Over the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing prospective sous chefs. One of the things I make clear during conversations is that I’m a real stickler for good technique. What’s the point of getting good ingredients if you’re not going to cook them properly? More about that later.
I started thinking about this post when I was driving to work one morning. I was the second car in a line of cars at a red light. When the light turned green, the car ahead of me who was signaling for a left turn just sat there rather than pulling up into the intersection so the line of cars behind her could proceed by going around just to the right. It used to be that I’d give a good honk of the horn, but it occurred to me that if the person is so unaware of their surroundings, is so inconsiderate, so ignorant, and has no concept of good driving technique, they are not likely to have any idea why I’m beeping. Why just add to their confusion?
Good technique is important while driving or cooking so you don’t cause me to lose what’s left of my mind. For driving it’s not only crucial so you’re not a pain-in-the-ass, but so you’re not a danger on the road. For cooking it’s mostly the difference between mediocre food and great food. It’s also about safety in the kitchen.
Many years ago I worked in a very small kitchen in Albany. One of the techniques we had to ensure safety in those tight quarters was to say “going under” clearly before opening the oven door to prevent injuring your line mate. I was a sous chef at the time and the chef who liked to smoke pot all day would say “going under” after opening the oven. It was obvious he had a bit of a mental handicap due to his adolescent drug habit. On one particularly hot day I was wearing shorts and had an oven door opened on my calf. It hurt. That was a technique unique to that kitchen, but I still do it out of courtesy in the small Wine Bar kitchen, and it really works when you’re not high. Another technique (aside from solid cooking procedures) he ignored was to use a dry towel to grab pan handles from the stove. At the time it made me feel better to heat up his handles significantly without his knowledge. I’m beyond that type of vengeance at this point in my life, but back then the faint sound of skin searing on a hot pan handle was insanely satisfying. I only mentioned to him once that he should have a side towel, but he knew better.
One of the biggest mistakes in cooking made by unrefined professionals is not controlling the heat. A lot of cooks know two settings on the stove top – off and high. Everything cannot be cooked at full tilt. Duck breast, for example, is one of the most improperly cooked proteins I know of. With such a layer of fat, a duck breast must be started in a cold pan on very low flame that can be increased as the fat is rendered out. This is a simple concept, yet almost every cook I see wants to put it into a searing hot pan to get a crisp skin without the important first step. Even if you’re going to sous vide it, it still needs a fairly slow rendering first. Then cook to about 135° in a water bath and sear it after. There are so may different flame settings that should be used in the kitchen that aren’t learned by cooks. Crank up the heat and shake that pan with unreasonable movement and noise seems to be the norm. Is it the sense that gentleness and care have no place in the kitchen amongst the tough guys with burns up their forearms?
I see too many cooks with poor skills. They have good ideas, they work hard, and want to be good at what they do but have come up through the ranks without learning precision when it comes to proper technique. Some of that includes knowing the nature and properties of ingredients and how they react to heat. Sugar burns quickly, fat renders slower than skin browns, whole butter burns fast in extreme heat, potatoes cook unevenly in boiling water, over-browned garlic gets bitter, and you cannot sauté on full-blast.
The professional kitchen can be a harsh environment. The language is coarse, the characters are not always predictable, and the pace is wildly hectic. We cannot always control those things, but we can and should control the heat.