Let me begin by setting the stage for this articles title: I do believe in the importance of recipes, but…. they are not the answer to consistently great cooking. Recipes fail in the following ways:
- Recipes do not factor in variances in the quality of raw materials based on freshness, maturity, the impact of soil and climate, storage and handling of those ingredients, etc. etc.
- The skill and experience of the cook
- The passion and commitment of those same cooks
- The palate and eye of the person who developed the recipe
The intent of a recipe is typically to ensure that whoever follows the steps as outlined will be able to produce that product at the level expected by the person who wrote the recipe. I would guarantee that ten cooks given the same recipe and the same ingredients would produce ten slightly different results.
So, where does a recipe fit in the big scheme of consistency? There is tremendous value to the creation of recipes: they provide the operation with the basis for determining likely costs of production and in turn – accurate selling prices. And the recipe is a superb communication tool that defines what ingredients are included in the production of a menu item and which methods of cooking are used in its production. But consistency is hardly ensured simply because a recipe is well developed.
I recently read a post from a young restaurant cook who asked the best way to study and learn new recipes to be used at a line station. This was a great question that cannot be answered without changing the cook’s focus entirely. Memorizing recipes will never result in great cooking or consistent dishes. The ability to cook anything well is a result of understanding methods and technique and having a real appreciation for the dish and its history. So, here is my answer to that cook:
- KNOW YOUR INGREDIENTS
I am not just referring to being able to identify an ingredient visually, but rather KNOW your ingredient’s flavor profile, changes by season, texture, storage, how it changes when heat is applied, optimum ways to preserve its characteristics, and even more importantly – what to do when the ingredient is not at its optimum.
- UNDERSTAND THE PRIMARY COOKING METHODS
Understanding refers to knowing the steps and process in the same manner that you know how to breathe. When you know it, the process is automatic and you understand how to control results. Know the steps in proper braising, know that sauté is a delicate process, know that a plancha will result in different results than if you were to grill the same piece of meat or fish, and know the difference between poaching and boiling, and when to use either in the process of preparing various ingredients. When you truly know how to apply the foundational cooking methods then you are in control of the results – not the recipe.
- BUILD YOUR PALATE
An educated palate is the key to creating memorable flavors. When the combination of taste buds and olfactory receptors are trained through experience then it becomes possible to adjust a process or the amount of certain ingredients to replicate the expected flavors from a dish. There are far too many variables to simply rely on a recipe to accomplish this goal.
- KNOW HOW THE DISH SHOULD TASTE
One of the most important keys to becoming an accomplished cook comes from understanding how a dish should taste. In this case the old adage that “experience is the best educator”, certainly applies. A solid cook needs benchmarks to aspire to. You MUST taste and savor a dish numerous times and catalog the taste, smell, and texture of the dish so that you are able to re-create it time and again.
- KNOW THE HISTORY OF A DISH
Most times the missing ingredient in a memorable dish is a connection beyond the physiological aspects of eating. Knowing how a dish came about, the root of its existence, why certain ingredients were initially put together, what cultural influences came into play, and something about the people who made those early decisions is essential in building memorable flavors. History is important to a cook.
- KNOW HOW THE DISH CAME TO FIND A PLACE ON THE MENU
The best cooks do not simply accept that a dish is on the menu – he or she takes the time to talk with the chef or person who designed the menu in an effort to understand the “why” and even the objectives associated with a dish. Does it pair well with certain wines, is the item there as a place card holder or does the chef expect that this will be one of those signature items, are there certain appetizers and desserts that the chef feels are important complements to the dish, and is there some type of tradition associated with this dish or maybe it holds a place in the chef’s personal history. The more the cook knows the better he or she is prepared to do it justice. What is the story behind each menu item?
- KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ABOVE
When that dish is prepared without a deeper understanding as stated in this article – then what happens? A good exercise would be to start by having a cook prepare the dish from a recipe without digging deeper into process, technique, understanding of flavor, researching history, and determining how important the product is to the chef and the operation. Smell it, taste it, critique it and have others talk about the experience of eating that dish. Is it lacking, is it boring or exciting, is it what the chef expects? Odds are that the dish will fall way short until a deeper understanding is present.
How does a cook memorize all of those new recipes and preparations? Memorization without understanding is very shallow and will always fail to produce the results that are expected or needed. Anyone can memorize and follow a recipe, but a true cook is much more than a technician.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training