10 Ways to Think Like a Chef
Observations and interviews with many chefs revealed a consensus among them about how to progress as a cook. The ten points in this list reflect their thoughts.
Know the basic techniques.
Cooking is so much more fun — and successful — when you approach it with confidence. Chefs say that confidence arises from knowing your techniques so well that they’re second nature.
Use only the freshest ingredients.
Use only the freshest ingredients and buy in-season fresh fruits and vegetables. Seasonal produce offers the highest quality at the lowest price. Why make an apple pie in the summer from mealy fruit held in storage all year when you can make a pie with fresh, ripe peaches or juicy plums?
Let what’s fresh and available at the market help you spontaneously decide what’s for dinner. And definitely seek out farmers’ markets in your area.
Get it together.
So much of cooking, even for professionals, is preparation — slicing, peeling, dicing, and so on.
The French call this preparation mise en place, which translates to “everything in its place.” Get the chopping, mincing, deboning, and washing chores out of the way to create an even, efficient flow of cooking steps.
Also have in front of you all the seasonings you need for the dish. That way, when the butter or oil is hot and sizzling in the skillet, you don’t need to lurch over to the cutting board to peel and mince onions.
Understand flavor combinations.
People have innate sensitivity to five basic elements: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and a more elusive flavor called umami. (Umami can best be described as a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid; it’s very subtle and different from other basic taste elements).
You pick up all of these sensitivities from taste receptors on the tongue as well as the roof of the mouth, inside the cheeks, the back of the mouth, and in the throat.
So why do you need to know all of this? Well, it makes for well-balanced dishes. Some basic food sensations naturally complement one another, sometimes in their contrast. For example, there’s sweet and sour (lemonade); sweet and salty (many confections combine these two, though you may not taste it; ice cream, cake); and sweet and bitter (sweet cocktails). Bitter and sour, on the other hand, would be unpalatable.
Much of these flavor combinations is intuitive. When assembling ingredients for a meal, keep these in mind.
Think about your plate.
Some cooks expend much effort preparing a fine meal only to diminish it by heaping ingredients onto plates chuck wagon–style. There is no excuse for doing so.
Think how food looks — its colors, its textures, its shapes — and make the most of it. This is not to say you should re-create Machu Picchu with your mashed potatoes, just that you give some thought to aesthetics.
It can be as simple as fanning thin slices of steak over the plate instead of serving it in one big slab; garnishing with fresh herbs or citrus; spooning a sauce onto the plate and then arranging meat, poultry, or seafood over it; or packing cooked rice into a small cup and inverting it over the plate. When you begin thinking this way, the options will seem endless.
Plan your menus in advance.
Spend some time up front figuring out what a whole meal is going to look like. If the appetizer is a salad of grilled portobello mushrooms, featuring mushrooms in the entrée isn’t an interesting choice. Keep the courses balanced, and don’t overtax yourself. If you serve a time-consuming and complex appetizer, serve a simple entrée or one that needs only reheating.
Throw out nothing (unless, of course, it’s spoiled). Nearly every morsel of food is usable for soups, stocks, salads, and so on. You can sometimes make great meals from leftovers.
Understand the different cuts of meat and how to cook them so you don’t have to rely on more expensive cuts. Hone your knife skills so you can save money by purchasing whole chickens, meats on the bone, fish, and so on and then cutting them up yourself — a huge discount.
Don’t be a slave to recipes.
Use a good, basic recipe that you like as a starting point, but don’t consider it written in stone. One of the great chefs of his generation, the late Pierre Franey, had one mantra: Taste, Taste, Taste! Don’t assume that the cookbook is infallible. Even if it is, each kitchen is different, ingredients vary, and so on. As you cook, continually taste.
Too many spices spoil the broth. If you stick to two or three basic flavors in a dish, they work together to provide complexity, yet each flavor maintains its individuality. Don’t load up your dishes with everything you can find. Sometimes the most perfect, delicious creations are the simplest.
Discover all you can about herbs, both fresh and dried, so you can season without always relying on a recipe. Chefs base some of the world’s great cuisines on the combination of a few simple herbs and spices.
Above all, have fun.
Take a cooking course, buy a cookbook, or make a new dish that you’ve always wanted to try. Cooking, like monster wave surfing, should be exhilarating — something you look forward to. So what if you wipe out once in a while? It’s all part of the challenge. Bon appétit!