Some refer to cooking as art, while others are committed to the process as science – I tend to view it as a cultural portal. Art plays a role because food can be beautiful and even reflective of what a cook wants to express in the moment, and certainly the processes that take place as heat or fermentation is applied to ingredients is definitive science that can be controlled once understood. But really great cooking is much more than this – cooking is an expression of traditions, historical events, social interaction, religion, geography, climate, and of course –family memories. The best restaurants, cooks, and chefs, are ones that have a deeper understanding of the cultural connections that provide the foundation for the art and science of cooking to come together on the plate.
Authenticity is inspirational in cooking. When a cook really knows the ingredients, understands how they are grown and raised, aligns with those who are one with a style of cooking, and proceeds to honor and protect the traditional ways of cooking – then the end product will always shine. There is something less whole about cooking that is light on understanding. Authenticity and the understanding that goes along with it have a certain flavor, structure, and depth that cannot be otherwise achieved.
So aside from the classic assertion that only Italians can cook great risotto, only Chinese can make Peking duck, and only those of Mexican heritage can work with huitlacoche – there are certainly ways for cooks and chefs to become serious ethnic or even regional masters of a cuisine. Whether it is Coastal Spanish cooking or pure Southern Soul Food – those who are able to commit, can become absolute ambassadors to a style of cooking. Here are some steps to consider:
 READ AND STUDY
To crack open a book that draws one into the life condition of people, the environment where they live, the challenges they face, the difficulties that surround the search for good food ingredients, and the care with which they apply heat and spice to foods that have been a part of their culture for generations is one of the most enticing and gratifying experiences for a professional cook. It would be hard to imagine any level of authenticity in cooking without the knowledge of culture and living that provides its foundation.
“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”
-Henry David Thoreau
When we read and begin to think we understand those critical points about a cuisine, we must apply that information in the kitchen before we truly know it.
 ENGAGE WITH FARMERS, FISHERMAN, AND RANCHERS
“Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
When we drink wine we may acknowledge a like or dislike associated with the flavor profile of the product, but we can never truly appreciate the wine until we know the characteristics of the grape used, the terroir where the grape was grown, the skill of the winemaker, and the care with which it was brought eventually to market. To spend time in the vineyard with a grape farmer and invest the time in the harvest, crush, and fermentation is to truly understand the wine and become an appreciative drinker. The same is true with a carrot, potato, peach, beet, avocado, walnut, salt water fish, fresh briny oyster, beautifully marbled beef, or wholesome pink pork loin – engaging with those who nurture the ingredients will certainly make you a much better cook. To cook without this understanding will always be somewhat shallow.
 EXPERIENCE and IMMERSE
If you want to learn to prepare authentic Mexican cuisine then work with Mexican chefs. If you want to master the preparation of fresh pasta or mozzarella, then line up with a seasoned Italian chef, If sushi something that really floats your boat – then align with the best sushi restaurant that you can find and commit, commit, commit. If it’s all about bar-b-que, then work in the pits of great restaurants in the Carolinas, Kansas, City, Texas, or Chicago. It takes time to know grassroots cooking and do it justice. You can’t replicate authenticity simply by following a recipe. Chefs and cooks who attempt to circumvent the process are only kidding themselves in the long run.
Visiting the source of a cuisine is one of the most enlightening and rewarding experiences that a cook can participate in. Being with people who live a cuisine and its history, who touch the earth where the vegetables are grown, and walk the pastures where cattle graze, or fish for the fruits of the sea is such a life-changing experience. If you want to understand oysters for your oyster bar then spend time with an oyster harvester. If you want to learn about Tuscan style preparations of wild boar Bolognese – then visit Tuscany and take part in a hunt. If you want to create the best tapas bar in your community then take a few weeks to visit every great tapas bar you can in Barcelona.
Some will simply brush this off and say: “I can’t afford to do that”, but really the response to that is that you can’t afford not to. Convince your boss about the importance of the investment, or if need be find the money yourself – take out a loan, borrow it from family – this is a real education – one that will pay you back tenfold over time.
“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.”
Be all in. If cooking to you goes beyond just a job; if being authentic is in your strategy for building a successful career; or if creating a concept that has the traction to create a buzz and flourish – then commit to what needs to be done. No career will lead to the highest level of success without commitment.
I guarantee that if you step away from cooking as something that can simply be learned through a degree program, a short course, or working in a busy restaurant without a very high level of engagement, and create an investment strategy with an end goal of authentic competence then you will surely put yourself on the path to fulfillment and professional success. The journey will be challenging, but fun. This is, by far, the most rewarding type of education.
Todays and tomorrows diner will find the highest level of satisfaction in authenticity, and grass roots cooking. Whether it is from a food truck or a white tablecloth operation – it is that experience of food the way it is suppose to be prepared, look, and taste that draws people in again and again.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training