Is it possible to narrow down the secret of greatness to one ingredient? What could it be? Is it really that simple, or in this case is simplicity really complex? I have had the honor to work with, know, or at least meet many extraordinary chefs and cooks and my assessment is that – yes, there is one common ingredient that makes all the difference in how adept, interesting, creative, and ultimately successful a chef or cook might become. The ingredient is CURIOSITY.
Great cooks and chefs never simply accept – they are perpetually inquisitive. Those classical kitchens where cooks simply follow directives because that is what the chef demanded were never destined to nurture great chefs. Cooks need to state the most important questions if they are to grow – “why, where from, what is the rationale, what is the history, how is it made, what are the differences, and when should you choose one example over another?”
It is curiosity, the quest for answers upon answers that builds passion, understanding, creativity, and competence. When a cook simply accepts without asking why, how, what, or when, then his or her passion for the craft will be limited, his or her perspective on the job of cooking with be tainted, and the resulting cooking will be a shadow of what it might become. To nurture young cooks, to teach and train, and to build competence and confidence among those who work in a kitchen, it is essential that we (chefs and culinary teachers) establish a platform where curiosity reigns.
Think about the possibilities and the opportunities that curiosity might unveil.
- SALT as a mineral and a seasoning is just salt – why question it? Yet to really know salt is to understand where it comes from and how it is extracted. Once you understand that the environment where salt is drawn from, just like the terroir for wine grapes, will have a significant impact on this magical mineral. Visiting a salt mine, a sea salt plant, or if you have the chance a French Fleur de Sel farm or Japanese soy sauce artisan producer will reveal the complexities of this simple ingredient that to many cooks is just a commodity that sits on their storeroom shelves.
- CARROTS, POTATOES, TURNIPS, and PARSNIPS are root vegetables that are easily available to all cooks and are offered at very inexpensive commodity prices. Root vegetables are just root vegetables unless you understand them, visit a farm where they are grown, spend a few days in the farmers shoes, harvest the root vegetables by pulling them from the soil that has kept them in a protective blanket for months, and brushed them off and taken a bite. Curious chefs want to know what that carrot really tastes like, how the farmer plays a role in its shape, texture and flavor, and how soil and climate impact the flavor. I guarantee that if this curiosity is met – the cook will never view a root vegetable in the same manner again.
- THAT STRIP LOIN COMES FROM MY VENDOR, period. This is easy to accept. Call your local meat vendor, place an order, receive it, store it, prep it and prepare it just as the chef told you. Simple directions for the cook working the grill station in your kitchen. But cooking that is void of understanding is so shallow, void of respect, and starved of meaning. To become an extraordinary grill cook and eventually a chef who plans menus using those products received from a meat vendor – a serious kitchen employee must ask those critical questions: WHERE does the product come from? WHAT part of the animal? WHY do certain cuts adapt well to high temperature, rapid cooking like grilling, while others insist on low heat and slow timing? HOW is the animal cared for? WHAT is it fed? HOW is the animal processed, fabricated, aged, graded, and packaged? WHAT is the difference between dry and wet aging and does Cryovac impact the flavor of the muscle? Think about the care, respect, intensity of attention to detail, and pride that a cook will have once he or she is able to have answers to these questions, maybe visit a cattle ranch, a feed lot, and processing plant before turning a steak on a hot grill to receive those perfect grill marks.
- ORDER FRESH SEAFOOD FROM OUR USUAL FISHMONGER is a task that chefs engage in constantly. It might come from a local supplier or be flown in from different parts of the world, but what is important is the transaction and receipt – right? The styro boxes packed with ice arrives and inside are beautiful Queen Snapper from Florida, Mahi Mahi from Hawaii, Atlantic salmon from Norway, Lobsters from Maine, or Dover Sole from the coast of England. The chef unpacks, fabricates, stores, and prepares this seafood as is intended and the customer enjoys the fruits of the chefs labor. How shallow is this process that is void of any real understanding or curiosity? Why did the chef choose that Queen Snapper from Florida, Salmon from Norway, or Lobster from Maine? Is it simply because of a product specification designed to meet a standard? Imagine how the chef would approach the transaction if he or she had spent an arduous day on a Maine Lobster boat – pulling in cages? Imagine how the chef might approach the fabrication of a beautiful Norwegian Salmon if he or she had visited with those engaged in fish farming off the cost of Bergen, Norway? Imagine if that same chef had tried to overcome seasickness on a 25-ton fishing trawler positioned miles off the coast of Florida as they pulled in nets filled with the fruits of the sea? Would satisfaction of this curiosity change the way that chefs order, store, fabricate, cook and serve the fish that came through the hands of dedicated fishermen rather than those who simply move the product from point A to point B?
- PURCHASING THOSE FLOUR OR CORN TORTILLAS is the most cost effective way of acquiring the ingredients for that “authentic”, Central American restaurant. After all, who has time to make fresh tortilla? This will always be the case in the absence of curiosity. Until a cook or chef has tried that first hand pressed and grilled tortilla, folded it to encompass a world of different ingredients, maybe pay a visit to Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica or at least spent a day with indigenous people who would never, ever use a store bought shell – he or she will fail to feel the history and the passion behind this beautiful ingredient and process. “I wonder if there is any difference between store bought and hand made tortilla, and I wonder how the item came about in Central American culture.” Inquiring minds want to know, and inquiring chefs will always learn to excel at what they do.
- THE WINE LIST IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DINING ROOM MANAGER OR SOMMELIER – says a typical chef in a busy restaurant. Have enough variety and there will be something to please most guest palates, besides, the chef really doesn’t have time to engage in wine selection as well. Great restaurants and great chefs understand the connection and importance of food and wine pairing. A great chef without a solid knowledge of wine varieties, terroir, the art of the wine maker’s signature, variances in vintage, and how a particular wine enhances the experience of food presented on the menu will surely be at a loss. Chefs who delve into the winemaker’s closet of understanding will be far better at their job and will reveal a passion that rivals that of the food ingredients that bring a menu to life. It is the curiosity about this beverage that is alive and ever-changing that adds a spark of interest to a chef’s repertoire.
Whether it is a desire to learn more about the ethnic influences that create a cuisine, the indigenous ingredients that are at the base of a certain cuisine, the time-proven steps in cooking methods, or the historical environment that led to the development of a dish or a regional cooking style – it is that most essential ingredient: curiosity – that separates a good cook from a passionate great one. We must all remain curious if food is to be viewed as a life-long calling.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC