A KITCHEN COVENANT
Nowadays, food is cool and the chef is a celebrity. Thanks to food TV, bottomless internet resources and a growing public acumen, there’re seemingly few kitchen tips left to unearth. But as any art entails, the more one digs, the more there is to be found: from subtle techniques to quirky ingredients; high-end tech to indigenous recipes; alternative uses for utensils to tools for execution and managing service. The professional kitchen is a wellspring of humbling eccentricities.
But first, the basics. The culinary covenant.
MISE EN PLACE
Cooks aren’t perfect. They love food and creativity and camaraderie, and this process of execution is welcomingly time-consuming. But the market demands expediency and customer satisfaction. Hence, there’s a daily struggle balancing quality, execution and the immediacy of serving the guest. A happy guest is one that’s well-fed, in a timely matter. So the cook corrals this chaos with mise en place. It means “put in place” and refers to having everything ready. Mise is a primary difference between the home and professional kitchen. Bulk/deep prep items like stocks and mirepoix and portioned meats are complete. Every portion for every dish is ready to go, within reach, and brought to it’s fullest possible end-state.
That means, when the pan is hot, everything is already chopped, marked, picked, pickled, strained, sliced, marinated, breaded and par-cooked.
When that ticket machine starts screeching-out tickets on a busy night, and the inevitable something goes awry, if not completely sideways, the extra effort of prior preparation always pays dividends.
SALT AND SALTY THINGS
Saltiness is a crucial axis of flavor balance, and as spice, it’s a cornerstone. It’s no secret this tastebud-requisite comes in many forms, with myriad uses. Sometimes it’s evaporated from a patchwork of saltwater pools, like fleur de sel and sel gris (sea salt is ubiquitous nowadays); or it’s found in crystalline kosher form (an industry staple with a uniform texture and flavor). Sometimes it’s fermented from a gamut of unctuous Pan-Asian sea creatures (soy, fish, oyster sauce); or found in aged cheeses like parmesan, or in fermented vegetables.
Salt enhances flavor. It’s draws-out moisture. It preserves produce and causes chemical reactions. Salt, in the the right amounts, at the rights time, is key to chef-level execution. It’s simple, but often overlooked.
Most people simply don’t season enough. And still others miss opportunities to do so. Everyone knows to salt pasta water. But how much? And keep in mind, salt makes water come to a boil slower.
Heavily season meats before searing. Season pasta water like the ocean. Salt blanching water, and broths added to soups and risotto. Season mirepoix bases as they sweat; the same for bones roasting in the oven. And heavily season dishes that are served cold. Don’t be heavy-handed. But also, don’t be afraid of a heavy pinch.
FAT IS GOOD
Be it via butter, oil, lard, cheese, et al, in today’s home kitchens and public writ large, fat is criminally underutilized (or at least misunderstood). Since the inception of the food pyramid and eruptions of fad diets, supplements and calorie-counting, the undervalued fat was a prime casualty. While moderation is always advised, and certain fats are healthier than others, the fat panic of late has caused the proverbial baby to be tossed-out with the (nutritional) bath water.
But we’ve been wrong all this time. Fat is healthier than advertised, and it’s surprisingly crucial to making great things taste excellent.
Alongside its comparably-shunned cohort, salt, proper use of fat easily distinguishes even mediocre professional kitchen cookery from the everyday.
Butter give pastries a golden hue, makes risotto creamy, and, added just before serving, gives a sauce a smooth, silky sheen. Oil can be used to confit a duck leg, make a vinaigrette, or add flavor and fattiness drizzled over seafood, meat or pasta.
And it’s also healthy in moderation: the fear of fat spawned from a botched scientific study that drew flak away from an consumer food industry built upon sugar. And that stigma still persists.
USE WHAT'S FRESHEST
One can’t build a structure on a hollowed foundation. And quality ingredients are the brick-and-mortar. Only in rare instances of brilliance (or more appropriately, trickery) are inferior ingredients are adequately masked or elevated to levels attained by actually goodproduct. Any foodie or half-interested diner demands fresh and local, but it’s importance is usually misconstrued.
This doesn’t just mean some fresh parsley garnish, or primo scraps for a bouquet, or farm-raised and grass-fed… Freshness extends to how a product is employed in a dish, the way in which a product’s nature-state flavors are accentuated (or manipulated to greater result). It’s about respecting the ingredient. And though said item may be chopped or pickled or roasted, it won’t be overly-manipulated or forced into torturous positions and preparations that belie its original purpose. Freshness implies following the ingredient, not a recipe or a technique.
Freshness and sustainability are entwined pillars of proper cookery, and they actually amount to respecting seasonality. In season, product is at or near its peak flavor, nutritional content and true “personality”. Sure, there’s a world of preservation, fermentation and aging methods that seek to unearth unusual flavors from a product. But starting with a pristine, fresh product makes all the difference in creating a successful dish. A crappy carrot is still going to be crappy, no matter the technique applied (lipstick on a pig comes to mind). Cooks do and should use what’s in season and what’s local (or as local as possible), letting the ingredient be the guide, not one’s ego.
BUILD FLAVOR: DEMIS, STOCKS, AND CARAMELIZATION
Even if it’s a simple raw veg with vinaigrette or crudo with citrus, kitchen success hinges on building flavor. It’s all about layering, no matter how uncomplicated the dish. Whether it’s ensuring a well rounded sweet-salty-savory-spicy balance of Thai cuisine, or the caramelization of seared meats or roasted veg, color and death are crucial. Even if it be a naked poached fish, the complicated milieu of caramelization and/or layers of sweated and spiced accoutrements, foundation is key.
‘Demi’ is not so much a secret as it is a byproduct of the professional kitchen. Literally meaning “half-glaze”, this elite staple is a distillate of a good brown stock. Demi-glacé is to stock what orange concentrate is to orange juice: a concentrated form of the liquid’s essential parts.
Good stocks and reduced demis are key to restaurant execution—what a stock gives in breadth a demi gives in depth. Reduce a broth to its constituted parts—approaching “au sec”, or almost dry—and you’ve a demi. It’s that unctuous savoriness that accompanies deep-bodied stews, soups and braised. When an experienced taster can’t identify a definite sour-salty-sweet-savory component, that missing je ne se quois is most certainly a reduced glaze.
Stocks and Demi’s are truly the kitchen’s missing link.
COMMITMENT AND PATIENCE
The professional kitchen is an equalizer. It embraces the eccentricities of a hodge-podge of passionate, opinionated and obsessive odd-balls from a million backgrounds, and makes them equal. These converts are underpaid, overworked and unrested, dedicated to their craft and constantly mired in balancing quality, service and fatigue. And we love it. But it requires commitment. Basic, strenuous, uncomfortable, humbling commitment. Working with beautiful product, actually cooking, and pleasing the guest are all bonuses.