product. So if you are searing something, sear the ever loving hell out of it. Do not be timid, make it happen. Put some damn color on whatever you are searing. If you are sauteing then you should be sauteing and not steaming or sweating. This goes for every technique and everything.
  • This also plays to a more philosophical level as well. If you are going to prepare something that so many people have worked so hard to get to you the cook, then you should do your best not to waste their efforts.
Start simple and work up from there:
  • Almost every accomplished chef spends much of the early part of their career finding their style. This usually ends up with them creating these incredibly elaborate dishes that no one understands but them and half the time the dishes are not even that good. The flavors do not meld real well or the there is just a lot of superfluous stuff there. Then something happens along the way and they start removing things from their dishes. They take their dishes to the basic level that they can and still have it work. Then maybe they build it back up and maybe they don't.
  • Everything you make should taste like what you are making. Sounds stupid right? Think about it this way, how many times have you had carrots that tasted like something far from carrots. Chicken should taste like chicken with complimentary flavors. Carrots should taste like carrots with complimentary flavors. So on and so on.
  • People have been making food for centuries and it has only been recently that we started getting purpose built gadgets. Steer clear of most one dimensional gadgets, they will clutter your kitchen and keep you from learning how to do things the right way. The simplest way to prepare something is most often times the best way.
Always be a student of your craft:
  • Great cooks are always paying attention to what they are doing. They always want to know why doing something makes the end result taste a certain way. Talking to a great chef about why they prepare a dish a certain way can be intimidating. They will talk about little nuances about the preparation that you would never have looked for. They are always striving to know exactly why everything works so that they can increase their skills.
  • Researching cooking can lead you to new inspirations. You can learn about a dish from the past that makes you look at something today a whole new way. Look at cookbooks and restaurant menus and keep your eyes open for new ways of doing things.
To summarize the things that a good chef always practices:
  • Always work organized, clean, efficiently, and with forethought
  • Be familiar with as many classic dishes and flavor combinations as possible
  • Work with the best ingredients that you can
  • Prepare everything with as much respect and care as possible
  • Keep your preparations simple, add complexity with the combinations
  • Stay a student of your craft, it will only better your cooking
Wow that was a lot of writing. Congrats if you made it through the whole thing. Sorry about the typos.


  1. This is a lot of info, but I will forgive you because it is solid. I agree that the trash bowl is the dumbest thing ever.

  2. I Look at the dirty dishes in my kitchen from when I cooked a grilled vegetable recipe from a Rachel Ray book and am ashamed.

    But my roommate and I also made the Amish Lemonade (with added strawberries) it was very delicious.

  3. You have a lot of good tips in there, especially about clean-up. What I hate most about cooking is all the dirty dishes that come as a result, but your tips will really help make clean up as fast as possible.

    And sorry, but I'm still registering for the Garlic Zoom and you can't stop me.

  4. Jess and Molly thanks. Jenny, you can make Rachel Ray recipes anytime you like. Just do not buy a garbage bowl from her. Ever. Oh and I am glad that the Lemonade worked out for you!