Wednesday, November 5, 2014

10 of the Most Important Things I've Learned (Out of the Many)

To try to choose ten out of the hundreds of incredibly important things I have learned at the CIA is by no means an easy task.  Every day is a whirlwind of information and almost everything that any Chef says has the potential to be incredibly useful, and for that matter, many of the things I have heard from my fellow students have turned out to be very important tricks, techniques, and ways of thought. I have done my best for you, my readers, however and the following list is what I have decided are some of the most important lessons I have learned during my time here.

 If you are or were a student here (culinary or baking), please feel free to leave a comment and let me know if theres anything you think should make a list like this!

#10 ~ Making Stock (Properly)

Stock is something that most people know as coming out of a box with one of those flip-top plastic lids.  While box stock may be quite convenient, having house-made stock is something that is easy to make, utilizes a large amount of product you would usually throw out, and just tastes better than the box!  All it takes is bones (If making a meat stock) and a fair amount of produce, mainly what is called mirepoix which is made up of carrots, celery, and onions.  But that can be any part of those vegetables including the bottoms and tops of the celery and carrots which are usually thrown away. Lastly a sachet (little bag) of parsley stems, peppercorns, bay leaf, and any other herbs you may want.  Add all of this to cold water, heat it up and allow it to simmer low and slow while lightly skimming any impurities from the top and well, you have stock.  Simple right? You would be amazed at how much of a difference making your own stock can have on your dishes.

#9 ~ Properly "Temping" Meats and the Concept of Carryover Cooking

When you want something as delicious and succulent as a pork loin or rack of lamb to taste absolutely perfect, you have to cook it to exactly the right internal temperature.  Now, when you have been cooking for a long time, you can operate mainly off of time, smell, and touch.  But when you are learning it is important to utilize a thermometer to properly cook your meats and to know that everything has been cooked to a safe internal temperature.  But you cant be afraid to pull your pork loin at an internal temperature of 135 degrees fahrenheit when we all know that the proper internal temperature of pork is 140 degrees.  It will carry-over cook up to 140 degrees before it starts cooling down.  This concept can be applied to so much more than just meats as well, but its something that we don't always think about!
Over-cooking porchetta would be a crime....

#8 ~ The Importance of Acid

Everyone knows how important eggs, milk, butter, salt, and pepper are in an everyday kitchen.  But acid, especially in the form of lemon juice is constantly overlooked or just plain forgotten. It isn't something you are supposed to taste outright, but it has the ability to make flavors pop out and tie dishes together, quite often actually, I find a couple drops of lemon juice (or sometimes vinegar) is the "thing thats missing" when we're tasting out almost-finished dishes.

#7 ~ Respect Your Dishwasher

At the CIA, up until the restaurant classes, we are required to wash all our own dishes that we use while cooking throughout the day.  This is something that truly makes you appreciate all the work that the dishwashers in our restaurants and various establishments do.  After almost two years of doing the dishes with your class by hand (no, we don't use the dish machine) you always use one pan instead of three if you can and its odd, almost nothing comes to the dish pit burned and caked on by the end.
Also, it builds character.


#6 ~ With Enough Butter, Anything is Possible

This is my play on the classic Julia Child quote, because it is incredibly true. Honestly, this entire list could be her quotes because she was right in everything she said. For example, "The only time to eat diet food is when you are waiting for the steak to cook!" But back to business, even when cooking on the healthier side of things, a little butter with water on your vegetable right before serving them, or adding a pat of butter to your sauce right at the end can work wonders.  Just make sure you don't burn it though... Everyone loves a good brown butter sauce, but burnt butter sauce.. I'd stay away from that.
This speaks for itself

#5 ~ Utilizing Everything to be Creative

This is huge! Don't let yourself get locked into recipes and formulas.  Trust your instinct and knowledge that you gain the more you cook.  Utilizing basic concepts and ratios can help you create incredible dishes from the most random of ingredients, as long as you are willing to try and fail and try again.  There is so much you can do with everything in a kitchen, literally speaking, the ceiling is the limit!
And when in doubt, follow your nose. It wont lead you wrong!

#4 ~ When to add Salt (and how Much)

This is a big one.  Salt can be added throughout the cooking process but there are always multiple factors you have to think about when adding salt.  Will you be heavily reducing whatever it is you are seasoning, is it a vegetable like mushrooms or bok choy that contains a large amount of moisture that will be released by the salt?  Has salt already been added, or will this be finished with something high in salt content?  Salt is everywhere in our food because it is an incredibly important asset in both boosting flavor and tying flavors together, we just need to keep an eye on how much altogether is in the completed dish.
I guess you could call this a set for a "seasoned" Chess player

#3 ~ Taste Everything, all the Time, the Whole Time

Correlating with number four and quite possibly one of the most important pieces of advice I can now give to anyone is this. Not just tasting the finished product, but tasting throughout the cooking process, because this will let you know what you need to do.  You can catch something if it is going wrong, but completely fixing a mistake once it is made, that is a much harder task to accomplish if it is even possible at all.   Even when I give tours, I tell people all the time that the secret to only ever serving good food is tasting all the time because if you know it tastes bad, you wont serve it!
At least I hope not...

#2 ~ Leave the Ego at the Door

Now this one is a little more specific, and I am saying this from a personal perspective: Ego is not necessary in a kitchen.  It is very easy for that ego to become inflated and also for it to be popped and brought down many notches.  Either way, you cant take what gets said or done in a kitchen personally.  It is a very heated environment, its a tough place to be in all the time, emotions and tempers flare easily, overall, it is a very personal industry because we are all putting our hearts into everything we do, every single day, just to have it judged and critiqued by the consumers, let alone those around us while we create all of it.  But once the burners are turned off, the line is wiped down, and the door is swinging shut behind you, the people you work with should be your friends and mentors because of everything you do with them. Trust is necessary, confidence is necessary, they go hand in hand.  But be careful because confidence very easily can be turned to arrogance which feeds the ego negatively, and this leads to trust faltering.
Just leave it at the door.

#1 ~ "Yes Chef"

These are quite possibly, if not definitely the two most important words I have learned at the CIA.  Not because you should be a robot or just say yes to everyone all the time, but because it is a sign of respect.  The culinary industry is a hierarchy and one that operates from a very specific and well-known structure of respect.  The most important thing one can do upon entering a new kitchen is have respect for the people already there, especially those at a higher level.  Especially at the CIA because well, even when you think you're right or know better. Just say "Yes Chef" because more often than not, they know better than you.
Theres a reason we're the students and they're the Chefs.
This man was my fundamentals Chef, Chef Speckamp, and he was the one who showed me how important being able to say "Yes Chef" is and that leaving the ego behind will get you far. I cant thank him enough.