A few years back I read of an interview with a prominent chef who was asked: “what is the difference between a chef and the millions of cooks throughout America.” The response, to me, was a perfect definition: “Most reasonably intelligent people can follow a recipe with mixed results, a chef can be given a basket of ingredients and is able to create something wonderful.” Although this is an over-simplification, there is a real element of truth to this statement. A chef is certainly a manager and a leader, a cost accountant and a marketer, a social scientist and an organizational guru; but above all, a chef is a passionate and accomplished cook.
The ability to “create something wonderful”, stems from a persons ability to draw from his/her flavor memory. A serious cook must be a person who has experienced a full array of flavors, taste combinations, foods at their peak of maturity, seasonings, and texture combinations. Without this “data bank” it would be nearly impossible to create magic with food. To go even further, chefs have life experiences that are filled with an understanding of history and various cultures. It would be difficult to cook wonderful Spanish foods without understanding the culture of Spain, it would be challenging to understand classical French food without studying Ferdinand Point, Larousse, Escoffier, Careme, Bocuse, Robuchon and Verge. To cook French you must feel like you are French, to cook Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, or Thai, you must understand the culture of those countries and most importantly have cooked with those who were born into those cultures.
“A recipe has no soul…..” was a quote from Thomas Keller, truly one of America’s great chef’s of the past few decades. This should not be viewed as an endorsement for kitchens without structure; just the contrary. I am sure that Keller has his own version of the standardized recipe, however what he and most accomplished chefs know is that a recipe does not create a cook. The recipe is a reference, but the cook must draw from his/her flavor memory and understanding of culture to build the recipe into a great dish. There are just far too many variables that come into play (seasonality, maturity, size, terroir, brand, shipping, storage, etc.) to rely on a recipe as the consummate guide in cooking. Some of the best cookbooks that I have used such as: “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine”, only list the ingredients in a dish without procedure or amounts. The ingredient list is a reminder for the chef who knows, though experience, what a dish should look and taste like, and the method of cooking that is appropriate for the outcome of that dish.
Those who have a desire to become great cooks and chefs must live the following: taste everything, experience as many different cooks work as possible, travel and experience cultures, read about the history of food, learn from the best, taste again and record your experiences. Keep recipes as a guide but cook with your soul.
Kudos to Thomas Keller for getting it right.