We have a good friend who is a classically trained chef, and a professionally successful one too! That is the rare part. Anyone can go to cooking school, but most cooking school graduates do not move on to become top chefs at serious restaurants in New York City. For my wife’s birthday, he gave her a home-cooked meal. Specifically, a “bird dinner,” because my wife loves a good roast chicken. Now, Jim is no longer cooking professionally, so he couldn’t cheat and bring a bag full of amazing ingredients from his restaurant’s kitchen. In fact, the only ingredient that he used that I have never had in my kitchen was truffle oil. Everything else was standard stuff. And the tools? Nothing out of the ordinary, although he did suggest that I get a chinoise. And my kitchen is nothing special. No six-burner stove, no salamandar, no turbo-nuclear-convection oven with the kung-fu grip. So, the playing field was level. Anyone who has any interest in cooking has access to everything he used. Even the menu was, at first glance, completely ordinary, in the sense that there were no bizarre combinations, no arcane and tedious techniques; just good old-fashioned cooking.
But there was a difference between what Jim did in my kitchen and what I try to do. And it wasn’t a subtle or small difference. And that difference isn’t in technique, because no matter how well the greatest technician minces garlic and chops basil and roasts chicken, I can still duplicate his efforts if I have a recipe. I’ll just make more of a mess and take three times as long! And most competent home cooks can do the same. No, the real difference is that hard-to-measure thing called talent. Jim walked through the market and picked particular foods, not because he was reading from a carefully prepared list of ingredients, but because stuff just looked good, or seemed intriguing. And he put them all together without any grand plan. It just came together without any apparent effort. And that’s not all. Those run-of-the-mill ingredients combined to make wonderful, interesting and exciting dishes. Tuna, leeks and asparagus are not my go-to foods for a great appetizer. Marinated (or brined, or cured . . . I just don’t know what to call it, other than fantastic) tuna on a bed of poached asparagus and minced leeks doesn’t leap to the forefront of my mind. But it sure made me and my wife happy. I won’t even elaborate on the roast chicken. Suffice it to say that the chestnuts went perfectly with the potatoes and sausage! And the pan reduction with lemon? Wow! This kind of stuff just doesn’t occur to me, which is why . . . I Am Not A Chef.
Oh, and the reason Jim isn’t doing this professionally? He decided that designing and building spectacularly beautiful furniture would be fun. Obviously, his talent isn’t confined to the kitchen.