Cook Like a Chef, Even if You Don’t Know One

Knowing where to look for culinary answers is key to cooking a great meal

Not every food lover has the opportunity to turn to a celebrated chef for help whenever they have a food question. That’s why I treasure the fact that my job as a server and bartender puts me in the proximity of some of the most chefs in Los Angeles.

Though I may not cook like an award-winning chef, I certainly want to. For that reason alone, I never take the blur of activity in the restaurant’s kitchen for granted. As I pass by the busy stoves on my way to the dining room, I snatch mental snapshots of the day’s prep: the way a prep cook measures out a perfect portion of pasta with a scale, how another slides his sharp knife through the belly of a fish, and the way a pastry cook zests a lemon with confident strokes.

Whether or not the brigade in chefs’ whites is aware, these men and women are my culinary mentors. When a recipe stumps me or a particular ingredient poses too much of a challenge, I bring my culinary conundrums to the people I trust the most. Because chefs know how dough should feel, the way to combine simple flavors and make them sing, just which spice will make a dish come alive, or how to thicken a sauce so it clings to a protein like a mist rolling over a hill.

Unfortunately, it seems like the moments when I truly need a chef’s expertise is when I’m alone at my home stove or at the farmers’ market with a head full of uncertainties.  Though I work for Nancy Silverton, I’m not about to call the busy chef with a question about lamb shanks*. So how does a home cook find their way in the kitchen? Here are five simple ideas to get you closer to cooking like a chef.

Without the aid of a friendly chef nearby, I think the best way for a home cook to find culinary guidance is to turn to your culinary heroes’ cookbooks. Like an astrologer that consults stellar charts for clues to bigger questions, I turn to Alice Waters, Suzanne Goin, Mario Batali, Marcella Hazan, Judy Rogers and countless others for culinary truths. The key to getting the right information is knowing what to look for.

1. Read cookbooks for content not recipes. Many cookbooks offer valuable chef insights between the recipes or in the head notes. Take a little extra time to read the cookbooks of your favorite chefs for their secrets.

2. Research: If you have a question about the preparation of particular ingredient, turn to several sources to see what they have to say about it. Trusted food magazines like Saveur and Bon Appetit may have differing opinions from your favorite cookbook authors. For example, Martha Stewart may like to sear a piece of meat before roasting it for flavor, while Judy Rodgers may suggest brining, then searing.

3. Study: If you’re stumped about a cooking technique, consult Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. This encyclopedia of food brings the kind of expert perspective and understanding of cooking that can illuminate even the most difficult cooking concept. McGee’s book is to cooking as the Rosetta stone was to ancient languages.

4. Look for variations on a theme: If you want to find out about the diverse ways an ingredient can be cooked, try scanning several cookbooks for ideas. The way Nancy Silverton likes her beets with horseradish, or how new cookbook author, Louisa Shafia of Lucid Food, likes to make vegetable patties with the red root, may inspire you to try a new and different approach.

5. Experiment. Sometimes the best way learn an ingredient is to dedicate yourself to mastering it. For one month, find varying recipes that highlight the diverse ways to prepare your special ingredient. In using multiple recipes, you will begin to form a rounded understanding of your subject.

6. Have fun. Not every dish will be a success. One thing I’ve learned from chefs is that even though not every dish can be perfect, it can be the thing that teaches you valuable information you need to get you one step closer to a signature dish.

*Though I’ve been tempted to call Nancy to beg for her advice, I abstain. I do not want to be That Annoying Employee.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

13 Comments

  1. February 24
    Reply

    Great list! I find that the longer I’m food blogging (and therefore feeling more accountable for my cooking), the more I research dishes. Even if I have always cooked something a certain way, I find myself turning to my resources to discover things I might be missing, better understand what I’m doing, or just reaffirm my own technique. And Amen to paying more attention to content…too often people think that if they have the perfect recipes they’ll turn into a good cook.

  2. Great article! I love the suggestion of working with an ingredient in several variations. I’ve done this often, with things from risotto to pie (the summer of 2005 was the summer of pie). I also find simply googling a recipe or ingredient and then reading through different variations to be extraordinarily helpful!

  3. I agree with Tip #5: Experiment. The more I try new things the more confident I am when I stretch myself. You can always learn something new and you can drawn on previous experiences to help you through.

  4. March 2
    Reply

    Thanks for these helpful hints! Tip #6 has been my mantra while navigating around an unfamiliar baking territory. I’ve been frustrated by soupy pies. Defeated by unforgiving crusts. Finally, I allowed myself to let go and realize the fun again.

  5. One of my favorite ways in food preparation is to check out several recipes for the same dish from many different cookbook authors. This way you can see multiple ways of preparation of one dish. I find for me , it assists me in making my dish the best that it can be.

    • Food Woolf
      March 16
      Reply

      Thanks for the feedback, Stephanie! Turning to the pros is important, and in the end, time saving!

  6. March 19
    Reply

    Great post! I do many of these things already, and sometimes I feel lik a nut putting so much time and thought into something others might find mundane. But as foodies and wannabe chefs, this is our passion, I’m glad I’m not alone!

  7. Vu
    March 21
    Reply

    Nice. Dig your writing. To your list I’d add picking up a copy of The Flavor Bible (by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page) and Ratio (by Michael Ruhlman). All three will be in portland, ore. giving a talk on the Death of the Recipe. Should be interesting. On Food and Cooking, indispensable as it is, can be intimidating. Cheers!

    • Food Woolf
      March 21
      Reply

      Great point Bistro Zinc. I concur. Any list of books with Ruhlman on it is a great one in my book.

  8. katie o.
    March 28
    Reply

    Great post. And I’m with Stephanie…I always do an inordinate amount of recipe research so I can pick and choose what I like most to make the best recipe possible.
    And I love #6…Because I’m such a novice in the kitchen, I have to make cooking fun. Otherwise, I’d hang up my spatula and never step foot in the kitchen again.

  9. Kirin
    June 17
    Reply

    Very good post, love Ruhlman!

  10. […] I look there’s something (or someone) I want to know more about. Ingredients, techniques, style, craft, food stories, and big personalities […]

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