Why I Am Not A Chef

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.

6 Replies to “Why I Am Not A Chef”

  1. i don’t like truffle oil all that much. it tastes fake to me. of course, a serious cook with a deft touch can use it appropriately, but most restaurant chefs use it way too much. you hit on something very important here, IANAC: it all starts, and essentially ends, with the raw ingredients. seasoned cooks have a knack of paying closer attention to the stuff they’re putting in their basket than others. i’m constantly reminding myself to actually pay attention to what i’m buying, rather just saying “oh, I need scallion” and throwing a random bunch from a random store in the basket. canned tomatoes are another item that most people don’t give enough thought to. a lot of folks say “san marzano, these are the best”, without actually tasting the brand side by side with another. the words “san marzano” are essentially meaningless if you don’t actually like the taste of the stuff in the can! i bet your friend Jim has a deep understanding of every ingredient that he uses, right down to the salt and peppercorns. not that i’m a terribly good cook, but i’m trying, and i’m finally picking up on the important stuff, and focusing on the simple stuff.

  2. “San Marzino” is Italian for: The absolutely best tomatoes on earth. Believe it, buy it, you’ll be a better cook because of it!!!

  3. I think Tommy’s point is that some are better than others. I have a favorite brand of San Marzano tomatoes that I have found to be sweeter and more intensely flavored. And of course this is the rule with all food. Being knowledgeable and picky when it comes to ingredients is a good way to maximize the pleasure of the meal.

  4. Absolutely! As soon as I go to the market and buy another can. I recognize it by the graphics, and have no idea the brand name! That says something about how I shop. Ooooh, look at the pretty picture!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *