I often times give thought to the significance of cooking. Although I may invest the majority of time on a portrayal of professional cooks and the kitchen environment of restaurants, cooking is far more important than simply referencing the dining out experience. More than likely, many of those who now consider cooking their life profession owe their decision to cooking experiences in their home or in the homes of friends and family. Cooking is, after all, one of the most foundational tasks, the core of the family experience, the building block of a culture, and an integral part of our evolution as people of the earth.
When ever a person puts on the cooks apron, he or she is paying homage to a rich and long history of those who learned how to take what nature provides and perform a magical process of building flavors, imparting textures and aromas, and building on societal history. Some may claim that there is very little that is new in cooking, but actually, every time that a cook picks up a knife or a pan, he or she is putting a new signature on a dish; something that makes it just a bit more unique than before.
In any family, it is that file of unique recipes, handed down from generation to generation that helps to keep personal history alive. That special way that a grandmother made pasta, or roasted a chicken, memories of a loaf of crusty bread right from the oven, or a flaky crust apple pie that only a distant relative could make just so, is the foundation of the family.
Everything we do in restaurant kitchens reflects, at some level, back to those preparations that were defined early on in family homes. The methods of cooking evolved out of necessity based on the type and quality of ingredients that were available or were affordable, seasonings came initially from a need to compensate for a lack of formal means of preservation, and food combinations were reflective of what the family planted and what the earth provided. All foods that we find in restaurants are reflective of traditions. It is these food traditions that create joyful experiences; these traditions tempt people and satisfy their hunger for more than sustenance. This is the way that we remember, the way that we feel comfort, the way that we enjoy the experience of food.
What we do as cooks in restaurants goes way beyond the enjoyment of cranking out 150 dinners without a flaw, way beyond mastering those skills that will allow for consistently great tasting and looking food, and way beyond helping to build a successful business. What we do is to perpetuate traditions, pay respect to our history, and rebuild memories for every guest who passes through the dining room.
Why would a chef/owner insist that a thin crusted, wood-fired pizza be made with specific flour from Northern Italy and water that has the same mineral content as a mountain lake on the edge of Tuscany? The desire is to re-create an experience with pizza made in a small family trattoria in a village along the outer edge of Piedmont.
Why did Lionel Poilane insist on using authentic tools from prior generations of bakers, in hundred year-old style ovens, in a production bakery built in the middle of a wheat field outside of Paris? Because the nuances of the Poilane Bread Experience demand sticking to tradition so that he could create “recall” with every chewy bite.
How many restaurants grow from a desire to re-create an experience that the chef or diner relishes from the past – a tradition that left an indelible mark on his or her subconscious?
It would be hard to improve upon Escoffier’s Peche Melba (still used extensively around the world as a timeless dessert), Chef Marc Meneau’s Foie Gras and Truffle Cromesquis, Mario Batali’s Veal Cheek Ravioli, Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Bleu Cheese, Vermont Creamery’s Cultured Butter, Poilane’s Bread, or Jean George’s Poached Asparagus. At the same time, your grandmother’s Indian Pudding, scratch made Sauce Bolognese, and Chicken and Dumplings will always be benchmarks for any restaurant to try and replicate.
What is our job as cooks and how important is that job? We hold in our hands the ability to keep history and food culture alive. We are caretakers of tradition and ambassadors for the process of cooking well and trying to replicate the integrity of great food. Our job is important, it goes way beyond attacking those tickets that are relentlessly shot from the POS. Every dish that we produce has the ability to bring great memories to the surface and build an experience that is lasting. Cooking is an honor, a privilege and a significant responsibility. As professionals, we must hone our skills, learn our craft, understand what came before and who brought about those important experiences, relish traditions, and try like hell to do them all justice.
Ask yourself a simple question when you stand at the ready behind the line with your mise en place in order: “Am I about to create memorable experiences for guests? Am I proud of what I am doing and how I am representing all the traditions that have been built before?” This is our commission, our responsibility, and our gift as cooks.
Be a proud advocate for the importance of cooking, for the value of tradition, and for the impact that we have on the lives of everyone.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC