KITCHENS SHOULD NOT OVERLOOK THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITIONS & FOUNDATIONS

tasting

Some believe that traditions hold people back and discourage creativity. Some feel that respecting tradition is simply another phrase for refusing to change. I, on the other hand, feel quite differently, especially when it comes to the kitchen. One would only need to look at other art forms to understand how much of a role tradition plays in contemporary expression. So much of today’s music, as an example, is an interpretation of establish musical form. The same can be said for painting, writing, theater, film and so on. It is the tradition and the foundation of any craft that gives it substance and a comfortable starting point.

“There is no creation without tradition; the ‘new’ is an inflection on a preceding form; novelty is always a variation on the past.”

Carlos Fuentes

When I look to my friends, associates, and respected peers who operate restaurant kitchens, or function there as part of a team, I am always encouraged by the cutting edge operation of their kitchens and the commitment to traditions at the same time. This is not to say that these traditions are essential to operating a restaurant, they are, simply stated, impressive and important to me. Tradition need not be a reluctance to change, but rather a respect for what has come before and how it has helped to form our profession.

At times I have been criticized, and I accept this opinion, for talking about traditions, inferring that I (duly acknowledged) am simply part of the old crowd of chefs. This may be so, but I take comfort in the fact that there are many, regardless of ages, who share my same appreciation for tradition. Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Jamie Keating, Alice Waters, Tom Colicchio, Rick Bayless, Alfred Portale, Nancy Silverton, Michael Mina, Gary Danko, Stephanie Izard, Barbara Lynch, John Folse, Susan Spicer, Charles Carroll, Tim Hardiman, and John Besh all come from and continue to pay homage to the traditions of the kitchen, the same traditions that built a path for their successful careers.

These are the traditions that are important to me – traditions that I have always tried to hold true to in every kitchen where I hung my hat:

[]         THE STOCKPOT AND ROASTING BONES

To some, making stocks is an old school process. Stocks take time, are not cheap to make, and actually do require some talent. Some cooks don’t roast bones – I do. I like the flavor and color caramelization creates. More than anything else, a simmering stock in a kitchen says something about a cook’s commitment to making things from scratch. The smell of a stock in a kitchen always tells me a great deal about the chef and those who work there.

“If you assume that the new, and simply because it’s new, is always to be better than the old, chances are you’ve never known anything valuable.” 
― Criss Jami

[]         PEELED CARROTS, POTATOES, AND ONIONS

Every kitchen where I have worked always made sure that there were buckets of freshly peeled carrots, onions, and potatoes available for cooks to use. More often than not it was a idle dishwasher who was given this daily task and in some cases this was the first step in transitioning that dishwasher to a prep cook, breakfast cook, and on to a rewarding career in the kitchen.

[]         THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CHEF’S UNIFORM

There is a tremendous amount of history behind the uniform and what it represents. The crisp white chefs jacket is a symbol of a professional, a person who works clean, and a person who is proud to demonstrate to others what he or she does for a living. Yes, it is true that the uniform does not guarantee that the person can cook, but it is a tradition that pays respect to all who came before and to the honor of the profession. It is the same pride that the military instills in soldiers who represent something larger than the individual.

[]         RESPECT FOR THE KITCHEN CHAIN OF COMMAND

Kitchens function well when there is a mutual respect for the chain of command and the role that every person plays in how the kitchen operates. This chain of command, first developed by Escoffier, delineates responsibility and accountability and as such is important for efficient operation. You don’t need to like the person who holds a position, but you do need to respect the role that this position plays in daily operations.

[]         CRACKING EGGS VS. POURING THEM FROM A CONTAINER

It may be silly to point to this, but there is a level of respect for the role of the chicken when a cook actually cracks an egg. There is recognized convenience associated with buying cracked and whipped eggs in quart containers (open and pour), but something is lost in the process (not to mention the ascorbic acid that is added to try and keep the eggs fresh and of the right color).

[]         MAKING DRESSINGS FROM SCRATCH

There is an assumption that most customers have when they invest their hard earned dollars in a restaurant meal. One assumption is that everything is made from scratch. Maybe this is naïve, but simple processes like making your own salad dressings is not that difficult and they help to maintain uniqueness about your operation.

[]         MAKING IN-HOUSE ICE CREAM

There are plenty of quality ice cream products on the market, but making your own demonstrates a desire to make this restaurant staple unique and special. Modern equipment makes the process incredibly easy, so there is literally no excuse. This is how it once was! I remember during my apprenticeship working with a pastry chef who had me poach and peel fresh peaches in season for an unbelievable Georgia Peach Ice Cream. Once you have developed this skill and the palate for home made, there is no turning back.

