Maybe to some the title of this article may seem contrived and exaggerated. How could food change your life? Yet, to others it makes perfect sense because they have been there – they are experienced. As a cook and later in life a chef for almost 55 years now, I can easily reflect on a few moments of my own when a taste, smell, presentation, or texture of a dish or ingredients has given me substantial pause. It is these moments that help a cook to mature and set the stage for how that person will cook and how he or she will conduct themselves in the kitchen. Am I serious? You bet I’m serious (smile and nod if you agree).
Maybe it was the first time you ate a tree ripened Bosc or Anjou pear – not one of those rock-hard ones that you find in your local grocery store. It could very well be that late September MacIntosh apple picked and eaten on the spot. Hard, tart, splashing your chin with juice, snapping between your teeth as it tears from the core. How about that first spit roasted chicken, a perfectly braised lamb shank, medium rare inch wide slice of prime rib, or for a cook that first raw oyster filled with a briny liquid that reminds of the sea. The first time a cook captures the smell of steak cooking on an open flame, peppers roasting, garlic and onions leaving their essence in a pan of clarified butter, or sour dough breads being pulled from a wood fired hearth – this is the moment that solidifies their commitment to spending countless hours in front of a range, always trying to find ways of expressing admiration for ingredients. There are countless food moments that come to mind, but maybe none more significant than those that filled a childhood with connections to family. We will never forget a grandmother’s apple pie or an Italian mother’s meatballs and sauce. Maybe it was as simple as a light fluffy omelet or crunchy Belgian waffles that graced the Sunday morning kitchen table. A simple bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese or freshly made pasta and clams – these are the foods that drew us into the kitchen and constantly inspire us to bring those experiences to menus in restaurants where we work.
The best cooks, you know – the ones that stand tall in restaurant kitchens with their names on the menu and those who aspire to reach that level in the future – cook from their experiences with those food moments that changed their lives. As much as they (we) remember them and try to express them, we are always looking for new moments, new chances to blow our minds with flavor, texture, smell, and appearance.
To this end, the question is: “can you become a well-balanced cook without those experiences?” Maybe those who aspire to become one of those chefs who stands tall within a field of many needs to chart a course that includes exposure to food moments. Quite possibly, those cooks need to seek immersion with other chefs, with ethnic centers, with distant countries and pockets of cultural influence. Quite possibly, those cooks need to delve into their own family background and ask important food questions – make connections to those food events that left their mark. Those ingredients that a cook has not experienced must now become part of their wish list and even more importantly discover when they are at their peak or from where they represent their best qualities. There are peaches and there are ripe Georgia peaches. There are cherries and there are Western New York cherries or Rainer cherries from Washington State. There are fresh chickens and there are organically raised chickens and there is halibut and there is halibut from the Pacific Northwest. The list goes on and on and the need for food moments must include an in-depth search for the best of each one. When the best become your benchmark then real cooking begins to form a pattern of standards of excellence – stakes in the ground that define a cook.
While there is a case to be made for statements like: “You must be Italian to cook real Italian”, or: “Unless you grew up part of the Mexican culture it is impossible to represent their cuisine” – a deep experiential exposure to the traditions and culture of others, to the best ingredients and how they are used, and why an age old cooking process is essential can establish any serious cook as a true representative.
Seek out those food moments and relish the ones that you have had. Be inquisitive and not just accepting of a method or list of ingredients, know that reliance on a recipe is not a substitute for understanding methods and ingredients. There is a difference between cooking and becoming a cook – here lies the challenge to all who want to stand tall in a crowd.
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