Why Some Chefs Fall Short

Why Some Chefs Fall Short

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
Culinary Specialist

Posted in Editorial
12 thoughts on “Why Some Chefs Fall Short
  1. Michael Mort CEC says:

    Rod Stoner is the consummate professional as well as a recognized and proven leader in our industry! Great asset for your organization.

  2. Carlos L Addarich , CEC says:

    Fantastic article about the truth in cooking great food!
    Thank you Chef!

  3. Felix says:

    Well said by a master chef who does not know shortcuts and stresses fundamental cooking better than anyone I know. Thanks

  4. Brian Granowicz says:

    Always inspiring

  5. Jay Mahoney says:

    Chef Hugeelier’s work with the culinary team through the seventies and eighties was inspiring to me and many young culinarians at the time. Thank you Chef for all you shared as well as expressing yourself in this article. As an instructor in a small culinary school in WV it is sometimes difficult to convince myself that it’s more important to do everything one can to emphasize the importance of the basics to what sometimes seems to be an undaunting task in a world moving at the speed of sound! Your words exemplify what our school emphasizes on a daily basis, however it is very difficult to find that fine line between sticking to the basics and relating what they see on television to what you’re teaching them when they want to run before walking. We only have a few short years to expose them to the necessities. One of the things I learned very young was the mere fact that this field I chose was going to be a constant and perpetual learning experience and if I can learn the true basics of the art then I could continually expand my knowledge as my career developed. Fortunately exposure to competitions through the ACF was a big part of my education in the beginning and throughout my career. As an apprentice watching Mark Erickson create and use a multitude of techniques while working on team pieces was an incredible inspiration to a young cook and it was obvious to me at the time that there was a lot ahead of me to learn, and being in the right property was going to have a lot to do with the results. If there’s one thing I hope to relay to the young cooks I’m fortunate enough to work with on a daily basis it’s how beneficial it is to get yourself in the best possible scenario to expose yourself to the cream of the crop. Go where you know you’ll learn from the masters because regardless of how much frou frou you decide to apply to your food it will always come down to the flavors and textures of the Dish and those are determined by your knowledge of the basics of cooking!

  6. Fredric Belfus says:

    Extremely well said.

  7. JLLGerin says:

    well said. yes to modernism when it uses fundamental

  8. Kenny Parker says:

    Dan: as always you offer the most humble yet right on assessment. I’ll never forget you telling a class that the #1 thing regarding competition is: does the food taste good. All the best

  9. Bruce Konowalow says:

    Well written and true.

  10. Bruce Konowalow says:

    Well written , accurate, and true.

  11. Milos Cihelka, CMC says:

    An excellent article. One thing could be added: 90% of the general population have difficulty determining great tasting food from ordinary. They are impressed with fancy presentations (take pictures of them) and dazzled with weird combinations (which I call “anchovy sundaes”. The public also gets easily hoodwinked by clever P.R. claims. So many young chefs are “inventing” new dishes, the taste of which plays a diminished role. As someone said- “If you cannot impress them with substance, dazzle them with B.S”. Some chefs wear black jackets or sweat shirts and baseball hats to show their contempt of classical cooking. While claiming to be humble, they consider themselves culinary artists, above tradition If anyone has seen the funeral of Paul Bocuse attended by hundreds of top notch chefs from all over the world, they would notice their white jackets and toques, as respect for class and tradition. There are many new restaurants opening in the Detroit area, some with great publicity. Those that survive for 3 years will do well, others will not be so lucky. Restaurant business is a tough one and those that thrive do not do it with smoke and mirrors. They deliver consistently great tasting food which brings customers back.

  12. RG Henin says:

    Amen ..Well said.. Chef Dan…!!

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