The first question out of a person’s mouth every single time when they find out that I am a chef is, “Do you cook at home?” The answer is yes. Sometimes. When I’m home and not too tired and there is time. Cooking at home and cooking at a restaurant require such different skills that it’s honestly hard for me to switch into home cooking mode in time to get dinner on the table. When I do cook at home it’s likely to take the entire afternoon, use every pot, bowl, and spoon in the house, and require three hours of shopping at two different stores to get started. Meanwhile my wife can open that pantry and in a half hour have made a delicious meal (that the kids will actually eat) out of food we already have in the house. I’m amazed every time.
There are some chef skills that are useful at home though, and if you are a home cook they can help you get better.
- Start at the beginning. Write down your menu.
This is a tool for you, it doesn’t have to have flowery or fanciful words, be written legibly to another human, or be displayed on the table. This is about making a plan so that you can execute that plan. Back before I was a chef and I used to stay up late watching the original Japanese version of Iron Chef I was always amazed at how Rokusaburo Michiba, the original Iron Chef Japan, took a couple minutes at the beginning of the battle to write out his menu, in calligraphy no less. If Rokusaburo Michiba thinks this is important, then you should do it too.
- Gather all of your tools and ingredients *and* get them all ready.
Chefs call this mise en place, which means having everything in its place. This is the time to discover that you don’t have any brown sugar left and decide if you want to mix some molasses and white sugar or just go to the store. This is also the time to wash, peel, chop, slice, trim and otherwise prepare your ingredients before cooking. It helps you to be organized, make sure that you have everything you need, and eliminates the chance of a disappointing last second surprise when you are trying to finish making dinner. Chefs hate surprises.
Gather all of your spoons and put them in a mug with the handles sticking up. Put another mug next to it for dirty spoons. Maybe go to the thrift store and buy some more spoons (if some sous chef hasn’t bought all the good ones already). These are for tasting, stirring, plating, and general food manipulation. Chefs love spoons to the point where some get really obsessive about it. There is a great chef named Gray Kunz who designed a spoon specifically for chefs to use in the kitchen. It holds exactly 2.5 tablespoons and costs $12. Honestly it’s a great spoon but you don’t need one. I’ve heard of kitchens that have banned tongs because they tear food to pieces and force all of their cooks to do everything, including grill meats, using just spoons. With a spoon you can be gentle with the food, apply a touch of sauce, baste your meat, and most importantly taste what you are cooking as you go.
- Strain, degrease, reduce.
These are the most common instructions in French cooking, and they have applications for pretty much any kind of cuisine. They are all about concentrating flavor and refining texture. A fine mesh conical strainer is one of my favorite kitchen tools. It will filter out all those tiny, gritty particles that foul up the mouthfeel of a finished dish. Passing your sauce through a fine mesh strainer will refine and clarify its flavor and texture to bring your cooking to the next level. Degrease is all about removing fat. When you cook fatty meats in liquid much of that fat will liquify and can be skimmed off the top as you cook. This will not only satisfy the American obsession with low fat food but will help to further control the mouthfeel of your dish. To reduce something is to cook it over low heat for long enough that some of the water evaporates and the flavors are concentrated in a reduced volume of sauce. This also will have the effect of thickening your sauce somewhat so that it will cling to the food it is served with.
Use these ideas when you are cooking at home and you will be cooking like a chef. The one thing that you should not do like a chef is use every pan and bowl in the house. Unlike a chef you do not have a paid dishwasher to wash up after you, and you, or someone who loves you, will have to clean every dish that you dirty in your home kitchen.