Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In search of perfection.


Thinking more and more about the theory and thought behind how I cook.

This perfection thing is tricky. Thinking about the difference between a good commercial kitchen, and a talented home chef is perhaps useful.

Lets put aside the more obvious things. Dedicated staff, equipment. Budget. Prep chefs. These are all limitations that the home chef has to overcome.

Repetition. I'm guessing a starter chef in a busy restaurant will cook up, say, Moules marinieres more times in two services than an average home chef will in a year.

Repetition, and the necessity for consistency, several hundred times over. The same, dish, exactly each time. Physical memory I guess. And that precise knowledge of how exactly everything should be. Prep mapped down to seconds to act in concert with several other stations working to plate simultaneously. Everything has to be exactly just so. A chef standing at the pass whose job is to throw anything not exactly just so back to your station. Night after night after night.

Just being in a place where people are repeating the same dish, and finishing to a high level, over and over. Their repetition imprints on you, if you have time to watch. After three hundred times watching, and a couple of smart questions, you can probably plate something similar yourself.

Cooking in a team, with shared expertise. Even a small kitchen has a pastry and dessert chef, a prep chef, and often people with particular expertise. One cook makes up the bread every day. Another specialises in seafood. One more has a background in French or Spanish cooking. Another has experience with butchering meat. The kitchen is a walking, talking, sweating swearing, collective Larousse. And someone, somewhere will have the answer to your question. In every honest cookbook I can remember, chefs talk about either a formative kitchen, or a formative group of colleagues with whom they ate , slept, dreamt, talked, fucked and cooked food. Shared expertise, and shared inspiration. Fergus Henderson and Giorgio Locatelli knocking around London after hours resurrecting the art of offal in their heads.

I think the only answer for the home chef is a something like the San Sebastian Sociedade GastronĂ³micas (Txokos) - private dining clubs where members (normally men) cook up elaborate lunches for one another. There is a similar, though much smaller movement happening in the UK. A bunch of like-minded people sharing expertise, ideas, facilities, and palates to develop their skills in a wonderful environment. A tough thing to introduce though. San Sebastian has food as central to it's culture, and the clubs have been running for generations. And, unlike other places, groups of friends are likely to share that interest. It's about the best way I can think of for a home chef to replicate the kind of competitiveness, and constructive/destructive criticism that forms the core of a kitchen education.

Amongst the best chefs, there's also a....precision, and a depth of knowledge, that lots of home chefs don't posess. Protein strings. I know for a fact I could fill a book with my ignorance on the issue. But excellent chefs understand cooking, often, at the chemical level. How exactly heat works. Whats happening when eggs bind a recipe. Oxidation. The physics of cream. Or simple enough sounding ideas like never have more than one layer of meat browning in a pan. The temperature olive oil smokes at, and what to do with that information - let your mushrooms hit the pan just before. Keep your griddle pan as hot. Let meat rest for as long as it cooks. Never shuggle or move fillet fish in a pan. How to pick out a poultry oyster. And which part of the chicken liver really is the bile sac? It all looks an off colour to me. I've been mangling chicken livers for years with that one. What exactly is happening at any given moment with the glutens in my pasta dough.

The last time I tried to break down a large joint of meat was utter carnage.

Hence Knife Skills, and the Elements of Cooking. And after that McGee.

At the moment my cooking flows, re technique, from a sense I have picked up. I cook from experience, optimism, the occasional slavishly dedictated reproduction of a new recipe, and variations on a theme. Change one thing and note the difference. Change the next. In a rudimentary and limited sense, trying to replicate the repetition of a working kitchen.

I'd like to understand whats happening in my pans and pots at that fundamental level that means you can see it all happening in advance in your head. So I can understand what I smell. It's a lack I can't really even begin to describe really. I just know, however, that I see something very different happening on my stovetop to whatever it is that Heston Blumenthal sees. I can't even begin to think about food in that depth, to understand it so profoundly. And I'd like to.

It's the next stage for me. That and cooking outside Italy.


Deborah said...

Great post! I can relate to a lot of what you are saying. A lot of the reason I started the blog was because I cook from instinct. I come up with a fantastic recipe and then can't replicate it next time, so figured if I wrote it down it would help!

I love the idea of those lunch clubs. Hard pressed to find anyone outside of Dublin who'd be bothered. Shit, I can't find anyone here who will eat meat less than well done! *SIGH*

Thanks for the tip on the Ruhlman blog... great stuff. Look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on the Knife Skills book!

Abulafia said...

Gonna be hard pressed in the midlands to found a society of like minded gourmands I guess. Perhaps thats way San Sebastian is the Michelin capital of the world...

lorraine@italianfoodies said...

Welcome back:) Great post - I see a huge difference between me and Bru as he was raised on food and I wasn't. I've learnt everything from his family and going to Italy. He has a much better sense of taste and smell and is a lot more in touch with food than I would be, he's just more natural and YES I am jealous;)

Abulafia said...

Thanks. Been a while.

I wouldn't worry if I were you. Even in the short time spent reading you, I can see, in how you write, that Italian food has become quite a natural language for you.