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Today: A tale of culinary instruction gone wrong (plus five ways to make yourself a better cook).
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.
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.
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
2 carrots, peeled
2 stalks of celery
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
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld