Sitting down at a tucked away desk in the back of the kitchen, a chef begins the process of planning the next seasonal menu change. There is an over-riding thematic core to the restaurant with an emphasis on those comfort foods that people are familiar with, but always with a touch of flair — a unique signature that is drawn from the chef’s experiences.
The chef always approaches the process with a list of those ingredients that are at the peak of maturity over the next few months, an understanding of general perceptions by the dining public regarding which foods make sense during this time of year, and of course, the ability of the restaurants’ cadre of cooks.
For the three years that the chef has held this position, she has invested time with training her cooks’ palates. This has been one of the more challenging, yet enjoyable parts of the job. When a line cook “got it” — when he or she reached a point where the flavor of an ingredient and a completed dish could be envisioned and the process of cooking adjusted to reach that goal, then that cook really did have a handle on his or her craft.
Cooking, as the chef often said, is much more than a process of assembling ingredients and following a recipe. Great cooking is intuitive, flexible and based more on problem-solving than most cooks realize. The variables to effective cooking are immense. There are so many factors that come into play: ingredient maturity, point of origin, how the ingredients were stored, cooking process, time, etc. etc. A solid cook knows that the recipe is a guide, one of the many tools at his or her disposal, but using recipes without a real understanding of what impacts flavor, and how to build toward an understanding of how the dish should taste, is far too shallow.
The chef returns to her planning for the fall menu with all of these factors in mind. Even with the breadth of great fall ingredients — late season squash, root vegetables like beets, parsnips and carrots and local heirloom potatoes and onions — there will still be a need to integrate some of those items that come from a greenhouse, hydroponics or cold storage. The flavor that those secondary ingredients bring will always be unpredictable. This is where that understanding of flavor comes into play. Knowing how to work with these ingredients is just as important as understanding how the finished dish should taste.
Whenever possible, the chef cooks for her staff, demonstrating how the finished product should be developed and embedding flavors along the way so that they can begin to understand how to problem-solve and work towards the eventual flavor goal. Nothing can substitute for a sun-ripened July tomato, but what can be done to recover some of that experience with a hydroponic tomato in December? The chef knows that oven drying those commodity tomatoes with a touch of quality olive oil and pinch of sea salt can convert a flavorless, box ripened tomato into one that is sweet, pleasant and acceptable in a recipe.
From her experience the chef can call up solutions to challenges as they arise, but she can’t be on every station helping with every dish. So as the menu comes into shape, she makes her side notes on the training and teaching that need to be at the forefront of menu transition. She knows that it will take time, but it will work.
The chef has seen the palates of her cooks improve every season, and along with that, their confidence. It thrills her to watch the line on a busy night as each cook takes the time to taste and adjust seasoning throughout the cooking process. They are learning how to build flavors, how to problem-solve variances in ingredients and reach the goal of consistently great cooking every time.
Cooking is an art and a science and it is impossible to become a great cook without understanding how to blend both disciplines. The best cooks must always taste, taste and taste again. They must understand the ingredients and how season, soil, rain, sun and other terroir factors impact on their characteristics.
The best cooks visit farms and taste that ear of corn right when it is snapped off the stalk (no cooking required), savor the early June strawberry right from the plant, taste a carrot pulled directly from the soil, fry an egg an hour after retrieving it from the hen house, and get overwhelmed by the smell of fresh herbs when harvested minutes before use. The best cooks learn constantly until, like the chef, that process of building and working with a menu is second nature. They can envision how a dish will turn out while factoring in all of those environmental variations.
The best chefs know that training and building this level of confidence with the process of cooking is by far their most important job.