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The other day I was watching a cooking show on the Food Network. The chef was opening eggs with one hand and dispensing them into a bowl. His sidekick, a non-chef, blonde bimbo superfluous to the program, seemed amazed at his ability to crack and release eggs single handedly. Similarly, my cooking class students “ooh” and “ah” when I flip the ingredients in a frying pan with one hand. As if these simple, showy techniques are any indication of a chef’s competence. Nevertheless people are influenced by these salient, superficial behaviors. What they don’t see are the multifarious competencies behind the one-hand stunts. What then are the factors that comprise a proficient chef?
Asking what makes for a good chef is like asking what makes for a good physician. All physicians share some basic competencies, e.g., anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, performing physical exams, etc. But then there are specific skills unique to an individual’s specialization. Not all physicians are adroit at surgery, performing skin grafts, or handling birth complications. Such is the case for chefs. There are baseline skills common to all and specific talents unique to particular areas of expertise.
Undisputedly, all chefs should have a breadth of knowledge about most foods, preparation and cooking techniques, and to some degree food science. It starts with food selection. One must be aware of how to select foods that are fresh, in season, and/or at the appropriate point in their development for the intended use. Ascertaining quality meat, ripe mangos and healthy lobsters are just some of the tasks that chefs face.
Once the foods are chosen, you then need to know their properties and how that influences their use. Each food has a chemistry all its own. For example, rices differ in starch content which determines whether they can be used for risotto, pilaf, or rice pudding. Oils have different smoke points which affect which cooking task they are appropriate for. The various cuts of meat have different anatomical properties and require differing cooking methods. Some foods are acidic and react with certain kinds of metal. The list goes on and on.
Food storage is also very important to maintain foods’ freshness and avoid waste. This brings us to food safety. Chefs must be cognizant of the types of food borne pathogens, how they are spread, and the correct temperatures for storing and cooking food. Moreover, sanitation procedures for keeping oneself clean as well as the equipment are crucial.
Ok, you’ve selected and stored the food properly, now it’s time to use it. So what are you going to do with it? A good chef has intuition; a natural talent for combining foods and flavoring elements that flow like a well orchestrated symphony. Such a chef can enter his walk-in, (a walk-in refrigerator), peruse his inventory, and mentally create dishes. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t hurt to have a large cache of established recipes in your repertoire. Here I am using the term “recipe” rather loosely. Most chefs do not follow a written recipe like a home cook. They already have basic formulations in their head. But the bigger their mental cookbook, the better.
After the menu is planned, it’s time to start cooking. Many foods must be fabricated before they can be cooked. A good chef knows how to make food ready for cooking such as deboning a chicken, breaking down an artichoke or filleting a whole flounder. Here’s where a “showy” skill that’s really not about show comes into play, namely knife skills. Wielding an array of knives with alacrity and precision is a vital aptitude.
One must also be savvy about all the different cooking techniques, how they are performed, and which ones to apply to which food. This is no small task. There are at least a dozen basic cooking techniques and many other specialized ones. Now contemplate how many different types of food there are. The permutations become daunting. Intertwined with cooking technique is also knowing how to use and maintain all the types of equipment found in the professional kitchen.
After the food is cooked it must be plated. A chef is as much of an artist as an artisan. A good chef has a flair for presenting food in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Dishes will be plated with artistic harmony and grace. For chefs who specialize in food styling, this talent is beyond indispensable.
If a chef plans to oversee a restaurant, a catering business, or any kitchen, then a whole world of other requisite skills come into play. These include but are not limited to managing abilities, financial savvy, people skills, and a host of other business related faculties. Many an executive chef, in addition to being a chef, is also a supervisor, bookkeeper, financial analyst, marketer, and public relations specialist rolled into one. He or she will need to know the food and equipment market, business law, health codes, pest control, alcohol laws, fire safety, and what the competition is doing to name a few.
Finally, there are specialized skills for chefs who are culinary instructors, cooking school administrators, journalists, cookbook editors, dieticians, or those serving special populations such as running a kitchen in an assisted living facility. And I haven’t even touched the sub-specialty of being a pastry chef and the overwhelming number of skills and techniques needed there.
Years ago, just prior to entering culinary school, a friend of mine questioned the need of cooking school by naively asking “How much could there be to learn?” This same person once stuck an instant read thermometer in her meatloaf, still in the plastic sheath, and left it in the oven with the meat during cooking. Naturally the plastic melted into the meat and the thermometer was destroyed. The point is that cooking may seem like a simple endeavor but that simplicity is very deceiving. Hopefully I’ve illuminated just how vast the knowledge base of a good chef must be. Like many complex fields, you never stop learning. And you never realize how much you didn’t know, and how much more there is to learn, until you begin learning. I recommend starting with both hands.
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