Great cooking comes from the heart (and soul)

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

Anyone can be trained to assemble ingredients, follow a recipe and even present food in an attractive manner. To this end, cooking may very well be a process — manufacturing in its simplest form. But is this all it takes to make meaningful and memorable food?

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”
–  Thomas Keller

These words of wisdom from Thomas Keller ring true. It is the heart and soul of the cook that change a good dish to a memorable one. So, what does this mean and is it possible to develop heart and soul for cooking?

Heart and soul goes beyond the cookbook, beyond the technical skills that may have been developed in the culinary classroom or on-the-job. Heart and soul comes from a true connection with the ingredients, through the people associated with a style of cooking, with history, art and life experience. To this end it would be hard to state that anyone is born a great cook or even trained as such. If there is a gap of culture and experience in a cook’s background then the challenges of greatness will be pronounced.

This is not to discount those who invest heavily in learning the steps and following directions to a “T”; it does, however, point to a gap in proficiency that can be filled if the cook is truly serious about his or her craft. Think about it this way — if you have ever enjoyed that special ethnic meal, whether it be a Sunday Italian family feast, a gathering of Scandinavian born guests, a traditional Polish celebration or a meal with your Latino or Asian co-workers then you have been a participant in heartfelt cooking. If you have spent time in the countryside of France, Germany, Ireland or England, or if you visited the real neighborhoods of Vietnam, Thailand, Peru, or Northern Africa then you have been witness to cooking with soul. It is this immersion that gives cooks an opportunity to begin to understand the history of a country, the importance of their indigenous ingredients and the reasons for their processes and seasonings. Once you have this experience you begin to develop that cultural soul that allows your cooking to have real meaning.

Should every serious cook travel and make those connections that will set his or her technique and style stand out? Will you ever truly understand wine until you have worked the vines, picked grapes and participated in the crush? Can you really appreciate the importance of vegetables until you have spent time in the fields with a farmer? Is it possible to respect the value of wonderfully fresh fish without time on a commercial fishing boat with four-foot ocean swells? Of course these experiences would be ideal, but maybe not practical for every cook. It is, however, possible for each of us to pay attention, pay respect, study and learn and make those important connections with others who understand the heart and soul of a cuisine. Kitchens are home to the most diverse workforce imaginable — this is a wonderful opportunity.

I constantly reference Chef Rick Bayless as a prime example. Why are Frontera Grill 
and Topolobampo considered among the top Mexican restaurants in North America? They  have gained this distinction because they have heart and soul with respect to this often misunderstood cuisine. Remember, Chef Bayless lived in Mexico for many years as he attempted to learn and experience what it was like to be authentic, to study the history of Mexico, to connect with the people and learn about their ingredients and how they have used them for generations. It is this background that comes through in his food.

It would be difficult to imagine how a restaurant could offer a menu with diverse cuisines having no experience with the culture associated with the source of that food. It is hard to imagine how a cook can become excellent and authentic without having a deep understanding of everything associated with each dish on a menu. Sure, any cook can be coached to follow the steps, but does he or she connect with the food — is there passion associated with a dish that has been relegated to a process?

You may not agree, but try this simple exercise to discover if the concept is valid: Give three or four cooks in your operation the same recipe and the same ingredients and simply ask them to prepare the dish as described. I guarantee that you will wind up with just as many variations of that same recipe. Compare those results with your personal best memory of how that dish should be prepared if it is authentic and it is likely that the connection will fall short. What is missing? Heart and soul may be difficult to describe, yet they are tangible in the sense that in their absence any dish will fail to exceed expectations.

“You cannot get an influence from the cuisine of a country if you don’t understand it. You’ve got to study it.”
– Chef Ferran Adria

To this end there is little difference between being a great cook, an exceptional painter or an inspired musician; in all cases what separates them from their contemporaries is heart and soul.