THE WELL-SEASONED COOK

Bistro Margot

In cooking – when you get it right – the right ingredients, the well executed cooking method, the caring attitude of the cook, and the seasoning based on a cook’s palate that has been refined over time – the end result is a memorable dish; a dish that gives people pause when they taste that first bite; a dish that for those who enjoy it are torn between telling the world about it or keeping it a secret and protecting the find for themselves. This equilibrium in cooking doesn’t come automatically – I have never believed that an individual is born as a perfect cook. Just like other challenging professionals or artistic avenues, this ability comes over a period of time, lots of trial and error, intense study of the art, and a never-ending acceptance that a dish can always be improved.

Cooking, unlike baking, is not as precise as some would like to make it. The world is full of recipes that when followed step by step, never seem to produce the product that the user had hoped. “But, I followed it step-by-step, why isn’t it working?” This is where we literally separate the men from the boys, or the novice from the professional cook. Any reasonably intelligent person can follow a recipe that is well defined, but only a cook knows just how many variables come into play; know how to adjust and compensate; and fully understand how the end product should look and taste and can set a course to get there – every time. No textbook or cookbook, no culinary school training, and no purchase of a special tool can create a well-seasoned cook – only the right set of repetitive experiences can do the job.

“Most cooks try to learn by making dishes. Doesn’t mean you can cook. It means you can make that dish. When you can cook is when you can go to a farmers market, buy a bunch of stuff, then go home and make something without looking at a recipe. Now you’re cooking.”

-Tom Colicchio

To this end, the dishes created by a chef have as much to do with the experiential seasoning of the individual as the choice of spices and herbs used in cooking. The following is a taste of “food for thought”, a recipe for the development of a well-seasoned cook, a cook who can mesmerize restaurant guests with memorable meals, inspire other cooks with his or her knowledge and ability, and make a successful restaurant all that it can be.

“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.”

-Marcel Boulestin

[]         EXPERIENCE WITH THE SOURCE

It is hard to imagine how a serious cook could master flavor profiles and learn how to adapt to variables in raw materials without having a reasonable understanding of how products are grown and what impact soil, temperature, rainfall, and sun has on the characteristics of the produce and proteins used in a kitchen. In an ideal world – every seasoned cook would spend some time on the farm working along side those farmers who live the products that they produce.

“Our deep respect for the land and its harvest is the legacy of generations of farmers who put food on our tables, preserved our landscape, and inspired us with a powerful work ethic.”

-James H. Douglas, Jr.

[]         KNOW THE INGREDIENTS

When you actually pull the carrots from the ground, pick a vine ripened tomato on a hot July morning, shuck an ear of corn when it’s kernels are bursting with juice and flavor, or spend time with an animal that has been raised for the purpose of providing nourishment – you more fully understand what those ingredients bring to a dish, how important they are, and what their natural flavor profile is destined to be.

[]         UNDERSTAND THE VARIABLES

A seasoned cook understands that maturity, terroir, product transportation, holding temperatures, the type of cooking vessel used in the kitchen, and the care with which a cook follows established cooking methods will impact on the results of a recipe. Understanding this allows a cook to make adjustments in order to reach expected results.

[]         EXPERIENCE BENCHMARKS OF FLAVOR

A seasoned cook cannot prepare a dish properly without having experienced how it should taste, smell, feel, and look. The greater the exposure of a cook to excellent benchmarks, the more refined his or her palate and ability to cook.

[]         DRAW FROM THE MASTERS

The best cooks are those who invest the time and effort in working with and learning from those who are considered accomplished in their field, and/or a master of specific types of cooking, cuisines, or even specific dishes. The cook who wants to become proficient with making fresh pasta needs to work with someone who has made pasta his or life ambition. The cook who wants to become known for “Low and slow” bar-b-que should find a person who has made bar-b-que his or her passion in life. Lean on those who can teach and nurture your skills in ways that only this type of experience can.

[]         REPETITION, REPETITION

A well-seasoned cook knows that repetition is the sure fire way to build a skill set that is second nature and finely tuned. When we marvel at an individual’s skills it is important to know that this comes from a full understanding of its preparation through repetition.

[]         A RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

Well-seasoned cooks are rarely satisfied with what they prepare. Seasoned cooks know that any dish can always be improved. It is this on-going desire for self-improvement that keeps a cook on his or her toes and focused on creating extraordinary food.

[]         AN OPEN MIND AND OPEN PALATE

A well-seasoned cook is constantly looking to others for inspiration. He or she refrains from thinking that there is only one way to produce a dish or one flavor profile that is acceptable.

[]         KNOW THE VALUE AND THE SHORTCOMINGS OF RECIPES

As stated above – it is the variables that can make a recipe flawed. At their best – recipes are an important guide, a reference, and a vehicle for finding a point of consistency, but they cannot factor in the numerous variables that can lead to dramatic swings in quality and flavor. It is the experience of the cook that allows him or her to divert from the recipe, tap into the vault of subconscious flavor memories, and adjust that same recipe to reach the desired outcome.

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”

-Thomas Keller

[]         RESPECT THE CULTURE BEFORE THE FLAVOR

There is a lot to be said for the impact of heritage on the quality of an ethnic dish. The experiences of culture: history, language, place, family, and tradition are hidden factors that can make the difference in cooking. Without understanding, appreciating, and living these cultural influences, it would be difficult to create any level of authenticity to a dish.

“I think it was that we were really seasoned musicians. We had serious roots that spanned different cultures, obviously the blues. “

-Jimmy Page

[]         SHARE IT WITH OTHERS

The seasoned cook appreciates all who helped him or her build the palate necessary to be competent and even exceptional. To this end, the well-seasoned cook is always committed to paying back this favor by sharing with others who have a desire to learn – what took a career to develop.

PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

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