I realized a while ago that I am a philosopher at heart. By this I mean that often I step back and get a higher level view of something. When this happens I’ll be posting my thoughts on these topics under the category of “Musings”.
In reading my text for my CULA 116 class (Basic Culinary Principles) and in hearing the lecture this week, it occurred to me that a chef is like a dedicated “foodie”, in that he or she is interested in food and always looking for the next thing. The difference, of course, is the foodie is looking to consume the chef’s work, and the chef is trying to provide that next thing to titillate the taste buds. This is not in any way to imply that this is the only difference. The chef has to worry about budgets, food costs, sanitation, personnel, and a host of other things the foodie doesn’t. The foodie worries about paying the bill and how much of a tip to leave, and if the food was worth coming back.
This train of thought continued and brought up one fundamental question, the core of why I was in school.
What is the difference between a professional chef and a dedicated home chef? What is it I am hoping to get out of 6 quarters of school that I can’t get by looking at Youtube videos or reading books?
I have considered myself a dedicated home chef for quite some time. I watch cooking shows, own lots of cookbooks (some of which I actually cook out of), read stuff online, own some pretty good gear, knives, etc, etc.
But a great deal of what we covered in my first week of culinary school was stuff I already knew. Much was basic cooking stuff, like measurements, and some was not.
But what I read that I didn’t already know is at the core of the basic difference been the pro and the amateur is that the pro is dealing with quantity way beyond the amateur. Quantity can take two forms.
The first is the obvious: How to cook for a large group of people? If you’ve ever attended a banquet, or eaten in a school cafeteria, you have been on the receiving end of the Chef’s expertise. And if you’ve ever served dinner to more than four or five people, you’ve experienced a bit of the difficulty of preparing 10’s or hundreds of meals and serving them all at the same time. There are techniques and tools/equipment that a professional chef has a their disposal to make this easier that a home cook does not have. No home cook has a steam kettle to prepare 100 gallons of soup, or a tilting skillet to sauté 60 chicken breasts in a batch.
But there is another form of “quantity” that many don’t realize, and that is cranking out dozens or perhaps hundreds of meals, or “covers”, a night in a popular restaurant. And more importantly, making a given dish exactly the same way each time. If you have ever gone back to a favorite restaurant to get the same dish you ate the last time you were there because it was so good, you’ve been on the receiving end of that expertise.
This is not as easy as it sounds. How often have you made a dish the second or third time and it doesn’t turn out the same as the first time you made it? If that happened to that favorite restaurant dish, you might not come back to that restaurant again.
Much of that sort of expertise comes from simple repetition, muscle memory as it were. The same idea as the old joke about the concert patron asking the street musician how to get to Carnegie Hall. The busker replies “Practice, man, practice”.
I’ve made certain things dozens of times (my pot stickers and my family’s Pfeffernusse Christmas cookies come to mind) and I have got them down to a science, and can make them pretty much the same way each time. But that pulled pork recipe on my Vision Grill? I haven’t made it enough times to do it consistently, but I’ll get there.
So the next time you are at a banquet and you are being served a ready made plate of food (or even lining up for the proverbial “rubber chicken”), or going back to your favorite restaurant to get that dish you just love, think about the work that went in to being able to produce either of those dishes to order.
I hope it makes you appreciate the professional cook even more than you may already.