By Dan Hugelier, CMC
“It’s all about the fundamentals of cooking”
Recently I was asked how important it is for a chef to understand the foundational principles of sound cooking. That seems like a crazy question; akin to asking a lawyer if they had knowledge of the law or, an architect if he knew how to construct a building. After all, it seems logical that every chef should know the basics of cooking.
What immediately came to mind were my experiences in judging, coaching Olympic teams and the reoccurring images of food I could not recognize without reading the list of ingredients. When reviewing menus for the Master Chef exam or, in any certification/cooking competition, we find that in almost every case where a competitor falls short, it is with cooking basics. I find this strange anomaly in a range of menu and food combinations throughout the industry. I see plates of food with little flowers, foam or perfect mystery dots surrounding plates in an artful arrangement. All leaving me hungry for the smell of aromatics, fat rendered crisp on a perfectly grilled lamb chop or potatoes that actually taste like potatoes.
Ferdinand Metz, CMC, often stated to gatherings of chefs that you could see good taste; he was right. Clean translucent demi-based sauces are a deep mahogany color with evidence of the mire poix caramelized to a perfection, a bit of Brulee’, tomato pincer and the proper amount of reduction. Not just reduced gluey stock concoctions, but balanced, aromatic and classy. There is clear visible evidence to determine if something is properly baked, roasted, cooked to a perfect doneness and sliced with a sharp or dull knife. Experience from doing it hundreds, sometimes thousands of times affords a learned chef to see the taste, before they actually taste.
The Country Club of Maryland is a prime example. We are working with them to replace their Chef of twenty-five years, Dan Streett. John Koursaros, the Executive Sous Chef at CCMD, recently told us about his Executive Chef. “Dan often has used an expression he heard one of his CIA instructors say, these young folks want to make bouillabaisse before they know how to make fish stock”. Fundamentals have always been important to Dan. These days you can get anything you want pre-made. Premade soups, sauces, deserts, appetizers, etc. can replace hours of work in making these items from scratch. Some of these items are okay; even tasty. Pre-made desserts often look great, if you don’t mind the taste of guar gum and polysorbate 80. However we make all our soups, salads, dressings, sauces and desserts from scratch. We make our own stocks and we cut our own steaks. Learning and applying the fundamentals is the key to creative cooking. True, it takes time, and is probably more expensive, but the quality of a meal made from scratch is undeniable. Besides, I take pride in our accomplishments. Knowing that you guided the process from the beginning to end allows you to take proud ownership of your work.
Don’t get me wrong…I am a proponent of modernistic cooking as many of the approaches and methods are very useful to the chef in any kitchen. Slow cooking, sous vide, and careful use of natural food extracts can benefit the modern chef. But not when it overshadows taste and sound cooking principles. For a serious student of cooking, skipping over the many years of developing skills through breakfast cookery, working pantries, butchering, washing pots, sautéing, bakeshop and pastry, working the grill and fry stations, is a grave mistake. If one does not practice the craft with commitment to redundancy, they will never excel. If you have learned, not just in the classroom, but also with street-wise experience in quality kitchens, working among the most talented on the team, you will prevail in any job market. You will also cook food with exceptional taste and wholesome preparation as priorities.
Like it or not, there is no fast way to become a good chef and one lifetime is not enough to learn it all. “We are forever students” should be the credo in any profession that represents the needs of a contemporary, ever-changing society. Chefs need to stay current with new trends but, careful not to lose their way. A chef should above all other things cook, and cook well. If you are fortunate to have an administrative assistant use their skills to full capacity. Find others to shed part of the office workload. Your time is better spent among your brigade, cooking with them as much and as often as possible.
Unlike the medical field, finance or law profession, there are different schools of thought as it relates to cooking. A chefs educational and employment background should include the influence of cultures that teach the sound foundations of cooking. Students from schools and apprenticeship programs that are globally recognized show best. Those cooks and chefs who train in top establishments will always have the edge with their philosophy regarding the culinary arts well-grounded in quality.
A little Nettle foam in the springtime, with morels and your favorite entrée is wonderful. But don’t forget the standard fare. Do the basics right and your guests well seek you out knowing you can provide the comfort of familiar tastes? Perfectly cooked food and properly executed fundamentals will serve you well throughout your career.
Sure, it’s a nice story about the local farm providing your organic eggs, but cook the omelet properly, no color or wrinkles, with butter or goose fat. Taste always as the priority. It is our responsibility as professionals to execute our craft with commitment to proper and universally accepted practices, great skill and with responsible food sources. But don’t neglect to continually look at everything around you, how is the bacon cooked, the stocks prepared, bread service, make every food product you work with in the kitchen important and always cook like it really matters!
Daniel Hugelier, CMC