Learning From The Professionals


Posted by in May's Magazine

For as long as I’ve been writing about food, it occurs to me that I’ve attempted to make a virtue of my own amateurism. On balance, I’m happy enough with that. I firmly believed when I started scribbling – and slightly more limply believe now – that professional chefs are the best tutors to those who want to follow in their footsteps, while time-served home cooks are better placed to advise their less confident or experienced peers.

The logic of this remains sound enough. The multi-Michelin-starred chef, whose cookbook you were given three Christmases ago and has gathered three years’ worth of dust since then, operates in a wholly different realm from any domestic cook. Without the necessary equipment, expertise, ingredients and budget, what are you really going to gain from a Heston Blumenthal recipe for unicorn carpaccio, other than an overdraft, an inferiority complex and a dose of the trots?

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Logical as this viewpoint might be, the past few months have given me cause to reconsider it, if not to change it altogether. For the first time, I’ve found myself working in a kitchen run by “proper” chefs – as distinct from, say, me – and have picked up all sorts of new skills as a result. That’s only to be expected, of course; but I didn’t anticipate just how relevant these skills would be to the way I cook at home.

Actually, perhaps “skills” is the wrong word. Most of the techniques I use at work are familiar enough to me from thirty years of self-imposed practice – but what I have had to learn, and quickly, is a whole set of new habits. Friends and family have used many kind words to describe my cooking over the years, but “efficient”, “organised” and “punctual” have never been among them.

At home, I can just about get away with these foibles; but bring them to work and I’d be out on my arse. Fortunately, as it turns out, old habits don’t die all that hard at all. So now I find myself finishing one job before starting the next, clearing up as I go along and storing everything in its proper place – all anathema to me until recently, but now finding their way into my home as well as my workplace.

To see the ultimate benefits of these good habits, all I need to do is watch the chefs at work during service. From a kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place in a caravanette, and with just two pairs of hands, I’ve seen them feed fifty guests in minutes, all in a manner so assured it’s almost casual. Work surfaces are continually cleared and cleaned, ready for the next check to appear. Food is routinely transferred from half-empty containers to smaller ones, freeing up precious fridge space. Every ingredient and utensil has its meticulously arranged space so the chefs can instantly find what they need without even looking.

Such efficiency is reflected across the board, not least in the approach to waste. Vegetable trimmings are chopped up for soup; the last smidgen of celeriac purée is deftly scooped from the Magimix with a well-worn spatula; and every pigeon bone or parsley stalk finds its way into the stockpot. If there’s a surplus of a particular food, it ends up on the fixed price menu and is swiftly used up; and if ever that doesn’t happen, we might be lucky enough to find it in the next day’s staff meal. The upshot of all this is that in the past six months, I could count the number of times I’ve had to throw food away at work on the fingers of Captain Hook’s bad hand. By any standards – domestic or professional – that’s pretty remarkable.

I can’t pretend I’ve yet applied all of these good habits beyond the workplace – and part of me still feels that my home kitchen needs just a little touch of disorder to give it character (and to remind me I’m not actually at work). But gradually, and more through repetition than resolution, this once-chaotic corner of the flat is taking on the tiniest hint of professionalism, and it’s all the better for the cross-pollination.

With that in mind, here’s my revised take on the amateur/professional distinction. All cooks, paid or not, need to make good use of the resources they have: time, space, skills, money and more. In that respect, restaurant economics are just home economics scaled up. The difference is that if you briefly lose sight of home economics, you hopefully won’t lose your home; but lose sight of restaurant economics and you’ll almost certainly lose your restaurant. With that significant extra incentive, it’s little wonder that the pros tend to do it better.

So if you ever find yourself having a pint with a successful chef, don’t bother asking them how they make Béarnaise sauce or persuade a soufflé to rise, you can read up on that for yourself. Instead, just ask: “How do you make it all work?” The answer might just be the most valuable cooking advice you’ll ever receive.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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