THE SENSUAL EXPERIENCE OF BEING A COOK

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I miss the full experience of working daily in a busy restaurant kitchen. When that kitchen is the hub of activity in a hotel or resort then the experience is even more pronounced. From the moment that a chef walks into the hustle and bustle environment of the hotel kitchen, his or her senses are bombarded with the smells, visuals, textures, tastes, and cacophony of sounds that make up the kitchen experience. These are my memories:

[]         THE SENSE OF SMELL:
Walking through the back door of the kitchen at 7 a.m. The intoxicating aromas of the early morning kitchen always greeted me. It was these smells that brought me to attention and energized me for the day ahead. The aroma of bacon exiting the oven, the deep yeasty aroma of bread on the rise, the caramelization of sugar that gave breakfast Danish and croissant their unique character, and of course onions and potatoes taking on that crisp exterior en route to becoming the early risers home fries. There are few smells that are more enticing than fresh brewed coffee and eggs over easy – the daily wake-up call for cooks and guests alike.

By this time, prep cooks were well under way with their morning checklist. After browning veal bones in the oven to release their marrow, and caramelizing a mirepoix to sweeten and strengthen the mixture, a stock was taking form. Garlic is being roasted lightly for a batch of hummus, and fresh rosemary was added to the seared lamb shanks as they were being prepared for the long and slow braise that would mark the evening feature. The blend of smells might seem conflicting, but I was always able to pick out their uniqueness and determine at what stage each production was at, even without seeing the process.

Later in the day as work turned towards lunch and then dinner, these aromas would be replaced by steaks and chops grilling over open flames, butter and shallots from sauté, crisp pommes frites coming from the fry station, and countless sauce reductions as line cooks signed their plates with mouthwatering creations. It might be the smell of popovers being pulled from a 450 degree oven as they await a slice of prime rib, buttermilk onion rings on a New York strip, the garlic butter and white wine reduction in a pan of scampi, or crispy duck breast with it’s fat rendered perfectly while maintaining that beautiful pink medium rare color to the meat – in all cases the aromas throughout the day kept multiplying.

[]         THE SENSE OF SOUND:

To the novice, the cacophony of sounds that emanate from the kitchen may seem chaotic, but to the chef and the cook, they are as interesting as a symphony. Many chefs claim that they can tell how well a dish is progressing by assessing the sounds that surround it. The way that a knife blade sounds on a cutting board can indicate whether or not the tool is properly sharpened, that sound of carbon steel on a wet stone is quite musical and the rapid chopping of a French knife as it works through 20 pounds of sliced mushrooms is as rhythmic as a professional drummer might produce.

The clanging of pots and pans can bring a smile to a chef’s face and the clink of clean plates being stacked as they arrive hot from the dishwasher is even more melodic. As the day moves on and more cooks arrive to start their mise en place, the sounds of the kitchen become more complex. The sear of a fillet of salmon or breast of duck, and the sizzle of a steak produced by blue and yellow flames lapping up from the char grill, are complemented by the barking of orders from the expeditor, the cadence of the POS printer, and the resounding response from line cooks: “Yes Chef!” One person’s version of chaos is another’s recognition of beautiful organization.

[]         THE SENSE OF SIGHT:

If the chef were to walk through the kitchen with open eyes and a sense of wonder, he or she would see beauty in everything. Organized walk-in coolers filled with clear Lexan tubs displaying fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, and in-production preparation. Perfectly marbled beef being cut for steaks, glistening fresh fish being scaled and sliced into fillets with a knife so sharp it seems as though it is moving through butter, and piles of onions, carrots, and celery cut for mirepoix are visuals that represent the intense sensual overload that the kitchen offers.

