Loup de Mer (+ 5 Ways to Make Yourself a Better Cook)

April 23, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: A tale of culinary instruction gone wrong (plus five ways to make yourself a better cook).

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There was a line cook who worked with me who, as part of his prep one day, I asked to bread and freeze some fish for the next day's lunch special. I asked him to make a breading station with 50% cornmeal and 50% flour, and then I wandered into the walk-in refrigerator to do inventory. 

Soon enough I finished up and walked over to the station where the breading was taking place. I looked down at the fish and to my great surprise I noticed something very peculiar ... I smiled.

One side of the fish was breaded with flour and the other breaded with cornmeal ... I smiled again. I had to ask. The response was, “You told me to use 50% cornmeal and 50% flour.” And this was a kid who went to culinary school but he was right. He did what I told him to do.  

More: How to Know When Fish is Done

I am not relaying this story to you to embarrass anyone but instead to point out how the simplest instructions, ones you think you don't need to explain, can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted.

This point was never made more poignantly than when I taught the Fish and Seafood class at culinary school. I taught this class for 5 years: not a long time by any stretch, but long enough to understand how easily it is to interpret cooking instructions in ways I never would have imagined.

One of the things I gleaned from these experiences is: the more experienced the cook, the fewer the misunderstandings. Which makes total sense. As you learn techniques, your missteps become fewer.

What those who don’t cook don’t understand is that cooking a really good meal is not easy. It takes knowledge, a skill set, and an understanding of the process. As a whole it is much, much more than rote following a written recipe.  

Five ways to make yourself a better cook:

1. The first time I make a recipe, I follow the directions to a T. Many times I second guess a recipe author and I fail to see their vision. If I follow the recipe exactly, I am often pleasantly surprised and learn from the author's experience. It takes me outside my box.

2. Much like a musician, you have to practice daily. Usually, musicians practice scales -- as a cook you can practice knife skills.

3. Learn different cooking techniques: poaching, braising, sauteing, grilling, roasting, and baking. I tend to get hung up on one or two methods and I have to make sure I break away from them.  

4. Study cookbooks and do research.

5. Be serious enough to cook things properly, but casual enough to make cooking and eating fun. 

Loup de Mer (Mediterranean Sea Bass)

Serves 4 to 6

2 Mediterranean seabass, about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds each
1 pound shell-on raw shrimp
1 onion
2 carrots, peeled
2 stalks of celery
1 leek
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 cups vegetable stock
A handful of tarragon sprigs
A quarter sized bundle of chive shoots
A small handful of parsley

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

Read More:
Le Bernardin's Crispy-Skinned Fish
How to Crack Crabs and Lobsters
7 Sea-Inspired Pasta Dishes

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bobbie Huppert
    Bobbie Huppert
  • Nora
  • Burnt Offerings
    Burnt Offerings
  • healthierkitchen
  • Oui, Chef
    Oui, Chef
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Bobbie H. June 2, 2013
I loved your advice on 5 ways to make yourself a better cook.I am 70 yrs.old & still learning & loving cooking.....It is therapy for me..
Nora April 23, 2013
Beautiful recipe! Could I adapt it for some trout fillets I have in the freezer?
And you've made me remember my brand new, very young secretary. She taught me to take nothing for granted. A good lesson.

thirschfeld April 23, 2013
I think you could but I would cook the vegetables twice as long and then add the trout ( this is assuming they are thin filets) and shrimp at the same time.
Burnt O. April 23, 2013
When I was born, my father insisted that my Mother stay in bed, and he was going to make "Trout Almondine" for dinner, having never cooked a meal in his life. It wasn't too long before Mom ventured into their little apartment kitchen to find my Dad trying in vain to pat the mixture of eggs, flour and bread crumbs he had mixed together, onto a filet of frozen trout. Mom made him a martini and salvaged dinner...
thirschfeld April 23, 2013
It sounds to me like your parents had lots of fun
healthierkitchen April 23, 2013
I'm guessing you weren't the first born, burnt offerings?
Burnt O. April 23, 2013
Oh no, I am the oldest. Dad was a 23 yr. old Naval officer. We were in a tiny bungalow about 2 blocks from the beach in San Diego. They loved it there.
healthierkitchen April 23, 2013
I will remember that 50% story! Recipe looks fabulous!
thirschfeld April 23, 2013
Oui, C. April 23, 2013
Gorgeous photos, Tom, they make me want to lick my screen. Super advice too, thanks for sharing your wisdom!
thirschfeld April 23, 2013
Thanks Oui, Chef!