Don’t lose sight of solid cooking

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

A chef chops some meat at ACF ChefConnect Newport Beach.

There are many exciting, innovative things happening in the field of culinary arts from ethnic fusion to sous vide and experimentation with molecular gastronomy.  To young cooks in particular, this is the sizzle that inspires them to jump into the field and stir their enthusiasm. Any industry that stands idle and fails to embrace new, creative thought will fall short, and any player within that industry who stands in contrast to those new ideas will surely suffer the consequence of an “also ran” operation. To this end, it is important that we pay attention to what is going on, what is on the horizon, and how customers are responding to trends and groundbreaking technique.

On the other hand, behind any true innovator in the kitchen lies the groundwork of classic technique — an understanding of what has and continues to work, and why reliance on those techniques remains essential in every restaurant.  Those foundations that focus on how to handle a knife, the mathematical dimensions of vegetable cuts and why they are important to a dish, the steps used to produce a robust stock and the critical steps involved in every traditional cooking method will serve a cook well throughout his or her career.  These are time-tested methods that produce consistent, anticipated results and remain as “bulletproof” methods which can be built upon.

“I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.”

-Jacques Pepin

Cooking is considered by some to be an art form and in other cases referred to as a science. Some refer to the uniqueness of a cuisine from the standpoint of the “heart and soul” that are responsible for uniqueness.  Some may infer that without an understanding of the history behind a culture, the complexity of the people who live that culture, and life experience with the conditions that were the source of that special cuisine, it would be impossible for a cook to re-create authentic food.  All of this is likely true, but as you push aside the smoke and flames from the pan you will almost always find a respect for foundational technique.

Technique and the foundations are the universal starting point. They’re the common thread, the platform that allows cooks or chefs to express themselves, adjust and move food in a variety of directions. The foundations allow a cook to move beyond the cookbook and know what needs to be done to create a good dish, how to approach a basket of ingredients and build a plate of food into something that demonstrates understanding and passion.

“Once you understand the foundations of cooking — whatever kind you like, whether it’s French or Italian or Japanese — you really don’t need a cookbook anymore.”

-Thomas Keller

If there were one very important advantage to a culinary degree it would be the time spent on developing an understanding and regimen of foundational technique.  Knife skill drills, multiple experiences with making a proper stock and formal critique of the use of cooking methods such as braising, grilling, sautéing, roasting, and poaching tend to yield a cook who appreciates the significance of technique. When a technique becomes a habit then it is less likely that a cook will waver from that foundation.

“You don’t go to school to become the best chef in the world right after you graduate. School is always a starting point so what people forget is that you go to school to build a foundation, and you want to build a foundation that’s not going to crumble.”
-Roy Yamaguchi

When a chef trusts that his or her cooks understand and are committed to execution of solid foundations then it is possible to move a restaurant’s food in nearly any direction. Whether French, Italian, German, Brazilian, Chinese or Ethiopian — all cuisines begin with an appreciation for foundations. In many cases those foundations are universal in nature.

If a cook is intent on building his or her repertoire, creating a significant brand that sets the stage for growing opportunities and is enthusiastic about building confidence that he or she might adapt well to any kitchen environment, then a commitment to the foundational techniques of cooking is an essential starting point. Strong technique is valuable. A restaurant may never use a hollandaise sauce but every cook will likely have an opportunity to create an emulsion. A restaurant may not offer braised items on the menu, but every cook must understand how to prepare traditionally tough cuts of meat in a manner that truly enhances flavor, texture and presentation. A restaurant may never find a need for brunoise or allumette vegetable cuts, but every cook must have strong, consistent and efficient knife skills.

“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music.  He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.”

-Charlie Trotter

Chefs and cooks may want the opportunity to be creative and take cooking to a different level, but the foundations provide a road map to get to where they want to be. Improvisation is not a thing unto itself. Improvisation stems from a stable beginning — it is a variation on a central theme. For a chef, improvisation allows him or her an opportunity to place a signature on the dish being developed. But when asked, those same chefs will talk extensively about their beginnings and the foundations.