Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cooking Isn't Life and Death - It's Much More Important Than That

This is my response to Jim and his recent letter. His comment are in bold.

" I feel very nervous when it comes to flavoring food."

I've got good news for you - the food is already flavored. You are nervous because you're trying to push and pull ingredients, force them to submit to your recently acquired skills and techniques, instead of following them to see where they go.

A bowl of perfectly cooked spaghetti, tossed with good olive oil, garlic, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and chili flakes, is an "awesome meal," as your friend put it. True, your training is why the water had enough salt in it, the pasta was drained at the right moment, the basil was a beautiful green chiffanade, instead of an ugly black pile - but, the "awesomeness" of the meal, the "flavoring food" part, had little to do with you - it was the inherent goodness in the ingredients.

Don't try to make the food do tricks. Sliced leeks slowly melted with a strip of bacon, topped with grilled salmon is done - why are you trying to make a béarnaise sauce? Because you know how? Don't take credit (or blame) for the foods flavor, only for bringing (not forcing) it out.

Young painters use too many colors, young musicians use too many notes, and young cooks use to many ingredients.

"But the challenge to "make an awesome meal" out of random ingredients (i.e. without a recipe) made me want to throw up."

There is no harder task than trying to cook in a strange kitchen. Even the most experienced chefs lose that precious confidence stumbling around a foreign pantry. The key words in your sentence are "the challenge," because that's exactly what it is - a challenge, as in a fun, exciting, and dangerous dare.

Feeling like you want to throw up before the meal is understandable. Especially if you confuse "challenge" with "necessity " And, if after cooking the recipe, it really is bad, pretend to drop it on the floor and call for pizza.

"Is it just experience? I hope not!"

It's never "just" one thing, but, experience is a big part of it. Your 1,000th hollandaise will probably be better than your 4th. There's a reason people start as cooks, and then become sous chefs, chefs, and finally executive chefs. What's your hurry?

Old experienced chefs are expected to put out stunning food; cooks right out of culinary school aren't. This is why you should be cooking with relaxed abandon, free to mess things up royally. That whole "learn from your mistakes" thing was invented in a kitchen.

"Maybe I am looking for the holy grail of cooking, but…"

Get in line. We're all looking for it. And, even though you won't find it, never, ever, stop looking.


Anonymous said...

Wow, your response was informative, helpful and sensitive. Everything you said made perfect sense. I think you affirmed that "awesome" and "simple elegance" are often one and the same. I could feel this young chef relax as I read your answer to him.
Good work. You must be an extraordinary teacher.
Jackie Reynolds

Anonymous said...

Terrific advice and right on the money.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

I think that this was an incredibly informative and wise post that you did, Chef John. I would like to say that I've been a big fan of yours since your "Learn2Cook" days and I totally support your efforts. I'm an amateur foodie; the only thing I've got under my belt is that I absolutely LOVE food. Your videos have really taught me a lot and keep the amazingly good work! :-)

Maryann said...

That was so nice.