It’s been 14 years since I enrolled in a year-long culinary school program, and I’ve regrettably lost more knowledge than I’ve retained. Rich little memories will occasionally resurface, however: finding a spiny sea urchin on top of a locker in the changing room one night after class; holding a kelp-like piece of vinegar mother and fearing it might crawl across my hand like an inchworm; watching the two googly eyes of a flatfish stare back while I
destroyed filleted my first fish.
As my career path veered away from the professional kitchen and to the writing table, many of the hard-won rewards from that year of practice fell by the wayside in favor of long-held cooking habits. But it took some time and distance to realize I’d retained a few fundamentals that forever changed the way I cook and see food, even if the dishes I prepare week to week remain mostly the same.
These lessons fall into two camps: the economical and energy-saving practical learnings every cook should have access to, and the less empirical, albeit beautifully tactile, lessons that will live forever in my sentimental mind’s eye.
It’s hard to overstate the obsession with waste—or rather, not wasting—that suffuses professional kitchen settings. Waste directly translates to money lost, which can jeopardize the survival of the business and, by extension, its owner’s livelihood. For nonprofessional cooks, it’s easy to conjure the ingredient-related frugality side of this equation, which mirrors many of our own home kitchens. Keep vegetable and meat scraps and bones for stock. Save those egg whites for consommé or meringue. (But don’t store them in used plastic containers, which retain grease and make the whites harder to whip up!) Don’t throw away that excess yellow duck fat; render it slowly for confit, which itself acts as a preservative. Of course, the stakes are lower in culinary school: Don’t you dare neglect that pot of boiling water, or leave so much as a shred of mustard green behind on the stem, or we’ll dock points from today’s practicum.
Yet my chef-instructors spent just as much time retraining us inefficient home cooks to never waste movement, energy, or time. Always prep your mise en place before you start cooking so you don’t forget something when you inevitably get flustered. Don’t lean over your work; bring it to you. I still smile almost every time I chop something, as I recall my first instructor Pierre Pollin—the longtime chef-owner of bygone restaurant Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, Illinois—scolding me in his gravelly, French-accented voice: “Why are you leaning over that cutting board? Pull it in closer to you!”
My instincts still fool me into reaching for the smallest cutting board or skillet because I just don’t feel like fussing with or cleaning the larger, heavier ones. As I heave my salad ingredients into a larger bowl while cursing myself, my chef-instructors are there too, in a chiding chorus: “Always use a bigger bowl, pan, or cutting board than you think you need!”
Occasionally our laziness proved dangerous, whether we opted not to sharpen and hone our knives before class or settled for a wobbly cutting board. The former resulted in sporting a blue finger cot to match the look-I’m-a-novice! blue kerchief we had to wear every class. The latter was easily remedied by laying a damp tea towel underneath the board as an anchor—or, if the board was especially large, by placing a wet square of paper towel under each end.
Professional cooks all but live on finding solutions on the fly. For instance, you can save almost any sauce or soup (whether too salty, sweet, or bland) with a little vinegar, especially if you reduce said vinegar first. You may also be underutilizing that glorious, culinary Swiss army knife known as parchment paper. Did you know that folding a parchment sheet over itself into a thin triangle then lining it up with the radius of a saucepan enables you to cut out a perfectly sized makeshift lid, should you find yourself without one? Parchment can also turn almost any pan into a non-stick one for cooking a delicate piece of fish: Simply cut a piece a bit larger than the fish, adhere it to the pan with a little oil, and lay the lightly oiled filet directly on the paper.
Still, all these years later, the lessons I hold dearest are those tactile jewels that shine up my life and make me grateful, even if I don’t use them all every day. Citrus fruit will indeed tell you its juice content by its weight. A correctly baked baguette will sound hollow when tapped and feel light in your hand. Sprinkling abrasive salt crystals over chopped garlic will help transform it into a smooth, sticky paste when smooshed with the side of a knife. A biscotti is a cookie that we’ve staled on purpose. A tender, delicious little coin of meat, called the oyster, resides just above the chicken thigh.
“Chickens were made to help us cut them up without creating too much waste,” Chef Pollin once said, perhaps not fully aware of the poetry of this statement, as he launched into a demo of how to break down a chicken into eight parts. He pointed out certain joints (such as where the thigh joints meet), lines of bone (like the keel bone between the chicken breasts), and fatty areas that facilitate cleanly cutting up the bird without leaving behind precious meat. Though I don’t eat nearly as much chicken as I used to, when I do, I prefer to participate in this process of carefully breaking it down, then saving its carcass to make stock, which will flavor all sorts of meals for the week ahead. It’s one small way to sit with my choice to eat meat and to honor the animal from which it came.
These more visceral lessons call to mind a quote from George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss: “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers… What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?”
That may explain the childlike awe I still feel when I watch pâte à choux dough burst into puffy gougères in the oven, or when I recall the magic of making consommé: setting a raft of egg whites and ground lean meat afloat on cloudy stock and watching heat cause the protein to coagulate, clarifying the stock into pristine, amber-colored broth.
I know these things now, and I love them just for being known.
What’s a piece of cooking wisdom you’ve learned over the years? Share it in the comments!