[]         BAKING FRESH BREAD

To me, this is the first indication of a great meal to come. Great bread, not just good bread, is the price of admission for a truly exceptional food experience (regardless of price point). Bringing back this tradition in restaurants is one of the most valuable things that a chef can do. Yes, it takes skill, space, good equipment, and time, but this tradition can and does separate average restaurants from exceptional ones. A tradition that once was the standard.

“In each generation, there is this certain wisdom of the ages that gets reburied in the fleeting drivels of modernity; then, like a diamond in the rough, it is yet again unearthed by a very small minority who not only restores it, but also polishes it and presents it as something new, something highly valuable and refreshing as understood by the current.” 
― Criss Jami

[]         DEVELOPING KNIFE SKILLS BEFORE THE FOOD PROCESSOR

Convenience and speed can easily get in the way of skill development. Convenience and speed can only be appreciated by those who have developed the skill to do the task by hand first. A calculator is a tool that has value after a person knows how to compute without one. The same is true with food processors and knife skills. The other reality is that once a cook knows how to consistently work with a knife he or she will find that the convenience of a processor never truly matches the quality of work done by hand.

[]         KNOWING HOW TO BREAKDOWN A CHICKEN AND SUB PRIMALS OF BEEF AND PORK

Chicken breasts that arrive in layer packs or 10 pound bags of random size have real value. It takes time to breakdown a chicken, yet until a cook understands how to do this he or she cannot understand how to respect the chicken, how to design a menu to utilize everything the chicken has to offer, and how to value those times when a portioned items makes volume work more affordable.

[]         USING FRESH, WHOLE FISH WHENEVER POSSIBLE

There is nothing better than fresh fish. Purchasing fish in the fillet form without the ability to check the cavity, eyes, and gills for freshness and without the skill to slide a sharp fillet knife from the tail to the head, takes away from that same level of appreciation for the fish that applied to chicken, beef and pork.

[]         USING PRODUCE THAT IS IN SEASON

We can buy whatever we want, whenever we want it, delivered within our time frame. This is one of the advantages of the centralized processing and incredible distribution system that has been developed over the past few decades. Chefs know that as important as this system may be, the tradition of buying what is in season from a farmer who lives and works in close proximity to the restaurant will always yield the best products and create a bond and appreciation between chefs and farmers. This is a tradition that should not be lost, regardless of how convenient the current distribution system might be.

[]         SAUCE WORK THAT PAYS HOMAGE TO THE PAST

Restaurants may have drifted away from the Mother Sauces, but the process by which a stock transitions from water, bones and mirepoix to a glace de viande or demi-glace is remarkable and incredibly flavorful. Yes, restaurants can buy products that are quite good having gone through a similar process thousands of miles away, but to eliminate this traditional process from a kitchen translates into a loss of greater magnitude – a loss of a traditional, valuable skill. This is a chance for a restaurant to write their signature on a part of the meal that accentuates the importance of flavor and talent.

_____________________________________________________

I will always remember my first visit to Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago. A group of ten chefs enjoyed his authentic Mexican cuisine and asked the chef if he would stop by our table. Trying to act somewhat knowledgeable in front of this truly extraordinary cook, I asked him how much Latino influence was evident in his cooking. He asked if I meant “Latino” or “Ladino” and then proceeded to spend 15 minutes giving me a lesson on Mexican traditions. His passion for foundations and traditions remains evident in his food known throughout North America as the most authentic outside of Mexico. There is a need and a place for tradition. I believe it is an important element of a successful restaurant that chefs should never lose sight of.

“I respect traditional people – they have the eyes which see value in the tarnished. This is a gift in itself. Tradition requires a wealth of discipline in order to be adhered to, hence it is rarely found in youth.” 
― Criss Jami

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Happy New Year! May 2016 exceed all of your expectations.

 

 

 

  4 comments for “KITCHENS SHOULD NOT OVERLOOK THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITIONS & FOUNDATIONS

  1. Joshy2
    December 29, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    I want to thank you for your consistently excellent blog posts. I am a 32 veteran of the kitchen and still love doing it. After 30 years I started teaching at Le Cordon Bleu and reignited my passion for all things culinary. I consistently recommend your blog to my students and colleagues. Keep and keeping on my friend and please continue to inspire.

    Joshua Young

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • December 29, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      Thank you chef. Best to you and yours in the New year.

  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Totally agree chef! Thanks for sharing and keep up the great blog posts.

  3. David mendes
    January 3, 2016 at 12:34 am

    There are many truths here
    But I don’t believe we need to continue the thinking that kitchens should be run like the military
    I grew up in both hard edge militant dictatorships and a more relaxed atmosphere where independent thought was welcome and utilized.
    I personally use a bit of both in a leadership role because of the “tradition”of the old school. But I get a lot more out of people when I allow them to be proactive.

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