For Best Chefs America 10/12/2015
What’s the difference between the home cook and a professional chef? The answer starts with technique, a few key ingredients, and a proper toolkit. Here are essential tricks to help you put out food of the same caliber as the highly-trained.
How It's Done
In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain says what separates the cold-blooded professionals from the grandmothers who make simple pasta pomodoro with love are a few key utensils.
1) A decent chef’s knife. Bourdain recommends lightweight, easy-to-sharpen, vanadium steel knives by Global. All you really need is one knife in your kitchen, because a chef’s knife can cut through almost anything. Those sets that come with nine different blade sizes and shapes are absolutely unnecessary.
2) Okay, okay. If you want another, get an offset serrated knife to slice bread, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
3) Chefs use plastic squeeze bottles to make those fancy dots and artful drizzles on white plates with sauces like gastrique, coulis, and demi-glace. This simple step can transform a slice of meatloaf into abstract, modern cuisine.
[Try this] Coat the bottom of a plate with a light, thick sauce like dessert creme. Squeeze a darker sauce, like a ganache, on top in a zig zag shape. Take a toothpick move it up and down to make designs in the ganache, almost like tie dye. Top the plate with a cannoli, a slice of chocolate cake, or flan - and boom! You’ve got a restaurant presentation of any ordinary dessert.
4) Metal rings make fried eggs come out in a perfect circle with the yolk right in the middle. A metal ring is used like a cookie cutter. It helps chefs stack identical layers of vegetables and cheese to create a savory napoleon or tuna tartare with avocado.
5) Pastry bags pipe thicker mixtures, like mashed potatoes, into peaks and other shapes.
6) A mandoline is how you make uniform-sized sliced veggies like asparagus ribbons, potato chips, shredded cabbage for coleslaw.
As far as ingredients, Bourdain recommends using shallots vs. onions, lots of butter, roasted garlic, fresh herbs for garnishes, stocks, nages, so on and so forth, because that’s what done in restaurant kitchens across the world.
Food as a Painless Art
Alice Waters in The Art of Simple Cooking recommends a few other kinds of cookware and pantry items.
She says to have two grades of olive oil always on hand: one less expensive, mild-flavored oil for cooking, and the other a highly-flavored, extra virgin quality olive oil to use for salads, sauces, and finishing dishes with a bit of shine.
Vinegars are also essential. Waters prefers the unpasteurized kind, made from white wine, red wine, or sherry.
Most professional kitchens use kosher salt, because a little Morton’s goes a long way. Waters prefers sea salt because of the health benefits of the trace minerals that transform any dish into something far more complex and nuanced in flavor. She writes to keep two kinds of salt in your cupboard: course, gray sea salt for seasoning brine and boiling water, and a finer sea salt for finishing food.
When it comes to pepper, grind it before using. Buy peppercorns in small quantities to ensure the freshest quality. Buy every spice the same way for the same reason.
When you purchase pots and pans, make sure they are heavy-bottomed and thick throughout the sides to disperse heat evenly. If your pots and pans are made of copper, cast iron, or aluminum clad with stainless steel, they won’t warp in the heat.
And invest in a salad spinner. Professional chefs always dry their greens before dressing, because there is nothing like a bit of water on a salad to drown a vinaigrette.
This may seem basic, but the way you cut vegetables is essential to the presentation of any dish. You can cut one ingredient many different ways, and the taste will be slightly different. Always aim for a variety of shapes and textures on every plate.
- Chop herbs, greens, citrus zest, olives, and capers. To chop is to cut an ingredient into smaller and smaller pieces without paying too much attention to the shape.
- When you dice, you prepare an ingredient into cubes by cutting matchsticks and then cutting those strips into squares.
- Mince garlic or any other ingredient that you want to chop very, very fine. Keep chopping until it becomes finer and finer. That's how you mince.
- Jullienne is the French term for the matchstick shape, the first part of the dice preparation. A classic Jullienne is 1/8 inch tall.
- In a chiffonnade, you cut herbs like basil, lettuces, or greens into thin strips or ribbons by stacking one leaf on top of another, and then rolling them into a cigar, cutting the leaf crosswise.
In addition, you can make your own mayonnaise, your own aiolis with egg yolk, vinegar or lemon juice, and oil.
You can fold fresh herbs into soft butter, or radish, anchovy, garlic, lemon zest, and honey.
Beyond ingredients, homemade condiments, heavy duty appliances, and the ability to slice vegetables into consistent shapes, there's not too much that creates a difference in the quality of what a professional chef and a home cook can make.
Being a career chef is more about management. It’s about cooking for masses of people rather than a few at a dinner party. In a restaurant kitchen, cooks par bake items to finish off, made-to-order. They spend hours prepping, constructing a mis en place, so all the ingredients are ready on the spot. A professional chef will rarely follow another person's recipe, but rather uses it for inspiration, and then makes their own version.
This is how you upgrade your kitchen.
It doesn't take too much effort. Simply open your wallet. Use your imagination. Apply some precision.