Walking through the dining room just prior to service is equally stimulating amidst perfectly pressed tablecloths and napkins, shimmering Riedl stemware to support the wine list, fresh flowers that welcome the season, starched bistro aprons, and freshly dusted bottles of liquor on the back bar. Back in the kitchen, as the chef prepares to inspect the line before service, cooks are putting their finishing touches on station mise – polishing stainless steel, folding side towels, adding monte’ au beurre to sauces in the bain marie, lining up ingredients in 1/6th pans, and organizing sauté pans with their handles pointing to 5 o’clock. Soon attention will be directed to the proper marking of steaks, the even caramelization of sautéed proteins, the grill marks on whole fish, and the artistic assembly of finished dishes as they are placed in the pass for that final plate rim wipe by the expeditor. But, the most visually pleasing part of the kitchen is the orchestrated motion of line cooks working in sync – this is the dance that is worthy of a permanent place on You Tube.

[]         THE SENSE OF TOUCH

Textures are ever-present in the kitchen, but we rarely take the time to truly notice them. There is something really comforting about holding a quality knife in your hands. The handle, the bolster, sensing the weight and balance of the blade, feeling how the blade slices through vegetables, meat or fish without any effort, gives a cook a sense of completeness. The knife at times, becomes an extension of a cook’s hand – more than a tool, it is one with the cook who can control the actions of the blade when the two are in sync. When the sauté cook grabs the handle of a sauteuse that same connection takes place. A push forward and a quick, controlled flip back allows the contents in the pan to move in a wave like motion, turning over and balancing the cooking time while blending the flavors of the dish. This motion becomes second nature to the cook and happens hundreds of times during a shift without ever losing an ingredient or drop of liquid.

Cooks can tell how fresh a vegetable is by simply holding it in his or her hands. The snap of a green bean helps to assess when it was picked and the crunch of an apple is as accurate as looking at a calendar. When there is a snap and a crunch to the apple then it must be September. Throughout the shift – touch plays an important role in a chef or cook’s existence. The clicking of tongs at the ready – one of the line cooks most important tools, the touch that evaluates the spring of a steak or chop and signals to the grill cook when the item is rare, medium rare, or worse. The sense of touch and the cook’s hands are the first line of defense in establishing control over the activities that he or she engages in throughout the day.

[]         THE SENSE OF TASTE:

The sensual experience for the cook comes full-circle with the social sense. The sense of taste ironically does not exist on its own. Taste is a culmination of all of the senses combined and how they come together determines the true experience of taste. The absence of, or any change in one of those components of sense will change the experience of taste. There are few places on earth where taste is more pronounced, more exciting, and more exact, than in the kitchen.

That first cup of coffee is uniquely satisfying, necessary, and delicious. There will be numerous other cups during the day, but none as gratifying as that first one to help you greet the morning. The smell of the morning bacon is only a precursor to the salty crunch of a piece or two while you walk the kitchen to inspect the activity taking place. Maybe a full breakfast will follow, or at least that second cup of coffee and a croissant hot from the oven.

Throughout the day you will be required to taste everything from a reduced demi, to salad dressings, a cream soup for the luncheon special, that hummus with roasted garlic, a few new wines being considered for the list, cheese from a local producer, a Georgia peach that is at peak season, a new sorbet flavor, and a couple fries from a fresh batch of fryer oil. The tasting never ends, and it rarely gets old. The chef may never sit down to a legitimate meal throughout the day, but might end a very long shift after the evening push, sitting in the office while reviewing tomorrows production schedule and enjoying a simply medium rare burger on toasted bun – simple and unaltered with excessive add-ons.

I miss this. I miss the people, the smells, sounds, visuals, textures, and flavors. I miss the kitchen – a place that epitomizes the complete food experience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

  2 comments for “THE SENSUAL EXPERIENCE OF BEING A COOK

  1. Jay
    December 14, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Absolutely inspiring! It’s like a prayer one recites before and after a shift to affirm how lucky we are, we chosen few, to be in this kind of endeavor!

  2. December 16, 2018 at 5:42 am

    There is nothing like the smell of fresh bread, it screams good morning and welcome to the kitchen.

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