Base: How low can you go?

by Chef Jeremy Abbey, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA

Add one tablespoon to eight ounces of water. There you have it, a liquid full of umami (tons of sodium and other stuff as well) that is used in kitchens throughout the country. Base — the short cut used to save time, money and all the while lowering the skill set necessary to elevate the culinary craft. While consistency, financials and skill set are all important to keep in mind in professional kitchen operations, it is important that we not lose focus of the fundamental skills necessary for any cook.

ACF Certification is prime way for our industry to maintain the focus of skills that are imperative to our industry. It’s important that we do not lose sight of the fundamental skills to master in an industry that is constantly looking for ways to save time and money. There are fantastic ways to practice skills on the job and continually develop your craft. Practical exams contain multiple skill assessments but every single exam has fundamental skills that must be used in order to achieve a great score. In the words of Auguste Escoffier and Eric Ripert, here are the skills that should be developed to mastery:

“The most skilled cook in the world cannot attempt anything if given nothing and it would be totally inconsistent to expect him to produce work of a high standard from imperfect or insufficient ingredients.”

Why not start with the best? You have practiced and prepared and now you are ready for the exam. Seek out the best possible ingredients you can find. Starting with the very best, will result in a better end result.

It is important to take time to learn the skills necessary to be able to identify the finest ingredients. I’m surprised at how many times I’ve been to a grocery store and find more and more ingredients that weren’t there ten years ago. Transportation and agriculture have come a long way in our food system making a plethora of ingredients available to us at a higher quality than ever before.

If you are able to shop for a practical exam at a farmer’s market, why wouldn’t you? Seek out the freshest and finest. Talk to the folks working at farmers markets and ask questions on how to determine which product is best. No one has more knowledge of vegetables and produce than the people growing it.  Find the best products for the exam and if you aren’t sure which the best is, ask the questions.

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done.”

Every practical exam requires stock in some way of another. Just like the produce, meat and seafood you bring to the exam, why not bring the very, absolute best stock possible? Escoffier’s quote about stock has been stuck in my head since before I went to culinary school. Not only is stock-making a skill to master, it is a skill to be developed over the years.

With every stock that comes to a simmer, there are subtle nuances that need to be accounted for. The amount of cartilage and gelatin in the bones, the depth of color from the beta carotene in the carrots, the sulfur level of the onions all need to be recognized and adjustments may need to be made. It excites me every time I make stock at the development of flavor that occurs and the culinary challenge of recreating the flavor profile consistent with the last batch. A lot more fun than dissolving a paste in water.

As a foundation product imperative for flavor development, stock and stock production is a crucial skill to continually work on mastering.

“Having sharp, great knives will enable you to cook very precisely. Knife skills are essential in cooking.” – Eric Ripert

Knife skills cannot be stressed enough in the foundations of cooking. Not only do they enhance the presentation of the finished product but they ensure proper and even cooking occurs. Taking the time to practice knife skills in day to day tasks will elevate your craft to the next level. During a practical exam, strive to master knife skills to the point where you don’t have to think about how to complete them.

When developing the program and menu for a practical exam, attempt to incorporate as much skill as possible focused around knife skills. How will that tomato be presented? What will this carrot look like on the plate? Would this potato cook quicker and more evenly if it was cut in a tourne?

Fundamental knife skills are an important part of any kitchen. As we modernize production methods in commercial kitchens to save time and cost, we cannot lose focus on the essential skills of knife work. Developing knife skills can lead to higher quality product that will set you apart from the competition.

“Fish without wine is like egg without salt.”

Almost half of the score on practical exams is focused on flavor development. Of all the exams that occur, this seems like the single most overlooked category. Candidates appear to be focused more on achieving the bare minimum requirements of knife skills and cooking methods and often forget to build maximum flavor. Food is all about flavor and showing skill in developing flavor must not be ignored.

Every cook should strive to master developing flavor from ingredients and ultimately the dish they are preparing. As a cook, consider the consumer or the diner. How will they experience the plate? Is there a good balance of flavors? Is there enough acid? Does the flavor overwhelm and outshine the main ingredient? As menu development occurs, these questions should be at the forefront of the mind.

During the three hours that make up most practical exams, candidates must remember to utilize as much product as possible. The best way to utilize ingredients is to demonstrate to the evaluators that you have an understanding of flavor development. Adding a touch of wine to a fish course, finishing a plate with fresh herbs, mounting a sauce with butter all add flavor and show a skill and an understanding of flavor development.

Continue to focus on flavor development throughout your day to day cooking and suddenly you may notice opportunities to build flavor.

“Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness”

In a world of convenience products, it is our responsibility to uphold the foundations of cooking. Certification provides the opportunity to focus back on skills that might not be used every day in modern kitchens but must not be pushed aside. Whether you’re preparing for a practical exam, getting ready for a career move or just want to improve skill set, foundation skills are a continual quest to master.

Cooking with the best ingredients, building great stocks, knife skills and flavor development cannot be forgotten in today’s culinary world. These concepts and skills have formed our craft and are utilized in every kitchen. How can we continue to enhance the focus and better ourselves through focusing on these skills? Practice. Every day, practice and soon these skills can be mastered.

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